You Can Read Palms Too!

November 2, 2012

David lifts the lid on how he appears to tell incredibly accurate fortunes


Ever wanted to convince someone you could tell their past, present, and future? Well now you can, and the good news is you don’t need a shred of skill, talent, or expertise.

Remember BBC’s Make Believe airs every Wednesday night, BBC One, 10.35pm.

Palm reading, alongside almost all other forms of divination, are essentially fairly complex psychological games where the ‘reader’ can convince the ‘sitter’ that they know astonishing things about them.

Since the age of 13 or 14 I’ve had a huge interest in fortune telling in all it’s form.  It can be a great deal of fun, when seen for what it is (baseless psycho babble dressed up as divination).  Reportedly though, it’s still seen by many as their primary source of advice on a whole host of important matters.  Even politicians across the world have consulted such oracles, and indeed most notably the Taiwanese government reportedly wouldn’t make a single decision of national importance without consulting their nominated heebeejeebee artist.

Most palm readers, and indeed psychics of any kind, are playing (sometimes unknowingly) a fairly complex psychological game with their ‘sitter’, combining social norms, cultural archetypes, and the occasional good guess to make a sometimes accurate and occasionally astonishing display of seemingly divine knowledge.

It is, of course, rubbish.

At least to date it’s never been seen to have any evidence base.  If you watch the episode back on iplayer, you’ll note that a huge number of my statements fall into the Forer Category.  That is to say, general statements that – in the heat of a reading – seem to perfectly describe the personal and private live of an individual.  Take this classic, tried and tested example below;

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.

Those few hundred words are the backbone of one of the most convincing fake psychic readings ever constructed.  According to The Skeptic Dictionary,  the Forer effect refers to the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements could apply to many people.

Psychologist Bertram R. Forer (1914-2000) found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone.

Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student the above evaluation. He asked them to evaluate the evaluation from 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. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of time with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2 out of 5, or 84% accurate.

In short, Forer convinced people he could successfully read their character. His accuracy amazed his subjects, though his personality analysis was taken from a newsstand astrology column and was presented to people without regard to their sun sign. The Forer effect seems to explain, in part at least, why so many people think that pseudosciences “work”. Astrology, astrotherapy, biorhythms, cartomancy, chiromancy, the enneagram, fortune telling, graphology, rumpology, etc., seem to work because they seem to provide accurate personality analyses. Scientific studies of these pseudosciences demonstrate that they are not valid personality assessment tools, yet each has many satisfied customers who are convinced they are accurate.

So there you have it folks, now you’re a psychic too – or at lease AS PSYCHIC as any other one that you might care to mention.  Below you’ll see a video of the one and only Orson Welles teaching a fairly green David Frost some of the most powerful techniques.  Enjoy!


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