ByElise Jost, writer at
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Elise Jost

's is premiering on December 7, promising a fresh look behind the scenes of the fortune telling business. There are no mind-reading powers here, but a ruthless network of "psychics" that controls most of LA — and one con artist who soon starts to believe he might have some psychic abilities after all.

As an insider would put it, he's an "eyes shut" — a magician who started out by learning the usual tricks, but ends up eventually believing in his own psychic abilities. On the other end of the spectrum, most psychics are "eyes open," meaning they're fully aware that they're selling clients on a clever mix of basic skills more than the supernatural (and are more or less remorseful about it).

Fortune Telling Is Just Intuition and Perception

Over the years, more and more fortune tellers have come out of the woodwork, admitting their business relies on a few simple gimmicks. Indeed, legal cases have settled situations in which people lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because they believed someone could clear up what an apparently dark future had in store for them.

Meanwhile, former magician and known skeptic James Randi ran the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge through his James Randi Educational Foundation, offering $1 million US to anyone who could prove supernatural or paranormal abilities through prearranged scientific testing. The challenge remained active from 1964 to 2015, yet no one was able to win the bet.

Why Does It Still Work?

'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]
'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]

So, psychics aren't real? While the image of the crystal-ball-wielding psychic has long been out of vogue, countless people still believe in the mind-reading, future-predicting promise of clairvoyants, whether on the phone, on TV or in dedicated storefronts. Customer gullibility certainly plays a part, but the main reason is that these professionals use techniques that have been perfected over the years and are incredibly efficient.

The most common set of techniques is called cold reading, as the psychic learns to "read" their client by observing a number of details — including eye movements, posture, alertness — and knowing how to interpret the reactions. But the ability to read a person's appearance and body language isn't enough. Two very specific skills factor into a career as a sufficiently convincing fortune teller: One is a knowledge of demographics; the other is the ability to draw information out from other people.

'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]
'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]

Detailed demographic awareness will allow the psychic to quickly put their client in a category and draw conclusions from this group, and creating a revealing conversation is central to the practice of cold reading. By asking the right questions, skilled psychics may provoke clients to reveal the necessary details for a convincing oracle. The more subtly they reuse the information offered up as a client explains what kind of prediction they seek, the better it works.

We Are All Predisposed To Believing In Psychics

'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]
'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]

Beyond any tricks psychics might learn, in the end our own predisposition to accept the pitch they're selling is what will help fortune tellers to succeed. It's the same reason horoscopes are so popular and always seem to pinpoint at least one thing about our lives. This is known as the Barnum effect — what we call our ability to apply vague and general statements to our own experience.

The effect derives from subjective validation, which happens when we connect two events, because a preexisting belief or expectation suggests the two events are connected. In short, if a person walks into a fortune teller's shop because they're hoping to find out if they will reunite with their ex, they will interpret any statement regarding relationships to be about their ex — no matter if the statement was completely unrelated or not.

'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]
'Shut Eye' [Credit: Hulu]

Whether the explanation behind our belief in psychics really matters, however, is up to you. As Timothy Campbell, executive of the Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry, puts it:

“My personal belief is that a lot of people who go to psychics, in some level of their brain, are aware that it’s not real. But they don’t let that awareness surface to their consciousness.”

Sometimes, it's just simpler to hold on to what a card-reading stranger told us, isn't it?

Do you believe in psychics? Have you been to one before?


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