Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
On public forums, the question occasionally comes up: Are psychics real? Almost inevitably, skeptics will chime in with the claim that they’re all frauds and con artists. So today, I’d like to address that question.
To claims that psychic ability doesn’t exist, well, that’s another story covered here. (Evidence for Psi)
In all my years of experience, I’ve never met a psychic that I could definitely say was an outright fraud and I have met more than most people and got to know some of them quite well. I know that frauds exist, because they occasionally make the news by claiming their client has a curse which can only be fixed by giving the psychic a few thousand dollars. Apparently there are people out there who are both superstitious and stupid enough to pay this money. I haven’t met any of them either. You’d think that a psychic requesting thousands of dollars for a procedure that surely costs them almost nothing to perform might be a tip off, but I guess not.
But this is beside the point. The claim is that ALL psychics are con artists and frauds. This is an important distinction because individual examples of fraud are irrelevant to the discussion in this case. Incompetence is not a factor in investigating this claim and the “white crow” solution applies. (It only takes one white crow to disprove the theory that all crows are black.) It is not necessary to prove that all psychics are real in order to demonstrate that they are not all frauds and con artists.
A fraud is someone who is deliberately misrepresenting themselves. A con artist is actively trying to swindle someone.
Let’s first look at the psychology of frauds and cons: namely, they are in it for the money and the rest is window dressing. (Covered more completely in this post.) They are not trying to provide a service, only get money. This leads to the question; how much? The typical reading lasts an hour and depending on the area, rates can range from $30 to $100. This rate can be substantially higher for high profile psychics. We’ll get to that later. People will not simply line up to get readings from you. This is a business after all and you have to somehow attract clients. This requires up front money and also some skill in marketing. There are a lot of psychics out there. You can find about 15 advertisements at any one time on Craigslist, but if you look look in a New Age publication you can probably find a couple of hundred. Anyone who has ever been in business for themselves understands the problem here: Finding people to give you money isn’t easy. So while the barrier to entry in becoming a psychic is very low, the payoff is too.
Psychic readings can be given over the phone so this isn’t just a local competition, it’s a national one and one lone person cannot compete with their advertising. What this means is that building up a gullible clientele will not be easy. The customers have a lot to choose from and every imaginable angle is already being tried with advertising. The beginning psychic con artist would be successful to have just three clients a week. The basic laws of business are in effect and they dictate that a business with a lot of competition will take a long time to grow. Surely there are more efficient ways to cheat people.
A high profile psychic comes up through this system whether they like it or not. The competition means that the only real way to stand out is to actually succeed. Once you do succeed, the only way to increase your income is to raise your fees. This is just a standard business practice. It’s what you do when demand exceeds supply.
In other words, if you’re out to make a quick buck, this is probably not going to be high on your list of ways to con people. It’s way too much friggin’ work and the pay off is way too delayed. But what about scaring people with talk of curses and swindling extra money from them that way? Well, that’s illegal and if you do it, you have to move on to stay out of jail because even though the gullible person may fall for the trick, trust me, their relatives will hear about it and they won’t be nearly so gullible.
A really good con artist is also a drifter because if they don’t disappear after swindling someone they can land in jail or find themselves on the wrong end of a baseball bat. So either you accept your paltry earnings or you move out of the area after a time to avoid the law. So if psychics are con artists, then a lot of them are going to be drifters. Is that what we see? No. Psychics generally live in the areas they work and often work as a psychic on the side for extra money. By and large, they also appear to be content with ordinary wages.
Anyone who has experience in business with sales, purchasing and door to door salesmen knows something about how a con operates because it’s a lot like the hard sell. There is an attempt to get the person involved emotionally and manipulate them. Once you know what to look for, it’s fairly obvious. Anyone who has had a psychic reading knows that they are nothing like this. Most psychics in fact, go out of their way to avoid controlling language. They are merely telling people what they “see” whether with tarot cards or other means. I’ve received a lot of readings over the years and this is very consistent. They do not spend time telling people how great they are, how much their client needs them and how lucky their client is for finding them “just in time.” Con after all, is short for confidence man which came about because the game is to gain the person’s confidence. If all you do is just give a psychic reading, that’ would only be a minor part of the confidence routine.
Psychics are often accused of cold readings but there is no class that teaches this. Classes teaching psychic ability do just that. They are not lessons in learning to deceive people. Doing a hot reading, (getting information about a client ahead of time) is way too time consuming and expensive to be worthwhile. How do these supposed con artists learn their trade? On the job? James Randi has demonstrated the effectiveness of cold reading, but he is a professional magician and hardly typical of the average psychic. There are very few psychics with a background in magic. Presumably though, there are thousands of psychic cold readers out there, all of them at least as good as a professional magician. How they would do this over the phone to anyone’s satisfaction though is rather beyond me. Cold reading by anyone but an expert is painfully obvious as just guessing.
Having this large supply of psychic con artists out there also implies a huge number of gullible people willing to throw their money away time and again for a service that provides them nothing. There are a few, to be sure, but how many truly gullible people do you know? Even among those who are gullible, there are generally very few who will allow themselves to be taken in the same way over and over again. When viewed from this angle, the only conclusion you can really draw from this is that psychic readers are performing a service that people find valuable over and over again.
When you add up the large number of psychics, the relatively low pay and lack of obvious scam indicators in how they do business, it becomes obvious that the fraud and con accusation falls apart rather quickly.