The Experiment Part Three: How it worked and conclusions

Now, if you’ve read parts 1 and 2, you know what this is all about. If not, go back and read those.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait. I don’t have anything else to do right now….

Ah, back? Good. So, now you know how all of this nonsense got started, how I turned into some kind of creepy, spooky psychic or something and all that stuff.

So, what the hell happened? How did I know all that stuff about the people I did readings for?

There’s no real mystery. The answer is simple.

They told me.

Seriously. They just up and told me. They didn’t consciously know they told me, but they did.

I didn’t really know that what I was doing was a long established procedure at the time. It wasn’t until later that I started to get interested in this kind of thing and started to really look into it in some depth that I learned that I was doing exactly what every other psychic or medium or other bogus fortune teller does. I was getting my subject/victim to tell me what I needed to know.

As I talked with the subject, I was using the cards themselves more as cues, using them to subtly prompt the subject to provide me with clues about themselves. I was gently and carefully leading them down certain paths, watching their reactions. If the reactions seemed positive, I continued. If it seemed I was going down a dead end, I’d switch to a different path. Simply by watching a person’s expression, their eye movements, twitches, body language, you can tell if something you’ve said is of importance to the person.

More often than not, they’d actually just tell me things that I would use later on. Comments so innocuous that they never remembered that they told me. But which were important to me because I would use those comments later to make some kind of ‘startling revelation’, or would use to lead them to give me other information I needed.

What it boils down to is that I didn’t know anything about my subject. I didn’t need to. My subject told me everything I needed to know unwittingly. Through body language, facial expression, ‘tells’, as they say in poker. Through innocuous comments the subject wouldn’t even remember making.

It was scary, really, now easy it was to do it. The subjects genuinely had no idea that the startling revelations I was telling them, the things I couldn’t possibly know anything about but did, were things they themselves had already told me earlier in the reading.

it worked so well that even people who were in on the whole thing began to wonder what the hell was going on.

But there was no magic, no mysticism, no psychic nonsense. It was just me, asking apparently innocuous questions, following cues provided by the subject.

So, the end result of any experiment, even one as ridiculous and completely informal as this one, is the conclusions. What was learned.

Well, we learned a lot, but it was nothing we didn’t already know.

1) It is really, really, really easy to manipulate people. So easy, in fact, that’s actually downright frightening sometimes. It is amazingly easy to manipulate even very intelligent people.

2) People really, really want to believe. Many of them, anyway. They really want to believe that there is — is something out there, some kind of mystical, spiritual other world full of spooks and ghosts and lost loved ones and magic. They want to believe to the point that they will tend to forget the five things you said that were complete nonsense and only remember the one good hit you got during the entire reading.

The last thing I want to talk about is something that I still don’t fully understand, and that is that a certain percentage of people will persist in their belief even if you come right out and tell them you’re a fraud.

That happened at the end of this dopey little experiment. We went back to as many of the subjects as we could and told them they’d been part of this little experiment. We explained exactly what had been going on, what we did, how we did it, everything. Some were mildly irritated, some thought it was hilarious.

But a significant percentage believed. They just plain believed. Oh, I might have thought I was faking it all for the experiment, they said, but it had been real. I was only fooling myself…

Those are the people I’ve always been the most interested in, the ones that we called the TBs or True Believers when I was with the fringe science research group about twenty years ago. These are the people who, even when confronted with irrefutable evidence, still persist in believing, and will go to extreme lengths to rationalize their belief, to explain away the evidence, deny the evidence.

I still remember the fellow who believed crop circles were made by aliens or some kind of mysterious ‘earth force’, whatever the hell that is. One incident in the UK especially. Someone in the group had looked into it, with the expected results. It was, of course, a prank. We had witnesses who were there when it was being made. We had actual video of it being made. We had the actual pranksters themselves. We knew exactly how they did it. We had everything.

He still wouldn’t admit his belief was wrong. Our evidence? The photos? The video? Faked, he said. The witnesses? Either mistaken, hypnotized or mind controlled by the forces that really made the circles. The pranksters? Liars and frauds.

People like that frankly scare me. How they can rationalize away every bit of actual real evidence, while blindly accepting the claims of someone who has been proven to be a fraud or prankster, well, they just plain frighten me.

And unfortunately there seem to be a hell of a lot of them out there, like the anti-vaxxers, people ‘allergic’ to radio signals and EM fields… The list goes on and on.

But, well, you’re probably getting as bored with this as I am.

So, how about a card reading? Hmm?


The Experiment Part Two: Doing it

When we last saw our intrepid and not at all even remotely intoxicated college students, it had been decided that the experiment would consist of phony psychic readings done with the assistance of Tarot cards.

Now, according to tradition, the Tarot cards are rich in symbolism and that they date back to the time of ancient Egypt, with vague references to Egyptian gods and esoteric knowledge and all the usual trappings of that kind of thing.

And like a lot of traditions, it’s pretty much all pure, unadulterated bull shit.

I’m sorry if you’re a fan of Tarot and that offended you, but it just, well, it just is, all right? Pretty much everything about this “ancient, mystic, ancient Egyptian” linked method of divination was completely made up out of whole cloth in the late 1700s by someone who couldn’t even read ancient Egyptian for the very good reason that no one could at the time because Egyptian hieroglyphics wouldn’t even be deciphered for another three or four decades when he wrote the book that is widely considered to be the start of all of this..

So all that ‘ancient and mystical’ stuff? It’s all pretty much bunk. Sorry.

Oh, Tarot goes back a long way, but it was a card game. Period. End of story. It was a game that went back several hundred years and had absolutely no mystical origins at all. Taking Tarot and making it into some kind of ancient and mystical method of divination would sort of like taking oh, Battle Ship and making up an utterly ridiculous and totally bogus backstory to turn it into some kind allegory for life.

But not knowing stuff hasn’t ever stopped anyone from taking advantage of it. The lack of any real historical references doesn’t deter them in the slightest. They just make it up knowing that no one is going to bother checking.

Now there are certain expected procedures and interpretations of the cards based on how they’re laid out, reading symbolism into the cards and all that. It’s useful for the beginner, sets a suitably semi-spooky mood, casts the whole thing in a kind of appropriately mystical atmosphere. A lot of the decks of cards some with books or at least some kind of pamphlet that gives a brief outline of how the whole thing works.

So we practiced for a while and tried to figure out who’d do the readings and who’d do the observing. And since we all agreed that the person doing the readings had to A) be reasonably sober, and B) somehow manage to keep from giggling, laughing and/or snickering during the whole thing, and C) be able to look and act trustworthy enough so our intended victims didn’t run screaming…

To make a long story short (ah, like that ever happens with anything I write), they ended up picking me.

Oh, goodie,  said I with heavy sarcasm.

So we had our observers (if we could keep them sober). We had our method (Tarot). We had our con artist (me). We had our intended victims (anyone we could talk into sitting still long enough). Location wasn’t a problem. The props consisted of a deck of rather badly drawn cards and nothing else, so we could do it anywhere, any time.

So I practiced doing ‘readings’ on other members of our little group and quickly discovered one rather annoying fact.

It didn’t really work very well.

If I stuck to the ‘script’, that is, the guidelines provided in the book we’d got with the cards, nothing made any sense at all. It came out either utterly ridiculous or self contradictory, or glaringly just plain wrong. It was starting to look like this just wasn’t going to work.

Finally I said screw this,  threw the book away and just winged it. And thanks to a mis-spent youth spending way too much time watching really, really bad late night horror movies on television, I managed to pull off something that they agreed was suitably spooky, seemed to make sense, and was only mildly silly. And I almost never giggled during the readings. Ooo, bonus points…

So we launched our ridiculous little experiment, and the first few ‘readings’ went about as well as you might expect. Badly. They were awkward, forced, contradictory, odd…

But we noticed something very, very odd from the very beginning: People wanted to believe. A lot of them, anyway. They wanted to believe so much that they tended to ignore inconsistencies, forgot that what I was telling them contradicted what I’d said earlier.

The other, even more peculiar thing about it was this: I got good at it. I mean seriously scary good.

I could sit down with someone and within the space of a half hour or so pretty much outline their entire past life, every significant even they’d ever experienced, tell them what their hopes and dreams were, what their deepest fears were. I could tell them what their love life was like, tell them about traumatic childhood experiences…

It got very, very strange. It got to the point where even some of the people who were in on it were beginning to wonder just what the hell was happening here.

When things got to that point, I stopped doing it. It had been going on long enough and things were, as I said, getting more than a little weird.

So, you ask, what the hell happened? How did I do it? Was I really some kind of psychic? Was there really some kind of power in those Tarot cards?

Don’t be silly. Of course not. All will be revealed in The Experiment Part Three!

Stay tuned…

The Experiment Part One: How it started

I was in college in the early 1970s, and it was a decidedly odd time to be around. It wasn’t just the whole ‘sexual revolution’ nonsense, a trend created almost entirely out of whole cloth by the media, or the anti war movement. It was everything, including a resurgence in all things supernatural or ‘fringe science’.

The whole ‘alien astronaut’ nonsense was still at it’s height, sparked by the utterly ridiculous claims of people like Eric von Daniken in his Chariots of the Gods book that came out in the late 60s. The equally ridiculous Bermuda Triangle was being hyped up around that time, launching it’s own sub-industry of nonsense. Astrology was going through a resurgence as well. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people who should have known better were tramping through the woods in search of Bigfoot or Sasquatch or whatever you want to call it…

It was, as one of my friends at the time put it, ‘Crazy Season”.

And we, being a) bored, b) broke, c) curious, and d) broke (or did I mention that already?) So we spent way too much time sitting around drinking cheap coffee in the student union talking about — stuff.

One day someone showed up with yet another in what was apparently a never ending string of paperback books claiming ancient aliens built, well, everything because our ancestors were even stupider than we are and were utterly incapable of stacking one rock on top of another, and it sparked a conversation about the gullibility of the human race in general, and why people believe things that are just plain, well, stupid. 

One of our professors was with us that day because he was a) bored, b) broke… Well, you get the idea. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even remember which one it was. It was, after all, about 45 years ago. But the general tone of the discussion changed from idle speculation, into how we could try to figure out how this all worked. I.e. why people believe things that are pretty much ridiculous.

We should, said he, run an experiment to gather information because that is, said he, what people in university did: run experiments. Well, that and drink a lot, but the less said about that the better.

We pointed out that there were some problems with this, the first being that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.

He reminded us that neither did anyone else. That’s why you did those experiment thingies and all that, because you didn’t know what the hell you were doing. If you did know what the hell you were doing, you wouldn’t need to run the experiment in the first place.

Overwhelmed by the brilliance of his logic, we decided to go see if they still had 5 cent beers at the local pubs in the early afternoon so we could be blitzed before we had to go to our Russian Literature class and help numb the pain.

But he persisted, and eventually convinced us that this was, as they say, A Good Idea. So the question now, was experiment on what, who, why and how.

Well, we were interested in why people believe dumb things, so the experiment had to look at, well, people believing dumb things, right? he said.

Okay, that kinda made sense. So, how? And even more important, was this going to cost us money? Because what little money we did have was being reserved for the aforementioned 5 cent beers.

One of our little group regularly read the horoscope in the local paper. There really was something to it! he would tell us on a regular basis, despite the fact we mocked him, also on a regular basis, for believing that nonsense. So we considered  something like a fake astrology thing, but that would have required resources we didn’t have, like how the hell do you publish the thing, for example. The campus had a newspaper, allegedly. No one had ever actually seen the newspaper, but the administration said we had one.

We finally figured that the cheapest option was some kind of fortune telling scam. You didn’t need a heck of a lot of equipment, it wouldn’t be that hard to do, wouldn’t require a lot of setup. All you needed was a fortune teller, some kind of prop to distract the subjects, and observers hidden around to watch what happened and break up any potential physical assaults.

Props… what would we do for props… Crystal balls were out. You have any idea what those things cost? And while Sandy offered the use of a snow globe she had, it didn’t seem really appropriate.

Finally someone came up with the idea of Tarot cards. There had been a resurgence of that in the last couple of years as well as all the rest. It was sufficiently mystical and spooky and all that fun stuff, and because no one really knew what the hell it was all about anyway, we didn’t need to do a heck of a lot of research and thus cut into valuable drinking time. All we had to do was make it up as we went along.

What about subjects/victims? We’d do what researchers had been doing for generations, use unsuspecting college students without their knowledge.

Great fun would be had by all.

We even came up with a budget: $3.97. Oh, goodie…

I was volunteered to get me hence to the local head shop to pick up a deck of these Tarot card thingies. And among the bongs, roach clips, water pipes, sex toys, over behind the copies of “Naughty Nurses” and “Slippery Stewardesses”, I found one and scurried off before someone saw me.

Now, dear friends, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting bored with this already. This is already too long, and it’s only going to get worse, so let’s take a break, and you can keep reading this in The Great Experiment Part Two.