Home > Analysis > Are Psychics the New Therapists?

Are Psychics the New Therapists?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer:

Psychics/mediums are people who claim to predict the future and/or talk to the dead using paranormal powers. There is no evidence (despite years of investigation) that people have these abilities. There is evidence that psychics/mediums use a technique called “cold reading” – even when they aren’t aware of it - which is a technique that allows psychics to gather information from their client/mark using body language, other cues, and a clever tongue. This allows the psychic to appear very accurate in their information, requiring no supernatural ability. Anyone can learn to do this.

People’s self-ignorance of using a trick may seem odd, but most people haven’t tested their “abilities” under controlled conditions. This allows them to¬†legitimately believe that they have supernatural powers through thinking errors, like one called confirmation bias (remembering hits more than misses). Unfortunately, as with most things, there are also people who are downright frauds, using cold reading with intentionally-practiced skill. They may even go so far as to use “hot reading”, where the psychic cheats by surreptitiously gathering information about their mark before their reading. Examples of psychics and their techniques can be seen in Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! episode about psychics here.

Psychics operate on a scale from small local shops to vast phone networks to a much grander scale: national TV. One example of the latter is John Edward (previously busted using both cold and hot reading techniques on his former show Crossing Over), who was recently featured on the Dr. Oz show in a segment entitled “Are Psychics the New Therapists?“, hence this topic coming to the attention of a¬† health blog.

Edwards and Oz essentially present the argument that grief is like a cancer that, if left “untreated”, will metastasize, and psychics/mediums are helpful in this regard. But even this one claim contains several assumptions:

  • First, as discussed above, there is no respectable evidence that psychics can talk to the dead.
  • Second, even if we assume that psychics abilities are real (or at least non-harmful), there is no evidence that they are helpful.
  • Third, in relation to the segment title, can psychics be so helpful as to replace professionally-trained therapists with evidence-based skills in grief counseling?
  • Fourth, even if psychics are real, can John Edwards – specifically – really talk to the dead? Does he deserve to be featured on this show given his history using (intentionally or not) known reading tricks?

Their “yes” arguments are less than compelling, with Dr. Oz stating:

“as a heart surgeon I have seen things about life and death that I just cannot explain and that science can’t study.”

And later:

“I can’t make up an explanation for what John Edward does. And, again, what was most eerie was his level of detail, the concreteness of it all.”

In other words, “I’ve never heard of cold reading and I assume science can’t study some things, therefore I assume psychics are real/helpful.” Dr. Oz’s ignorance about the topic and his allowance that psychics abilities “can’t be studied” (they have – psychics just don’t like the results) allows him to imply to his trusting audience that psychics are a valid form of grief treatment.

So put down your psychology textbooks and peer-reviewed clinical research, young health students, the “new therapists” are helpful because we can’t explain how it might work. ???

Forget your degree, learn cold/hot reading.

The position of critical thinkers, as with anything, is that evidence comes first. There’s no evidence that John Edward or any other psychic/medium has the capability to provide consistent therapeutic benefit for grief, let alone as much benefit as a trained professional.

Psychics/mediums are not a health profession, they have no standards of practice or code of ethics (which are required of any legitimate health provider to protect people), and they have no oversight to ensure their customers that they are legitimate (which is impossible, due to lack of supporting evidence) or that they are effective in providing their services. They likely have no training in psychology and therefore no appreciation for the harm that may be done by (intentionally or not) implanting false memories or altering existing memories of dead loved ones with their claims.

It’s unfortunate that a doctor, particularly one with such a large reach, would devalue therapeutic professions and lend authoritative “legitimacy” to the claims of unproven psychics/mediums, particularly when actual people’s lives, emotions, and personal well-being are on the line. It just goes to show how easily anyone can buy into unproven claims, no matter what their degree, if they do not practice critical thinking.

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  1. September 12, 2013 at 8:01 AM

    Some general comments and observations…In terms of therapeutic benefit it is said that the placebo effect is responsible for around 30% of any success rates. This implies that the state of mind and level of belief of the patient is enormously important and can be positively or negatively influential.

    When it comes to the human body and natural healing, areas such as psychology, biomechanics and nutrition are major factors, yet poorly supported and researched by the medical / scientific communities. The pharmaceutical and medical industry is more interested in making profit than making us all happy and healthy.

    Just because the TV presenter is or was a medical professional, doesn’t make him exempt from putting his TV show and its popularity above medical or scientific ethics.

    PS, I don’t believe in psychics but I do believe in the power of the mind and positive thinking. If a psychotherapist can be skilled and artful enough to be able to help a patient through reprogramming their subconscious mind without any adverse side effects then in my opinion, that’s a wonderful gift.

    • September 12, 2013 at 8:47 AM

      The placebo effect is only a therapeutic benefit if you consider it ethical practice to lie to people for money.

      • September 12, 2013 at 9:11 AM

        Surely, a positive placebo effect is always of therapeutic benefit whatever its origin. I’m not supporting “psychics” lying to people for money and wouldn’t practice it myself, however, people will believe what they want to believe, whether it be scientifically acceptable or not. If a shamen in the amazon jungle treats a tribe member with a sacred root and a spell and the person gets better is that a lie, a placebo, hypnotherapy, nutrition or what? Science and medicine are not immune from lies and deception either.

      • January 19, 2014 at 11:01 AM

        But the person is not objectively better and that can be dangerous. The placebo effect does not, for example, change a physiological response such as pulmonary function for an asthmatic, though they may report a subjective feeling of improved breathing. In that case, a placebo is a dangerous false sense of security.

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