Saturday, 16 January 2010

Horoscopes & Psychics

This one is somewhat inspired by the plot of the newest episode of The Big Bang Theory (man, how I've missed that show during it's winter break).

The really short argument is that if you believe in what horoscopes and psychics say, then you're an idiot. If you check your horoscope just out of interest, then fair enough, but if you actually believe in what it says, or start to live your life by them, or pay money for them in any way, then you're stupid. Same goes for psychics. Paying money for their services is just utterly stupid, though watching the odd TV show isn't too bad. I'll sometimes watch Derek Acorah just for the lulz:

The thing is, I completely don't feel like I'm being narrow-minded here, or disrespectful of other people's beliefs. Religion is still open to debate, but astrology and the power of psychics is pretty much a closed case. It's extremely well-documented on the techniques used, and how the tricks are done. There's nothing wrong with taking some sort of enjoyment, but the line between enjoyment and stupidity is whether you believe it or not. I'll watch magic shows for enjoyment, but there's not one second where I actually believe that it's anything more than just complex illusion. Psychics do nothing but con people and prey on people's ability to be naïve and gullible if they're being told what they want to here.

For example, have you ever read a shitty horoscope? For all the general crap that I get in my life, they always seem to be remarkably upbeat and positive. I've never seen a horoscope saying I'll have relationship troubles, will struggle to keep up with my workload and daily life, and that I'll catch the flu halfway through the month. They're always stupidly optimistic about the coming week just because people are more willing to believe stuff if it's beneficial to them for it to be true.

[Amusingly, I just randomly went on and got my horoscope for the week. Funnily enough, it does actually say that I'm going to be ill this week, or at least have a sore throat. Which means fuck-all frankly. It's January, of course people are going to be getting sore throats. It's got nothing to do with the fucking Sun Sign of the Bull, or Saturn. It is caused by celestial bodies, but that's just because the Earth's orbit gives us seasons and it's currently the middle of fucking winter. As long as it's consistently sleeting and raining outside, my well-being is going to be a bit insecure.]

I've actually studied a fair bit about the science behind horoscopes and psychic techniques like cold reading. Not because I want to be able to explain to people why they're dumb if they believe that sort of stuff, but because I find that sort of psychological trick and manipulation to be deeply interesting.

Horoscopes primarily use what is known as the Forer Effect, and use Barnum statements. The Forer effect is named after Bertram Forer, who conducted an experiment on his students. He gave them a personality test, and on the basis on that test gave them a rather detailed analysis of their personality, and in the interest of improving the test, asked them to rate the analysis between 0 and 5, with 0 being totally unlike them, and 5 being a perfect match. What actually happened was that all the students were given the exact same personality description, and shockingly the average score was 4.26.

Forer didn't put a great deal of effort into his magical personality description either. He mostly just assembled it using excerpts from horoscopes. It consisted of several Barnum statements, which are statements that seem reasonably specific to you, but could actually be applied to pretty much everyone. They strike common themes in the human persona, and quite often are actually just pairings of contradicting terms, which means you can usually at least identify with half of the sentence. For example, "you can be outgoing and talkative around friends, but at the same time you enjoy having time to yourself occasionally.", which basically applies to anyone who has friends but doesn't need to spend every waking moment socialising. That last one I just made up, and it's really not difficult if you just portray a common positive quality or a pair of opposing qualities, because it's hard for people to reject it.

It's why I'm usually not that fussed about personality tests, unless they give proper break-downs at the end of my psychology as percentages of certain qualities. For example, the BBC's Big Personality Test is pretty good, and being used in a study. Fact is, unless you're giving me some proper detail about whether I'm introverted or not, and that sort of thing, it could easily just be a string of statements I'm inclined to agree with whether it's truthful or not. It's easy to dress up negative qualities as positive ones as well. Being rude can easily just be "not afraid to speak your mind" or "telling things how they are". It's not hard.

It'd be interested to go through horoscopes for a daily newspaper and see how often phrases are repeated. It wouldn't surprise me if they were just computer-generated from a load of pre-set sentences. Either way, it's ludicrous to think that the pre-set movements of massive objects, millions of kilometres away, has any effect on your trivial day-to-day matters and your fortunes, just because of the time of the year you were born in. Japan and the rest of Asia (I think?) uses blood type instead of starsigns, which is still utterly baseless and stupid, but at least there's a physical difference in the person. You can find out someone's blood type, but there's no fucking way you can test someone's starsign.

Fuck yeah Dinosaur Comics - this strip will be funnier for people who follow it

On the other hand, I actually have some vague respect for psychics. Not the bullshitty ones like Derek Acorah - anyone can pretend to be in contact with the dead with some fucking awful acting. I mean the ones that are actually good. Sure, it's still a load of nonsense, and they're not really talking to the dead, but some of it is actually really quite clever. Cold reading is by no means an easy thing to do convincingly, and some of them are pretty impressive.

Still, I think it's a bit of a con to charge people. You're basically preying on their naïvety and profiting as a result. A lot of it is just deceptively simple, and it's just another example of the Forer effect. In a room full of a reasonable number of people, it's quite likely that there'll be someone who can find a strong association with a common name like "John" or "David". The better psychics can do better and tailor questions to the audience. If the average age is pretty old (say over 30), then asking if anyone has had a male relative die with a cause related to the head or torso, then it seems specific enough. But not really. Chances are people that old will have had male relatives die (uncles, grandfathers, etc), just because it's a fact of life. It also becomes far less impressive when you realise that "related to head or torse" covers a fair range of fatal diseases (cancer of the brain/lung/most organs, heart disease, etc). In a group of thirty to forty people, it's really not pushing the odds too much.

With one-on-one psychic meetings it takes a bit more skill to be believable, or at least you need the skill to be able to make your wrong guesses appear like you're actually on the right lines. You don't really need much more than just good perception though, being able to spot key features like how the client dresses, whether they have a wedding ring on their finger, stuff like that. And really, I think if you're telling people the sorts of things they want to hear, then you can't do much wrong. Tell them they'll get into money soon, find romance, live long and prosper, etc.

Really the crux is that psychics can't ever tell you something specific. They won't answer any question you throw at them about the future, especially if it's something that is precise or easily tested. They'll palm it away saying that they can only gather the information that the spirits are willing to divulge, or something.

Or just don't really say anything at all. One of the things in the world that pisses me off most is Nostradamus and his so called predictions. They're all utter bullshit, and I don't get why anyone bothers to make a fuss about them, let alone use them for things like arguing against the Large Hadron Collider. If you make a fuckload of predictions, which are all extremely vague and unspecific, then it's not going to be difficult to have people apply them retrospectively to past events. The Bible does a similar sort of thing - so many of it's predictions are just interpretations of cryptic sentences, reverse-engineering them so they fit the desired meaning.

I could make ten Nostradamus-esque predictions right now, just say some random shit and then in a month or so decide what I was actually predicting. I won't now, because I'm tired and can't be arsed, but maybe I will sometime for a laugh.

Really, if anything, it just scares me a little how out of touch some people are with the real world and the laws that govern it, to think that things like psychics and astrology are actually 100% genuine and accurate. That people are so easily fooled, and question so little what is presented in front of them. I mean, for fuck's sake, these people who think that Venus's position relative to Jupiter will mean they will have success in their job this week... these people have a vote in our general elections. These people can sit on jury service. Do these people really have the ability to make decisions and judge facts well enough to wield the power they have in society? I find it pretty unsettling.

I mean sure, psychics impress me sometimes, but that doesn't mean I don't hold a dim view of people who completely fall for the act. I go back the magic analogy - I have respect for illusionists, but I have far less respect for people who think that what these guys are doing is somehow actual magic. Adults should really be able to tell the difference between what is reality, and what is just quite a clever and well-presented trick.

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