Are psychics the new psychologists ?
Gone are the days of turning to a shrink for help with major life decisions - today it's mediums and fortune tellers who are the go-to sources of wisdom. Here, our reporter explores why so many sensible, successful people are making choices guided by a crystal ball…
Some 20 years ago I ventured behind the curtains of a so-called psychics den in Dublin. I was with a friend and we figured it would be funny - it was. I was told the man I was with was tall (yes), fair (not so much), broody (sometimes), and the man I was going to marry (definitely not).
Fast-forward 20 years and for the purpose of this article, I find myself in another 'den' in Dublin. This time I am told my husband and I are a good fit, but not necessarily the ideal match, that my mother, who is recovering from cancer, is doing well, that the cancer won't return, and that my career will take a creative turn in March of next year. He added that I need to ease up on myself and work less. He advised me to do one hour of meditation a week and desensitise myself to life's worries; the 30-minute reading felt more like a personality analysis-cum-counselling session than a psychic encounter.
For most people the word psychic conjures up images of Mystic Meg-types in velvet cloaks sitting in caravans with crystal balls. But the modern-day psychic has had something of a makeover - they have become the go-to life coach, not so much predicting the future but working through possible outcomes to life's problems. Surprisingly, they are increasingly sought-after by high-flying executives, becoming as much a part of their support team as their accountant, personal trainer, waxer and hairdresser. In London, 'intuitive counsellors' feature on the service list for top-end hotels and spas. US psychic Laura Day has made millions as a consultant to Wall Street and celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston. And, you don't have to leave the comfort of your couch to get a reading; you can now have a Skype session with a psychic anywhere in the world. The current surge in popularity might be traced to economic unrest since, throughout history, psychics have been consulted during different periods of recession, famously including US president Ronald Regan who consulted an astrologer when signing the disarmament agreement with Gorbachev in the '80s.
Sarah* (name has been changed) is a successful, independent woman and dedicated to her psychic. "I went to see this woman with a group of people from work about five years ago. I would have considered myself a bit of a sceptic at the time but she changed that. She told me to be wary of a man I was seeing, that he was dangerous and I should break off the relationship. She was right. She also told me that my work situation would change but that I would find something else I preferred. A month later I was let go but ended up going out on my own as a consultant and things have never been better. I now see this psychic about once every three months; she helps me make decisions by getting to the facts faster."
With modern life comes instant gratification; people want immediate resolutions to their problems, but does the power of a psychic rest with personality type? Are you more likely to believe because you want to? Brian Hughes, Professor of Psychology at NUI Galway, doesn't think so. "Human beings thrive on certainty and we are all prone to being convinced to some degree by authority figures; most of the information we get is from someone else. It's not an individual character flaw that leads someone to trust unreliable forces."
Christopher French, a psychologist, professional sceptic and head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths University London, believes people are often leaving themselves open to being exploited and that psychics are simply illusionists to whom grieving vulnerable people turn to in their hour of need. French has challenged numerous psychics (most notably TV persona Sally Morgan) to prove their paranormal claim under controlled conditions, and has yet to find any plausible evidence that psychics can do what they say they can do.
"It seems more likely that some psychics are highly intuitive and use a form of cold reading based on information they have picked up from their clients," says French. A willingness of their audience to believe that what they see is a result of psychic powers is a big part of why it works he says; most people who visit mediums and psychics fit the 'believers' category - their internal locus of control is skewed and they are willing to be convinced.
There is certainly logic in the above which is why it's surprising to see so many self-sufficient, successful people turn to spiritual readings for help.
My friend, who I would consider to be a no-nonsense type, went from non-believer to devotee after visiting a medium that sent her a message from her late father that she claims only she and her father shared. Similarly, PR guru Aileen Eglinton, who describes herself as very level-headed and "never wanting to see into the future", was invited to have a reading live on RTÉ's The Afternoon Show with UK medium Tony Stockwell. She describes the incident as "weird" as Stockwell took on the mannerisms of her father. "It was uncanny, he literally became my dad and then continued to say things that only my dad would have known. He then described my late mother as 'the little woman in the hat' which is exactly how she was known by everyone and said she was glad I had decided to wear her wedding ring the previous week. It was very overwhelming and I can't explain how he would know any of that information."
Deborah Baker is a well-known psychic medium and spiritual healer based in Clondalkin who has a regular customer base of businessmen and women.
"I have a lot of business clients who come to me on a regular basis to de-stress and get some advice from the angels on financial matters or family," she says. "I never tell people how to make a decision, I just guide them through the situation as best I can." What about those vulnerable people who need reassurance? Baker admits that many clients will ask her to channel a late relative or friend and that she will only work with them if they are ready. "I use angelic energy and can always tell if someone is vulnerable; I won't do it if it's not right for them." Instead, Baker says she empowers people through mindfulness and positive angelic energy.
It could be argued that people who visit psychics are inventing their own destiny. For some it's about hope and relief from suffering, for other more time-pressed individuals it's confirmation for decisions they've already made on some level - a regular hit of certainty to help them navigate issues that a therapist can't predict. Psychics have become just another resource to help them succeed in life.
So, are they really worth the money? Christopher French doesn't believe so, urging anyone thinking of visiting a medium or psychic to consider whether their money might be better spent elsewhere.
According to Professor Brian Hughes, there may be short-term consolation but because the information is unreliable it creates what he calls uncertainty reductions, which are risky. "A psychic might tell you that you're going to recover from an illness despite having no scientific proof. You'll get comfort from that certainty but it may not be true and the damage of some hope being crushed is greater than the damage of ordinary disappointment." Alternatively, anything that empowers you to move forward in a positive way can't be all-bad, provided it's just that - a vehicle to change the present, not to predict the future.