On the other hand, how objective can we be when evaluating our own personalities? Is it possible that we are biased in predictable ways when asked to describe ourselves? In any case, very few people shy away from taking a personality test. Presumably, such tests reveal character traits such as introversion and extroversion, which you would think most of us already have noticed in ourselves. In any case, few people shy away from the opportunity to learn more about themselves, and psychologists have exploited this self-love by enticing generations of students to participate in experiments under the guise of giving them a free personality analysis. One such experimenter was psychologist Bertram R. Forer (1914-2000).
Forer gave a personality test to many of his students, but he ignored their answers. He lied to them when he returned their "personal" results and gave each student the same evaluation. Worse, he took the evaluation from a newsstand astrology reading. He then asked the students to evaluate the evaluation on a scale of 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. He did his first test in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of times with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2 out of 5, or 84% accurate.
Furthermore, in many formal and informal tests of such disparate activities as psychic readings, palm readings, biorhythm chart readings, graphology readings, and tarot card readings, which claim to reveal personal information for a client, the accuracy assessments are consistently high. In short, people will validate a set of statements allegedly about themselves as highly accurate even if those statements were not generated by a scientifically validated personality test and were not based on any specific knowledge of the person. Psychologists call this phenomenon subjective validation. This tendency to find personal meaning and significance in statements not based on personal knowledge extends to words, symbols, initials, and objects as well. It's as if we humans are driven to find everything we experience centered on us. But there is more to subjective validation than just our tendency to be egocentric.
Some of the statements or other items we find personally meaningful--even when they're not--seem meaningful because of our desires. For example, Forer's astrological reading contains some statements that were validated by his students not because the students thought they were really true but because they wished they were true. I've italicized two statements that might fall into this category for many students:
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
Who among us doesn't wish she had vast amounts of unused potential? Who doesn't want to think that they believe things because the evidence supports them? We might believe we have unused potential, but most of us would be hard-pressed to specify exactly what kind of potential we think we have, nor would be able to provide a great deal of evidence regarding that potential. We might think we're evidence-based inquirers, but do we really know why we believe the things we do?
Forer thought that people rate impersonal statements as highly significant to them because they're gullible. He thought that people tend to accept claims about themselves in proportion to their desire that the claims be true rather than in proportion to the accuracy of the claims as measured by some non-subjective standard. We tend to accept questionable, even false, statements about ourselves if we deem them positive or flattering enough.
Being gullible and prone to wishful thinking may partially explain the tendency to subjective validation. Another key element is selective thinking, the tendency to focus on and remember evidence that supports one's beliefs, while ignoring or forgetting the evidence that conflicts with one's beliefs. Some of the statements in the drugstore astrology reading may be false for you, but you ignore, downplay, or forget those statements when making your overall assessment of accuracy. Subjects who seek counseling from psychics, mediums, fortune tellers, mind readers, graphologists, etc., will often ignore false or questionable claims and, in many cases, by their own words or actions provide most of the information they erroneously attribute to such counselors. Many subjects will often believe that information they provided the counselor was profound and personal information that the counselor couldn't possibly have known.
Another important element in subjective validation is the natural human tendency to find meaning and significance. We will often give very liberal interpretations to vague, ambiguous, or inconsistent claims about ourselves in order to make sense out of the claims. In fact, we will often work hard to figure out some significance or meaning for statements that aren't even about us when told that they're somehow important. Mentalists and unscrupulous people claiming to be psychic take advantage of our desire to find meaning everywhere.
Ian Rowland, for example, makes his living as a mentalist, someone who entertains others by playing the role of psychic. Rowland has written the book (literally) on cold reading. In his Full Facts Book of Cold Reading 3rd edition, he lists 38 different ploys to use, eleven of which are designed to extract information from the client. He gives a telling example of the essence of cold reading in explaining "the push statement" (statements designed to be rejected by the client at first). He was demonstrating cold reading in a TV production meeting and used "the shoe and the party" push statement (a narrative about an impression involving a shoe and a party) and the name "Charles." Nobody in the meeting could connect the name with a shoe or a party. Ten minutes after the meeting ended, a young woman very excitedly told him that she now remembers a party from her teen years at which she broke her shoe while dancing with Charlie! She was very impressed that Rowland had perceived this detail from her past that even she could hardly remember. Rowland hadn't perceived any such thing, but no matter. The story exemplifies the essence of a successful cold reading: This works because our species is hardwired to find significance, and sometimes the brain works overtime in reading more into things than is there.
There is at least one more key to understanding subjective validation: motivation. Many people seek fortune tellers of all sorts or psychic mediums because they desperately desire to have someone tell them what lies in store for them or they desperately wish to make contact with a dead loved one. The following story illustrates how motivation drives the success of fortune tellers and psychics.
Psychologist Ray Hyman explains how he got interested in the psychology of self-deception. He was a college student, earning money as a palm reader. He'd read several books on the art but didn't believe any of it. He got so much positive feedback from his customers, however, that he started to think that maybe he did have psychic powers. The self-deception didn't last long, however. In an interview with Michael Shermer, Ray explained:
The late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example. I said, “well, you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. In this particular case, though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback, and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself. This was one of the reasons I went into psychology—I wanted to find out how it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I am not as confrontational as Randi, because I actually see that “there but for the grace of god go I.”
Ray found that no matter what he told his clients, they would figure out a way to make him right. Ray would later become an expert in understanding cold reading and subjective validation, the words we now use to describe the process of making claims with no basis in fact or study and having them validated as true by others. As a palm reader, Ray had become an adept cold reader, assisted by the efforts of his customers to selectively ignore his errors and misses and to focus on items they could make sense out of or give meaning to. As Ray notes, his clients wanted him to succeed in his reading and they would do everything in their power to help him.
I'll conclude this piece with another example of how motivated "sitters" (as the clients of mediums and fortune tellers are called) make the job of being psychic a very easy one, requiring no special talent at contacting spirits or other dimensions.
Gary Schwartz tested John Edward's ability to get messages from dead people. Here is what Edward claimed he was "being shown" (supposedly by some spirits):
The first thing being shown to me is a male figure that I would say as being above, that would be to me some type of father image....Showing me the month of May....They're telling me to talk about the Big H ... um, the H connection. To me this is an H with an N sound. So what they are talking about is Henna, Henry, but there's an HN connection....Very strong symbolism of teaching and books….The books come up where there may be something published. (Schwartz, Afterlife Experiments xix)
This list of items was validated by one of Schwartz’s sitters. To validate is not the same as to confirm that messages have truly come from a spirit. It means that the sitter in a reading can find meaning here, can connect the dots, so to speak. The ability to validate depends on several factors. The sitter must be willing to validate. The stronger the desire to make contact, the harder the sitter will work to find meaning and connections in the medium’s items. There may also be another mechanism at work here: the desire to please the medium. This may be due partly to the consideration that by pleasing the medium, the odds increase that the medium will make contact. But it may also have to do with a strange phenomenon that occurs in settings where a person gives up control of the situation to another, as in hypnosis or when being asked to assist a magician do a trick. There is sometimes a kind of loss of self in those situations, and combined with a desire to please, a kind of submission to the will of another, up to a point. If such a mechanism is at work in psychic readings, the sitter may acquiesce to the suggestions or items thrown out by the medium, not because they are true or truly significant, but out of a desire to please.
In one reading, for example, Edward got the sitter to validate the claim that her husband was dead. Schwartz admitted that the sitter's husband was alive at the time of the reading. However, since the husband was killed a few weeks later, Schwartz indicates he thinks it is more likely that Edward has precognitive powers than that the sitter made a false claim to please the medium.
Because the motivation of the sitter is so high that it might lead her to validate false or ambiguous statements, experiments should be designed in such a way that the experimenter always checks factual claims made by sitters. The word of the sitter should not be sufficient. Nor should the sitter's validation of the word of others be sufficient. Schwartz sometimes checks factual claims and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he takes the word of the sitter. Sometimes he accepts the sitter's validation of the words of others. (See his "White Crow" experiment for an example of both.)
Even though the concern with factual accuracy is important in verifying the success of the medium, one should not lose sight of the importance of the studies that have been done on how the human mind works when it comes to making sense out of and giving significance to disparate data presented to it. The overall effect of subjective validation would show up in the way the sitters rate the accuracy of the mediums’ claims. There might well be a rater bias towards any reading done face to face or where the sitter can hear the medium do the reading (even if they are not visible to one another). To eliminate this kind of bias, Schwartz, in one experiment, had the readings done from remote locations, so that the sitter wasn’t present and didn’t hear what the medium was saying during the readings.
Schwartz is aware that sitters might be biased in their ratings and might give higher ratings of accuracy to items than they deserve, so he asked the sitters to rate down rather than up. Schwartz also has a procedure in some of his experiments and presents a challenge several times to the reader (or any skeptic) to see if they can connect the dots for a given reading. If he or the other experimenters can’t, or if subjects he calls “controls” in one experiment can’t, he takes that as strong evidence that the data is sitter-specific. He often works up conditional probability calculations, where he shows that the odds of several contingent conditions being related are millions or billions or trillions to one and he takes this as strong evidence that the data is sitter-specific.
The problem with this method is that the rest of us don’t have the interest in contacting the dead that the sitter does, but if even if we do, we don’t have any reason to believe that the items for one sitter would apply to us. Some sitters not only have a stronger will to succeed with the reading, but they are better suited for readings because of factors such as how many dead friends and relatives they have, which would be related to such things as age and size of extended family, whether one is a sociable type or not, being a gay male at a time when many gay males were dying of AIDS, and so on.
Schwartz seemed particularly impressed by the above quote from a John Edward reading because he couldn’t relate much of it to his own life. Ray Hyman has done a pretty good job of connecting the dots of this passage in his life.
When I put myself in the shoes of a possible sitter and try to fit the reading to my situation, I can find a good fit to my father, who was physically large, whose last name was Hyman, and for whom, like any human on this planet, experienced one or more notable events in the month of May. Other things in the reading also can easily be fitted to my father. Neither the original sitter nor anyone else would fit this cluster of facts! Schwartz makes much of the fact that the cluster of facts that a sitter extracts from a reading tend to be unique for that sitter. He even calculates the conditional probabilities of such a cluster occurring just by chance. Naturally, these conditional probabilities are extremely low--often with odds of over a trillion-to-one against chance. (Hyman 2003)
I can also connect these dots pretty well. I was born in the month of May and my father, who was stocky and often compared to a gentle bear, died more than 30 years ago of the Big H: a heart attack. Henry was one of my high school buddies. Maybe Henry’s dead and is with my dad. Or maybe my dad is trying to let me know it’s him by bringing up the name of good friend from my youth. Of course, Hyman and I were both teachers and have been surrounded by books for most of our adult lives. Ray and I have published books and this reference could be our fathers’ way of letting us know that they know what we’ve been up to these past many years.
Schwartz relates the teaching and books to “literature and education.” I’m sure it could be related to several other things as well, such as libraries, bookstores, any kind of school, visiting anyone with a library (such as a lawyer or doctor), and so on. Schwartz asserts that “the probability of getting just this pattern of hits is on the order of a million to one.” How he knows this is not revealed. But my guess is that the odds are more favorable than he thinks. If there is a dead male, a good guess would be older rather than younger, and if older, a father rather than a son. To throw out the notion that one senses a father figure does not seem to defy all odds, especially when the sitter recognizes her husband, not her father, as a father figure. I wouldn’t call the father image very specific. Nor would I call it correct. I’d call it common. (This point is more obvious in a reading with feedback from the sitter. If you get no positive response on the father figure, the medium can insist on the image and give the impression that the sitter isn’t trying hard enough. Or, the medium can change directions and hope for a better response, with initials for example, or two names, one male and one female, and see what response that generates.)
Schwartz dismisses the possibility that Edward was simply guessing, but I think the main issue isn’t whether Edward is guessing. He could be passing on things that are going through his mind, but that wouldn’t mean they necessarily came from outside his mind, either telepathically from the sitter or from the spirit world. He and many other “good” mediums might be people with very active imaginations, who generate words and images that originate in their own brains. What they do may be similar to dreaming out loud. But the focus shouldn’t be just on the medium and whether he or she is guessing or cheating; the focus should be on the sitter. Again, the focus shouldn’t be on whether the sitter is cheating, but on the dynamics of subjective validation. Schwartz says almost nothing about this well-known psychological factor, except to dismiss the charge of cold reading on the part of the mediums on the ground that they are not using the standard tricks of magicians and mentalists. Maybe not. However, Schwartz seems to miss the point that although cold reading may sometimes be tricky, it doesn’t always involve trickery.
Finally, the drive to find personal meaning or significance in impersonal or insignificant coincidences may be related to the powerful natural drive to create stories, narratives that string together bits and pieces of information into a tale. Of course, truth matters much of the time, but many of our narratives satisfy us regardless of their accuracy. Psychologists call this tendency to connect things and create plausible narratives out of partially fictitious items confabulation. I'll be addressing that subject in a couple of weeks on Unnatural Virtue, a podcast segment I do for Skepticality. I hope you tune in.