Here's How Psychics Trick You Into Believing Them

It's one of the older scams going (and it's still very much going): psychics. Whether it's the phony ESP testing done by Dr. Venkman in Ghostbusters, or purporting to predict your future (there are people who will claim that), or put you in touch with the dead (ditto), or help you remove a curse (having a bad couple of weeks? Not your fault. Let us help....), people pretending to know the unknowable have been fleecing the gullible, the vulnerable, and the desperate from nearly the dawn of time.

Back in the 1990s, it was late-night TV ads touting call-in psychics. Dial up, talk, you'd get your reading, special information, predictions — whatever you were looking for, and the longer you poured out your soul, the more profitable it was for the "psychic" on the other end. You were not only paying with your trust and your emotions, but with your bank account, and by the minute. CNBC reports that the Federal Trade Commission shuttered one such operation in 2002 for having engaged in "unfair trading practices." The psychic phone line company didn't admit guilt. They did pay a $5 million penalty, and wrote off 100 times that — $500 million — in phone charges. You have to wonder: Did they see that coming? (A cheap joke, but apt.)

The more you talk, the more it costs you -- literally and figuratively

As The Guardian says, "Surely any trip to a psychic involves a large leap of faith and no guarantees?" Too often, the leap involves diving head-first into a rabbit hole of fraud. And they start simply enough, usually by asking questions that seem general enough, suggesting "facts" that upon analysis are also pretty general, and eventually zeroing in on specifics that are more a matter of skilled, gentle interrogation than psychic energy. It's an old carnival con — the "cold reading," says Psychology Today, and for the gullible — maybe just the hopeful — it seems to be other-worldly: "Audiences are receptive to these tricks because they are there to believe."

Listverse throws this one in: the psychic makes a claim of information, then waits — and watches you. They tend to be good at reading their potential clients — small "tells" that might betray you and give them an edge. They might let you in on a little secret: you were (pick an historical personage of fame and grandeur — we'll wait; so will the psychic) in a past life.

"I'm sensing I'm going to receive some money"

No polling has been done that we know of, but it must be odd that so many people used to be Cleopatra or Abraham Lincoln.

If you're tempted by the con, or even if you fell victim and wised up, you're in excellent company. Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for writing all of those highly logical Sherlock Holmes tales and an actual medical doctor, became a devout spiritualist in his later years. His good friend, Harry Houdini, tried so very hard to convince Doyle otherwise, even going so far as to perform a psychic reading for Doyle, and when it was over, explaining how he faked it all. Doyle decided Harry had psychic abilities and just didn't know it.

"It is a game of hits and misses," says Psychology Today, "although the 'hits' aren't indicative of accuracy, they are merely perceived as correct." Desperate people want desperately to believe, to know, to understand. And plenty of other people are more than happy to lighten their load — financially, anyway.