Empathy for the Devil

Often I hear a defense of huxters like TV psychics that goes something like this: “She must be psychic. There’s no way she could have known my father was a door-to-door peanut butter salesman.” People assume the psychic is gifted enough to speak to the dead, but not gifted enough to read the subtle cues of the living. Clever Hans, the amazing adding horse, got similar flack — it was assumed that he was smart enough to add numbers, but not smart enough to pick up on the cues of his trainer and audience.

This entertaining article in the Washington Post describes a theory of how humans interact with one another using a sort of “mirroring” system. For instance, if you see someone wince, your brain may mirror that same reaction, sending you clues to what they’re thinking by imagining what you may be thinking were you to wince. New studies are showing that this reaction may be related to our feelings of empathy, to which I say, er, duh.

Empathy is a key trait of psychic frauds. When Sylvia Browne tells a woman that she sees a man and the letter “M,” she watches for the woman’s reaction — does the woman wince? How does she move? Does her brow furrow? By understanding that a furrowed brow might mean the woman is confused, Sylvia can quickly switch gears. By understanding exactly what it means when the woman’s hand shoots to cover her mouth, Sylvia knows to go in for the kill.

Empathy is an odd trait to associate with psychics, since we can only assume they must lack that characteristic if they are to continue fleecing grieving people. I can only guess that years of practice have allowed them to switch their little brain mirrors off at the end of the day when they cash their checks.

Special thanks to Rav for sending me the article.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Whoa, that's a really cool finding. The "mirror" theory of human theory of mind seems to be producing a lot of neat results.

    It also reminds me of a debate I had with a friend of mine recently over the "down side" of skepticism. You know, the old idea that skeptics and scientists might be "missing out" by consistently refuting paranormal claims. (I hope the scare quotes (Not to mention my patronage of this site!) show my feelings on the subject.) Here we have real science making a real discovery that sheds light on a supposedly paranormal phenomenon — and the reality is way more interesting than what the wooful would have us believe.

  2. Mirroring is certainly an interesting subject, and might be behind more social phenomena than one would think. For instance, it has been shown that people who don't mirror someone else's mannerisms are generally seen as hostile or rude. Now, apply this to the case where people from wildy different cultures are interacting. The amount of mirroring you'd expect is a lot lower due to the different norms of the cultures, and so these people would likely consider each other more hostile or rude than is warranted. This would hold true for most interactions between the cultures, so they would develop an unwarranted prejudice against each other. This phenomena then might ultimately be the main source (or at least a major source) of bigotry.

  3. I have two educated, otherwise rational friends who are devoted believers in a TV show where the host supposedly speaks to the dead. The name of this psychic and his little circus escapes me.

    Their faith in this fraud appalls me, though as far as I know, they at least haven’t consulted him or sent him money. What you say about hucksters reading their marks’ body language is certainly on target.

  4. Is this mirroring system similar to the chills you get running down your spine when someone scratches a blackboard, and you imagine how, any moment, that action might bend one of their nails the wrong way? Ow …

    I bet most people even imagined that as they just read it, and felt a chill :P

    Surprisingly though, doing that scratching myself doesn't give me chills, and neither does seeing someone else doing it, or hearing the sound of it. But the idea of bending a nail the wrong way does give me chills.

  5. “Empathy is an odd trait to associate with psychics, since we can only assume they must lack that characteristic if they are to continue fleecing grieving people.”

    Unfortunately empathy is a tool and we can turn it on and off when it suits us.

    And these people can rationalise that they’re ‘making people feel better’ and the like. So its even easier for them to do it than your average conman.

  6. Yup. If anything is more astounding than the brain’s ability to mirror and form theories of mind about others, it’s the brain’s ability to rationalise the most despicable (and most altruistic!) actions. It’s incredible to ponder to what extent, when we “reason” through a problem, we are actually developing new ideas versus simply inventing a complex rationalisation for the conclusion we already reached! This may well be one of the ultimate “black box” questions of the mind… and, again, we could never even ask it if we simply accepted any old wacky unscientific explanation for the mind instead of applying solid science and skepticism.

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