Fooling Ourselves

The psychologist Ray Hyman has spent most of his life studying the art of deception. Before he entered the halls of science, he worked as a magician and then moved on to mentalism after discovering he could make more money reading palms than performing card tricks. The crazy thing about Hyman’s career as a palm reader is, like many psychics, over time he began to believe he actually did have psychic powers. The people who came to him were so satisfied, so bowled over, he thought he must have a real gift. Subjective validation cuts both ways.

Hyman was using a technique called cold reading where you start with the wide-angle lens of generalities and watch the other person for cues so you can constrict the iris down to what seems like a powerful insight into the other person’s soul. It works because people tend to ignore the little misses and focus on the hits. As he worked his way through college, another mentalist, Stanley Jaks, took Hyman aside and saved him from delusion by asking him to try something new – tell people the opposite of what he believed their palms revealed. The result? They were just as flabbergasted by his abilities, if not more so. Cold reading was powerful, but tossing it aside he was still able to amaze. Hyman realized what he said didn’t matter as long as his presentation was good. The other person was doing all the work, tricking themselves, seeing the general as the specific.

Mediums and palm readers, those who speak for the dead or see into the beyond for cash, depend on subjective validation. Remember, your capacity to fool yourself is greater than the abilities of any conjurer, and conjurers come in many guises. You are a creature impelled to hope. As you attempt to make sense of the world you focus on what falls into place and neglect that which doesn’t fit, and there is so much in life that does not fit.

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart