From Abracadabra to Zombies
In a nutshell: Psychics are people who use ESP to find out what's happened somewhere in the past or at some distant place in the present or future. Are there any real psychics? The science says no, but many people believe they are psychic. And many people—including a few scientists—believe that psychics really do have ESP.
Psychics are people who say they get information about the past, present, and future by ESP. Psychics say they can "see" other places and times in their minds without using their eyes, ears, or other senses. Psychics say they can "see" what's in the minds of people around them and around the world. Psychics even claim to get messages from dead people.
Skeptics believe psychics get information the same way you and I do, through our senses. Skeptics don't deny that psychics are using a special part of the mind: it's called the imagination.
Why does anyone believe what psychics say? One reason is that people pay attention to those times when the psychic seems to get it right, but people forget or ignore the times when the psychic is wrong. Since psychics are wrong way more times than they are right, that means we do a lot of forgetting or forgiving. Why? Probably because we want the psychic to be right. We want somebody to be able to tell us if our lost dog will be found or if we'll grow up to be famous. We want to hear from our loved ones who are gone. We don't want them to be gone forever. The psychic couldn't get anyone to believe in her powers without our help.
Psychics are sometimes right about the past, present, or future. But everybody's right sometimes about the past, present, or future. So, there's nothing special about being right some of the time. We all do it. But the rest of us don't claim to be psychic.
Humans tend to find more meaning in words and things than there really is. We're always trying to make sense out of what people say and do. This is usually a good thing, but it can turn out bad when we try to make sense out of whatever we're told, no matter how far out or unlikely it is to be true. Also, we like to be praised and often aren't very realistic in our views about ourselves. We will often agree with what others say about us even if what they say isn't true. We'll sometimes agree with others if what they say about us is something we wish were true. If you make enough claims, most people will find some way to make sense out of many of them. They'll forget the ones that don't make sense and focus on the ones they can make sense out of.
Psychics often give "readings" to customers. A reading might go like this:
The psychic says something that isn't very clear but is suggestive, such as "I'm getting a strong feeling about January here." How the customer responds is the cue for the psychic's next move. If the subject says, "I was born in January" or "my mother died in January" then the psychic says something like "Yes, I can see that." If the subject responds negatively, such as "I can't think of anything particularly special about January," the psychic might reply, "Yes, I see that you're holding back a memory about it. You don't want to be reminded of it. Something painful in January." Then the psychic might go fishing for something you can make sense out of. "Yes, I feel it. It's in the lower back [fishing]...oh, now it's in the heart [fishing]...umm, there seems to be a sharp pain in the head [fishing]...or the neck [fishing]." If the subject gives no response, the psychic can leave the area, having led the customer to think that the psychic really did "see" something. The psychic hopes the customer will feel like he's hiding or blocking something from his memory.
Another move by psychics is to say things in ways that could mean many things. "I'm getting a warm feeling in the neck area" or "I sense that you have strong feelings about someone in this room." Or the psychic might ask a question that could have many correct answers, such as "Who's Mary?"
Another common move by psychics is to say things that either would be true of most people or would be the kind of thing that most people would want to be true about them. "You've been unhappy at times, but you've bounced back." "You like to be alone sometimes, but you enjoy being with friends, too." "You haven't lived up to your full potential." "You sometimes feel that others don't appreciate or understand you."
People believe psychics because we help psychics seem like they know what they're talking about. We work hard to make sense out of what they say and to find meaning in their "impressions." If the psychic says she sees a red shoe being important, we'll drive ourselves crazy trying to figure out how that makes sense. Scientists call giving personal meaning to statements or questions that aren't based on any personal knowledge subjective validation.
Many psychics get a reputation for being accurate because they make up stories about how they've helped the police solve crimes. When skeptics have looked into the claims of psychics who say they've solved crimes, guess what the skeptics have found? Psychics don't solve crimes; they just say they do. Oh, they sometimes fool cops about their talents, just as they fool the rest of us. If you want to solve a crime, though, you're probably better off hiring a detective than a psychic.
For more information on the study of psychic powers see A Short History of Psi Research by Robert T. Carroll (psi is what parapsychologists call perceiving or moving things with the mind only).