I was fairly alarmed this week when, perusing social media, I saw comments a friend of mine left on a business Facebook page. It just so happens the business is fortunetelling (crystal ball, palms, gyromancy or what have you) and my friend made comments to the effect, “She is so gifted! She can tell you your future! The $300 per reading is definitely worth it!”
And so on.
This alarmed me because any reasonable, rational person is well aware that fortune telling is bunk. You can read about the age of spiritualism in the late Victorian era and how every one of the spiritualists was debunked as a fraud.
You can also do a bit of reading about how fortunetellers are able to give people information that seems personal and unique. The fortuneteller wants you to believe they possess supernatural powers, but such powers aren’t necessary. Not by a long shot.
It doesn’t take a psychic, a tarot card reader or any kind of fortuneteller to impress people by information someone claims they gleaned from “supernatural powers.” There’s no supernatural power involved, but rather some different and equally powerful effects happening: the power of suggestion coupled with flattery.
Virtually all fortunetellers utilize a technique called “cold reading.” Cold reading is, essentially, a technique whereby general information that could apply to anyone is supplied so confidently and attractively that the subject of the reading fills in the blanks himself or herself. Essentially, the subject makes sure the cold reading fits them to a T.
For example, let’s say a young lady is feeling down about her love life and, walking down the street, she sees a shop window painted with the sign, “Madame Zelda’s palm reading.” She goes in, pays $300 (yes, and sometimes it’s a lot more than $300) and Madame Zelda peers deeply into her crystal ball, and then says…
“You’ve had bad luck in relationships, and it seems like no matter how hard you try you only attract the worst kind of men. They never really get to know the real you: shy, loyal, hard-working, sensitive, loving. If only you could find the man who cared about you the way you cared about him. It feels like the best men are always out of your league. But you still have your loving friends and family to support you, and you are always there for them.” I wrote this preceding paragraph in about five minutes.
Here’s another cold reading that skeptic James Randi stole from astrologer Sidney Omarr: “People close to you have been taking advantage of you. Your basic honesty has been getting in your way. You like to read books and articles to improve your mind. You have an infinite capacity for understanding people’s problems and you can sympathize with them. Law enforcement would be another field you understand. Your sense of justice is quite strong.”
Fortunetellers can employ other techniques to gain information about their victims that doesn’t involve the spirit world. When I was in college I took a sociology course that included a unit on reading body language. I was amazed at how much you can learn about a person simply by watching them. Did you know shoplifters often play with their genitals before stealing something?
What’s the harm of fortunetellers, you ask? Well, to begin with most of the people who employ fortunetellers can’t afford $300 a reading. Secondly, to give people the belief that supernatural forces are following and protecting them is irresponsible. It’s no different than opening a fortune cookie that says “Divorce your spouse,” and then you go and do it!
Even though I know fortunetellers are powerless (and now you know it too), throughout my career I’ve always enjoyed going to psychic fairs. There are some interesting folks there, and I love taking photos of ammonites; they are truly breathtaking.
I have to have a bit of fun with the fortunetellers though. Whenever I show up at the event registration desk, I simply say, “Obviously I don’t need to tell you who I am or why I’m here.” They’re psychic, right?
Every time, it turns out, they didn’t have a clue who I was or why I was there.
Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.