Psychics and mediums: Mad, bad, or dangerous to know?


Chris French
Chris French is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. He writes for the Guardian and The Skeptic magazine and is a former Editor of the latter. His most recent book is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience.

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In a previous article for The Skeptic, I listed some of the beliefs I once held as a new convert to scepticism that I would now reject. Among them was, “I viewed most psychic claimants as either being deliberate frauds, out to make as much profit as they could by exploiting the vulnerable, or perhaps as suffering from some sort of serious psychopathology.” In this article, I want to go into a little more detail with respect to my reasons for that change of mind. Why do I no longer believe that all mediums and psychics are mad, bad and/or dangerous to know (with apologies to Lady Caroline Lamb)?

Let us begin with the idea that all psychics (and henceforth I will sometimes use that term to refer to both mediums and other types of psychic practitioner) are bad. This is certainly a view that has been around for a very long time as illustrated by this juicy quotation from G. Stanley Hall’s introduction to Amy Tanner’s book, Studies in Spiritism, published in 1910:

… most mediums… seem to me clever charlatans of a vulgar and often avaricious type, and perhaps with a morbid passion for deception. In my view, they are almost all not only dishonest from the start, but the real explanation of their success is to be chiefly found in the abnormal development of an inveterate inborn propensity to lie and mislead, which gives them a titillating sense of superiority on the one hand, and on the other the overpowering will to believe on the part of the faithful who accept any suggestion and balk at no absurdity.

Please stop beating about the bush, Stanley, and tell us what you really think!

Of course, no one would deny that Hall’s harsh words are spot on with respect to many, many self-proclaimed psychics that we could readily name. My only issue would be with the first two words of that quotation. Does the description really apply to “most mediums”?

My personal opinion – and that is all it is – is that it probably doesn’t. I base this purely on the impression I have formed from watching dozens of psychics in action over the years as well as meeting and getting to know a few of them quite well. My impression is simply that most of them would be producing much more impressive performances if they really were the evil geniuses implied by Hall’s description. To anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking, the average psychic reading falls well short of requiring either the suspension of any currently accepted scientific laws or the postulation of the use of deceptive techniques.

In contrast, I have seen some really impressive readings done by self-confessed cold readers. In the unlikely event that any readers of The Skeptic are unfamiliar with the techniques of cold reading, here is the definition offered in the excellent Skeptic’s Dictionary by Robert Todd Carroll:

“a set of techniques used by professional manipulators to get a subject to behave in a certain way or to think that the cold reader has some sort of special ability that allows him to ‘mysteriously’ know things about the subject.”

If you want further detail on these techniques, you could start by reading the full entry on cold reading in The Skeptic’s Dictionary followed by Ray Hyman’s classic article, “Cold reading: How to convince strangers that you know all about them”. If you’re really serious about learning more on the topic, you might consider buying a copy of Ian Rowland’s The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading. I can vouch for the effectiveness of the advice offered in these publications. For example, on the basis of that advice, I once successfully passed myself off as a medium on Richard and Judy.

So, if I believe that most self-proclaimed psychics are probably not deliberately using deceptive techniques such as cold reading, what are they doing? My guess is that they are essentially employing those same techniques but in an unintentional and not very systematic manner. That would explain why, in my experience, their readings are typically not as impressive as those of the deliberate cold reader. The would-be psychics are fooling themselves as much as they are fooling their clients – perhaps even more so.

Cold reading is called cold reading because it really is pretty effective even when used on first meeting complete strangers. But to produce readings that will really blow your clients’ socks off, you might choose to resort to the arguably even darker art of hot reading. Hot reading refers to the situation whereby you collect the data on your client before the reading even starts and then simply go through the charade of obtaining the information psychically. There are too many ways to do this to describe them all in this brief article but, as you might imagine, the current pervasive use of social media offers rich pickings for those so inclined.

Who, in my opinion, are the psychics who do resort to the use of these deceptive techniques? I recently (tongue firmly in cheek) proposed French’s Second Law: “The higher the profile of the psychic claimant, the more likely it is that they knowingly use fraudulent techniques”.

In case you were wondering, French’s First Law is: “The more spectacular the claim of any kind of ghostly encounter, the more likely it is to be based upon a deliberate hoax”. The ordering of the laws simply reflects the order that I wrote about them in the book I’m currently writing (and shamelessly promoting here), The Science of Weird Sh*t, which I hope will be available in all good bookshops late next year.

For my part, I am proud to say that I gave every student who took my module in Anomalistic Psychology at Goldsmiths over the past 25 years a thorough grounding in both cold and hot reading so that they would have something to fall back on if, after graduating, they could not find a job.

If most psychics are not actually bad, is there any truth in the idea that maybe they are all “a bit mad”? As you might expect “mad” is not a word that is used much by professional psychologists, so let me rephrase the question in more acceptable language: What is the relationship between claimed mediumistic ability and psychopathology?

Before answering this question, it should be noted that in recent decades psychology and psychiatry, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, have moved away from the tick-box approach exemplified by, say, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) and more towards a recognition that psychopathology is not an all-or-none phenomenon. Instead, it is accepted that psychopathological tendencies exist on a continuum throughout the population.

Take schizotypy, for example, which is defined in Wikipedia as “a theoretical concept that posits a continuum of personality characteristics and experiences, ranging from normal dissociative, imaginative states to extreme states of mind related to psychosis, especially schizophrenia”. Most of us have the occasional anomalous experience, such as mild dissociation or perhaps a hallucinatory episode of good old sleep paralysis or exploding head syndrome. In and of themselves, such occasional anomalous experiences should not cause great concern but if the episodes are severe, frequent, and causing distress, then professional psychiatric help might be advisable.

As discussed in detail elsewhere, the available evidence strongly suggests that there is a reliable correlation between various measures of psychopathological tendencies and paranormal beliefs in general as well as the tendency to report ostensibly paranormal experiences. This would include, for example, bipolar and schizotypal tendencies. Of course, that does not mean that anyone espousing such beliefs or reporting such experiences needs psychiatric help. Although, in a minority of cases, this may be true, it is not the case for the vast majority of paranormal believers. The correlations found in such studies may be reliable but they are typically quite small and account for only a small proportion of paranormal belief. Although such correlations certainly need to be taken into account in any attempt to comprehensively model paranormal belief and experience, it is clear that many other factors are also involved.

Advert for a Psychic that reads "Psychic" a phone number and the words "walk in welcome" with an arrow.

So much for paranormal belief and experience in general, what about claims of psychic and mediumistic ability in particular? Although there is less data available on this question, what data there is strongly supports the idea that such claimants do indeed tend to score higher on a number of measures of psychopathological tendencies. To give but one example, a recent study comparing a group of 65 Spiritualist mediums with a sample from the general population (N = 143) found that the former showed higher levels of proneness to auditory hallucinations compared to the latter. It thus seems likely that in at least some cases when psychics and mediums claim to hear voices, they really are – albeit, I would argue, hallucinatory voices as opposed to messages from the deceased.

Such an explanation would fit well with the notion of what has become known within psychology as “the happy schizotype”. These are individuals who score at a relatively high level, albeit below the clinical level, on measures of schizotypy but who still function well in society, living happy and productive lives. Despite the fact that they experience many more anomalous sensations, including auditory and visual hallucinations, compared to most people, they are not distressed by these experiences. In fact, in the case of some mediums, they may well have decided that they have a special and valuable “gift” that can be used to provide comfort and advice to others.

Finally, what then of the idea that mediums and psychics might be “dangerous to know”? Clearly, this is sometimes true. Most sceptics can readily produce a long list of the notorious scam artists who knowingly prey upon the vulnerable. It is right to expose and condemn them at every opportunity. But what about those, the majority in my opinion, who genuinely believe that they have a gift? There is little doubt, for example, that most of the attendees at Spiritualist churches appear to find comfort in the performances that they witness. Regardless of whether or not mediums can really communicate with the dead, it is a fact that many bereaved individuals do turn to mediums in the hope that they can ease the pain of loss. Does it work? Sadly, that is an issue that has received very little empirical investigation from researchers so we simply do not know how effective it might be, in either the short-term or the long-term.

As it happens, my favourite soap opera, Coronation Street, is dealing with this very issue in a current story line. One of the characters is spending more money than she can really afford consulting a TV medium following the death of her child. Although she finds comfort in these consultations, it looks like she is well on her way towards an unhealthy overdependence on such consultations, verging on addiction. I suspect it will all end in tears.

Let me be very clear. Personally, I do not believe in life-after-death. But I may be wrong – and even if I’m not, would it be right for me to try to persuade someone who is grieving that they are wrong to find comfort in their own belief in post-mortem survival if it helps them to cope with the very real pain of losing someone they loved?

Speaking for myself, I would leave them with their comforting belief, even if I do think it is nothing more than a comforting delusion.

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