Gullibility is the New Black

First of all, here’s a small update from Moe at Jezebel concerning the women you’re helping flee Basra. $1700 raised so far. Way to go, all of you who donated!

Okay, on to today’s rantiness.

NPR has a show called Day to Day, and they occasionally feature stories from teens at Youth Radio in a special segment called What’s the New What. The idea is that the kids get to fill in the “What”s, highlighting some trend happening right now. So far they’ve done mismatched clothing, lack of chivalry, and psychics replacing psychologists. Uh, yeah.

Let’s play One of These Things is Not Like the Other. When I was in high school ten years ago, the clothes didn’t match and boys were jerks, but only the hopelessly gullible went and got themselves conned by “psychics.” Now here we have the reputable NPR informing us that for teens today, Psychics are the New Psychologists. Really? Really, NPR and Youth Today and Day to Day and Alyssa Wagner, the teen who did the piece? I find it hard to believe that Alyssa speaks for her generation, or even her school, or even her entire group of friends, so I’m not too concerned with psychic therapists becoming the hottest teen trend since toad licking. But the piece annoys me for several reasons: first, because it misrepresents a generation as gullible fools, and second because it’s targeted at that generation and lends some legitimacy to something that is a total con.

Alyssa states in the piece that she sees more teens turning to psychics in place of psychologists, mentioning a friend of hers who spent three months in therapy following a bad break-up with her boyfriend. After those three months, she felt that she hadn’t really made any progress. The correct thing to do at this point (if she really did have some kind of psychological problem) is to try another therapist, since they’re all different and one may be better for her than another.

The incorrect thing to do is to waste money on someone with no training as a therapist, who will simply flip over some tarot cards and then spin a line of BS at you. Even if we’re just talking about a wealthy teenager who doesn’t have any actual problems, the psychic is only harmless this time. The positive reinforcement from that situation might make that teenager more likely to seek out a psychic instead of getting real help later on, when there might be more serious issues. Alyssa mentions that even some psychics will tell people to go see a real therapist when it’s serious, but guess what? Many psychics won’t. And no psychics, regardless of how nice they are or how much they believe they really have magical powers, are actually psychic.

Because we always have new people joining us every day here on Skepchick, I’ll give you a quick overview of what’s really happening when you visit a psychic:

1. In the Mood for Paranormality: the atmosphere, the exotic knick-knacks, the headscarf, the music, and the sign out front that says “PSYCHIC” all put you in the mindset for giving this person more credence than they deserve. Most people go to a psychic expecting to see an actual psychic, so they’re more likely to attribute banal things to the psychic’s powers.

2. Cold Reading: most psychics will let you tell them all they need to tell you. “Cold reading” is the act of looking a mark (i.e., gullible person about to get conned) up and down and making certain assumptions about who she is. A psychic might see a teenage girl and immediately assume she has fears about dating, stress over grades and college applications, and ongoing fights with her mother. It will mostly be general stuff that you think only applies to you, with a few specific details thrown in as a risk. You’ll be more likely to remember the details that make sense to your life, while forgetting the details that don’t really fit you.

3. Hot Reading: while cold reading is done on the fly, a “hot reading” can be performed if the psychic already has some info on you. Don’t be surprised, it happens — in the NPR piece, the girl mentions that she refers her family and friends to the same psychic she sees. That psychic is sitting pretty, since now the moment your cousin walks in the door, she can magically “see” that cyst she had removed last year or the house she’s thinking of buying.

4. Stuff You Haven’t Even Thought Of: as much as you can learn about the sneaky things people like “psychics” are doing to con you out of your money, there are at least ten other things you haven’t even considered. Like, the Google search she did on your name, or the time she happened to see you buying a pregnancy test at the CVS, or whatever. You can watch those old TV shows that reveal the secrets of magicians and still get fooled by Penn & Teller. Why? Because no matter how smart you are, you’re still pretty easy to fool . . . especially by people who get paid to fool you.

Remember kids: Not Getting Conned is the new Getting Conned.

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. I disagree . . . in my experience, psychics are much more cut-throat, and a much higher percentage of them are out-and-out con artists, as opposed to being self-deluded. The pastors I’ve known have offered their services for free, and those offering counseling have had actual training.

    Obviously I agree that religious authorities can and do abuse the trust people give them, but this post is about psychics who are, to me, a very different subject.

  2. Pastors also have the legal obligations on them regarding their training that, depending on the state, may require them to report abuses or people who a danger to themselves or others. At least among the more mainstream churches.

    Psychics have absolutely nothing governing them whatsoever.

  3. Psychics are members of quite possibly the oldest con in the world, and you have to be wary of people like that. No, not all of them are terrible people, but a lot are, and to play a game that’s been going for uncounted thousands of years with no rules, you have to pretty cutthroat to get ahead.

    For every gently deluded hippy who thinks LSD lets him see the people’s auras, there are hundreds of highly skilled con-artists who would break into your house to get good info for the next reading. Also, keep a close guard on your purse/wallet while you’re dealing with a “psychic.” There’s a wealth of good information in there, and keeping you coming back every week is worth more than the cash you have on hand nine times out of ten.

    I’m just saying – there are thieves, and then are really good thieves. Palmistry is the new back-alley mugging… only it’s also the old back-alley mugging, too.

  4. New is the new old.

    When I was in high school, if someone had suggested to me that my personal problems could have been solved by seeing a psychic, someone MIGHT have gotten punched in the head. Just sayin’

  5. The problem with these “latest trend” shows and the like is…


    It’s all about diversity. You want psychics, they’re out there. You want skepchicks, I can give you the URL. Unmatched clothing? One pant leg pulled up? People who’re convinced they’re vampires? Two girls, one cup?

    It’s all out there.

  6. JRice, for mentioning 2 Girls, you are hereby fired from Skepchick. Collect your things and go.

    Fired is the New . . . something.

  7. Rebecca: “JRice, for mentioning 2 Girls, you are hereby fired from Skepchick. Collect your things and go.”

    Quite right. We have standards around here.

  8. For the record, the statement:

    When I was in high school ten years ago… only the hopelessly gullible went and got themselves conned by “psychics.”

    is a little unfair.

    Rebecca, you and I were both in high school around the same time, and I was one of those gullible fools who got conned by psychics. I consulted psychics as recently as 2002 after my sister died. I was 100% true believer.

    However, I was not “hopelessly gullible”… if it were a truly hopeless condition, I would not be here.

  9. I was also in high school ten years ago (in fact, I’m considering continuing a grand tradition and skipping my reunion next weekend). I’d like to point out that a know a few who were gullible, but hopelessly so and managed to get free of that kind of thinking… but then, I suspect she was using hyperbole… A conversation I won’t be starting up again so soon. :P

  10. Agghh, I heard this piece today and had to resist the urge to beat my head into my desk. As an NPR junkie, I was deeply disappointed.

  11. Well, cheaper, mostly yes. But it depends on what kind of church as to whether it would be better. A lot of the mainstream denominations have educational qualifications for people to become pastors. But a lot of evangelical churches, especially non-denominational ones, do not. I have gone to churches where the pastor was a fire chief , a McDonald’s owner, a used-car salesmen. You get the point. And come to think of it, if you go to the church regularly and tithe 10% of your income every month, then it’s not cheaper either. :-)

  12. I suspect this may be the result of a lot of young people looking for a “magic cure” for all of their problems not realizing that dealing with a mental illness can be very difficult and that it often requires a lot of persistence. Psychics are offering young people a non-existent magical solution to all of their problems and people who do not know any better are being fooled by it.

  13. Elyse, sorry, my point was that as a teenager, I and my friends would have thought a person to be hopelessly gullible if they were seeking out psychics. I was speaking to what is or was considered “cool” or trendy among teens.

    These days, thanks to letters we’ve received from former true believers, there are very few people I consider hopeless . . .

  14. I heard the Day to Day piece and actually felt my blood pressure rise. I had a migrane by the end of the day. I atribute it to the show. I have been trying to think of the best way to send the show an email and I can’t come up with anything. I think I will send them a link to your post. This is so much eloquent than I can hope to be.

    Writerdd, I have an even better evangelical preacher story. Once upon a time I was a parole officer. I went to check on release plan for someone who was in prison for drunk driving. When I finally found the trailer no one was home, no cars in the yard. There was a bike with deer horns on the handle. I left a card with a short note asking to be called. The gentleman called me the next day. He told me that he wasn’t home when I had stopped by because he was in the county jail because he had gotten drunk and violated his probation. A little questioning and he admitted that he was on probation for….Drunk Driving. I told the gentleman that I was going to deny the home release plan. This made the gentleman very angry. He yelled and cussed and then said “I’m an ordained minister. Are you saying I’m not good enough?”
    “Yes, that is what I am saying.”
    “Oh, well I guess that god isn’t good enough.”
    “Well, your not god but if you have an adress and phone number for god I will check and see if he is willing to take this guy when he gets out of prison.”
    Then he hung up on me.

    If anyone is still reading can you tell me what Jrice meant by “2 girls one cup.” I don’t get it.

  15. Rebecca

    Unfortunately, psychics weren’t so frowned upon in my high school… or maybe it’s just that i tended to hang with an artsier crowd. They seem to be more prone to woo than others.

    College was a fuckfest of woo that would embarrass Sylvia herself. I’m talking oujia boards in attics and (swear to god) haunted email threads.


    If anyone is still reading can you tell me what Jrice meant by “2 girls one cup.” I don’t get it.

    It’s a story of two lovely young ladies who share a parfait cup. It’s not filled with ice cream and it’s not safe for work. If you’d like to know more, you could google it… but you will not walk away with your self-respect in tact.

  16. DD, wow.
    The church I went to when I was little (up until my Grandma died) had priests who just lived in a house by the church. I’m not sure if it’s because it was a Catholic church or not, but they didn’t have any other jobs.

    I think the best option, between psychic and priest, would just go to a confessional and feel better because the priest says that God forgives you. But NOTHING, of course, will substitute a real mental health professional.

    If you really need help for cheap… just talk to a good friend.

  17. Gabrielbrawley: “If anyone is still reading can you tell me what Jrice meant by ‘2 girls one cup.’ I don’t get it.”

    Ignorance is bliss here. Just walk away.

  18. Oh, and more proof that girls suck at math – I just realized it’s been more than 10 years since I graduated from high school. It’s good that it only took me 17 hours to figure that one out.

  19. Elyse:“Oh, and more proof that girls suck at math – I just realized it’s been more than 10 years since I graduated from high school. It’s good that it only took me 17 hours to figure that one out.”

    Actually, since this is forgetting an anniversary, aren’t you conforming to a male stereotype?

  20. Gabrielbrawley: “OH GROSS, that is so much worse than anything I had thought it could be.”

    We tried to spare you. How much more innocence must be lost?!

  21. Dear god- I am fortunate enough to 1) know what that is already, and 2) NOT be curious enough to look it up. I have a very vivid imagination, and it might be even worse in my own mind.

    Also, it was 10 years ago (this week, if I’m correct) that I graduated from high school. I think I’ll be skipping my reunion as well.

  22. By Randi’s Beard! Don’t dare look up two girls!!! There is a Wikipedia article (with NO pics, thankfully), if you’re that curious.

    I was one of the lucky ones who was told by a co-worker what it was, and never had to see it.

    Same with the goatse man… I’ve never actually seen it. Phew.

    It’s good to have perverted co-workers, though.

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