In defense of Psychology: reading your mind?

Unfortunately, psychology is sometimes associated with mind-reading or fortune-telling. However as a psych student I’m still waiting for the part of the curriculum that contains courses on how to successfully read your mind and speculate on your future. These kinds of assumptions often make it difficult to get taken seriously as a science. But I can guarantee you that psychology fits the current science paradigm, we conduct experiments and, yes, we use statistics. 

Matchbox trick
Though there are some ‘tricks’ that can make people seem like mind readers. One of the oldest is the matchbox trick. You can go ahead and write the following numbers on the white surface of a match box.

1234

Ask people to pick a number, displayed on the match box. People are very likely to pick ‘3’.  So write a ‘3’ on the back of the matchbox, so you can show people afterward that you knew which number they were going to pick.
Now I have to disappoint you, no mind-reading goes into this ‘trick’. People behave according to patterns, and that is what psychologists want to figure out. Because it is incredibly imperative to be able to predict human behavior. Because as physical diseases are still seen as more serious, mental disorders are very real. And what is often forgotten is that physical diseases have a psychological side to them. This is due to the fact that a myriad of diseases can take a toll on our mental health as well.

Horoscopes
But back to the ‘mind-reading’ skills. Another trick is used by people in daily lives, horoscopes. Statements made in horoscopes are great because they could be applicable to anyone. Also, the wording used is very interesting as well. Using words or phrases such as ‘could happen’ or  ‘it might be a good idea’ indicate uncertainty, your horoscope doesn’t state things that are going to happen for sure. And statements including could and might are not falsifiable, which means they cannot be seen as theories. So you can go ahead a random horoscope and it will still be applicable to you. However we get attached to the horoscope were supposedly born with, therefore we can come up with a million reasons why only our own horoscope fits. A description that can fit almost anyone is also referred to as a ‘Barnum statement’ (Forer, 1949).
The following three statements are examples of this effect:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

Most people will feel like these could accurately describe them, in fact, this has been tested in an experiment. And as it turns out, people will reason that these do apply to them.

Priming
Just like the matchbox trick there are more ways to ‘mind read’. For example, if I ask you to name a construction tool or a color, you’re more likely to say hammer and red (or blue). That is because our mind is a semantic network, it has been built up by associations. This is where priming becomes important, which can also help guess what others are thinking of. Priming is when I remind you of chairs, so now you think about chairs. The concept of chairs is now ‘activated’ in your semantic network. This could make you quicker at naming other pieces of furniture, such as tables or couches. All of these concepts are associated in our minds.

So in conclusion, no psychologists do not read your mind, people are sometimes predictable. If you’re currently receiving psychological help, or maybe a tip for the future, please tell your psychologist everything that is relevant — because they cannot read your mind.

 

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”(PDF). Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 44 (1): 118–123.

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