When I learned that my first experience with a psychic would occur at a work function, I got as uncomfortable––and incensed––as if we’d been asked to pray in the break room. I knew I wanted to write about it, and I was ready to talk HR policies, legal issues, skeptics’ rights in the workplace. I had a vision for this post, and it was the indignant skeptical blogger equivalent of a Van Halen guitar smash.
I spent the days leading up to the office party in trepidation. I’m new at this part-time job and I really like my coworkers and boss, and I got the impression that everyone was excited about the psychic––or, at the very least, curious. I didn’t want to be a downer. But Sylvia Browne’s con artistry, especially her falsehood regarding Amanda Berry’s kidnapping, was fresh in my mind after her recent death, and I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting in a room getting a psychic reading and feeling obligated to smile and appear grateful for the “insight.” I kept my mouth shut when it was talked about at work, and considered whether I might be able to just sneak out early.
Turns out the psychic was the early one; she showed up at the start of the party and made the rounds, chatting with the guests, for at least two hours, ostensibly to “get to know everyone” but obviously because she seemed confident that no one would realize she was collecting clues and information via eavesdropping and small talk. Finally, after remaining pretty inconspicuous, she started going around to the party tables asking guests to write down a question on a piece of paper that they’d like her to answer, with their names on the other side. “If you don’t have a question or don’t want one answered, just put down your five favorite animals or something,” she joked.
When she left us with our pieces of paper, I took the opportunity to confess to my coworkers that I don’t merely disbelieve psychics but actively hate them. They didn’t seem disappointed, just fascinated: “Why? Did you have a bad experience with a psychic?” When I replied that I just don’t like quackery and I especially hate when psychics get involved in police investigations and take advantage of grieving people, my coworkers seemed to find this understandable, then went back to their sheets of paper and considered what question to write down, unperturbed.
Somewhat relieved and suddenly looking forward to the experience, I followed suit. What the hell? The awkward part was out of the way, and now I was just curious what the show would be like and how the psychic’s audience would react. I chose a deliberately ambiguous question: I told the coworkers around me that I was waiting on potentially good news from a female colleague in another industry (true) and wrote down, simply, “Will she say yes?”
The psychic addressed each person individually in front of the group––which took awhile, considering she spent several minutes combining a mixture of general advice/Barnum statements (“You second-guess yourself a lot. Stop doing that,”) and cold reading (“I’m getting the word ‘school.’ What does that mean to you?”). She then handed us back our written “readings” (mine’s pictured above). When she got to me, she immediately asked if I’ve ever skydived and suggested I try it. “I’m getting ‘motorcycle,’ she stated emphatically. “You like to move fast through space. Got it? Fast through space.”
Since I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie and have always wanted to skydive, it would have seemed she’d hit on some surprising insight if it weren’t for the fact that I’d had a conversation with the bartender about motorcycles, in which I mentioned that my parents’ recent Vespa acquisition was making me feel like I needed to up my badass game, two hours earlier.
The psychic didn’t read any of the questions aloud, but only stated the answers, before handing our sheets of paper back to us with her notes. Things got interesting when she ventured to answer my question of “Will she say yes?”:
“Sometimes, you know, she says no initially, there’s some pushback, but then she’ll come around,” she said to me. “It’s a no before it’s a yes. Does that help?”
Awesome. No means yes. Got it.
Between the group generally getting a little restless and a few people clearly not taking the “reading” seriously from the start (many took the psychic up on the “favorite animals” option), it felt fine to speak critically about the performance afterward with the people around me. I shared a little of my knowledge of cold and hot reading techniques (back when I was assistant editor of Skeptical Inquirer I got to read a lot about this) and we were able to talk about the ways she constructed her advice––listening in, observing couples together, and working from people’s responses––without my friends seeming let down at all. While it had to have been expensive and I hate the idea of throwing money at psychics for any reason, at least in this situation it turned out to be the best possible outcome: we all learned something and no one had enough fun to be enthusiastic about hiring a psychic again.
The most positive comment came from one coworker, who remarked in front of the psychic after the reading, “I feel like I know everyone so much better now.” And she wasn’t wrong––while we didn’t learn much from the psychic, we learned a lot from each other’s feedback, confirming or politely reframing the psychic’s initial words and questions.
I was delighted to overhear my coworkers the next day at work, pointing out more hot reading techniques (“She talked to that guy’s mom before the reading; no wonder he said his relationship advice was so accurate!”) and cold reading ruses (“I said ‘no’ to her first question, and then she told me I got discouraged easily”). It was actually pretty great to witness people from my non-skeptic world being good skeptics, and I realized how much I’d underestimated my peers. Instead of trying to protect them from the experience, I would have done better to simply talk to them more about it rather than hanging back and planning my own escape.
There can be immense comfort in receiving general life advice from a stranger; anyone who’s been a bartender knows that. And most of us wish humans had real prediction powers––I know I wouldn’t turn down the chance to see a glimpse of the future if it presented itself. Just because people seem excited about the idea of a psychic doesn’t necessarily mean they’re too gullible to observe psychic tricks when they actually get the chance, especially if they’ve heard of these techniques before.
Perhaps the best way to deflect a peer’s interest in psychics is to simply ask, “What do you hope to hear?” Who knows? A good conversation could result. And if more people could go into these events already knowing their “answers” and feeling confident in their choices, with perhaps a little more knowledge of how psychics work, maybe eventually these quacks will be defeated in the best and most lasting way possible: they’ll stop being fun.