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subjective validation

Subjective validation is the process of validating words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate because one is able to find them personally meaningful and significant. Subjective validation explains why many people are seduced by the apparent accuracy of pseudoscientific personality profiles. Subjective validation deludes everyone from the housewife who thinks her happiness depends on her blood type or horoscope, to the FBI agent who thinks criminal profiles are spot on, to the therapist who thinks her Rorschach readings are penetrating portraits of psychological disorders.

Subjective validation is an essential element of any successful cold reading done by astrologers, palm readers, tarot readers, mediums, and the like. The sitter in such readings must cooperate. Fortunately for the medium, most sitters are usually eager for the reader to succeed and are willing to work hard to find personal meaning in whatever the reader throws out. In a successful cold reading, the sitter will be convinced that the accuracy of the reading was not due to her ability and willingness to cooperate but rather to the powers of astrology, palmistry, tarot, or mediumship.

Sitters are often very compliant. A medium will say he senses a father figure trying to contact him from the spirit world and the sitter has only to find someone to fit the bill. It need not be the sitter's father. So, when the sitter identifies this father figure as her deceased husband, the medium is validated by the subject. The medium is validated by the subject when the medium says she is getting the message "I do not walk alone" and the sitter makes sense out of this by seeing it as a communication from a departed soul who was in a wheelchair before she died. There may be thousands of ways to make sense out of an ambiguous stimulus like the name 'Michael' or the expression 'broken wheel' but all it takes is for the sitter to find one and the medium is validated.

Selective memory is also involved in subjective validation because it is very unlikely that any sitter will be able to find meaning in every utterance the medium makes. Fortunately for the reader, the sitter will usually forget the misses and remember only the hits. That is, the sitter will remember what she was able to make sense out of and forget the stuff that made no sense to her. Also, it rarely occurs that anyone makes an independent check of the accuracy of the sitter's rating of the reader.* So, if a sitter is satisfied that a reading is very accurate that is usually taken as sufficient evidence by the medium - and by experimenters who test mediums such as Gary Schwartz - as proof of the accuracy of the reading.

The stronger the desire to make contact, the harder the sitter will work to find meaning and connections in the medium’s items. This fact should impact the design of experiments that are supposed to test a medium's ability to get messages from spirits. Experimenters should always checks factual claims made by sitters. But even though the concern with factual accuracy is important in verifying the success of the medium, one should not lose sight of the importance of the studies that have been done on how the human mind works when it comes to making sense out of and giving significance to disparate data presented to it. The overall effect of subjective validation should show up in the way sitters rate the accuracy of the mediums’ claims.

Gary Schwartz is considered by some to be the foremost researcher of mediumship today. Yet, when he tested Allison Dubois—the model for the psychic on the hit TV show "Medium"—he did not use controls that could have eliminated subjective validation as an explanation for the high rating given by a woman who had a reading done by Dubois. The psychic was asked to contact a deceased person close to a woman in England that she had never met. She was told only the woman's first name and that she wanted to hear from her deceased husband. During the actual reading, Dubois was at Schwartz's University of Arizona lab and the sitter was in England. A transcript of the information Dubois got during the reading—supposedly from the dead husband—was sent to the woman in England. She scored the reading as 73 percent accurate. Schwartz claimed: "That's extraordinarily high accuracy."* However, he does not mention whether he sent the same reading to several other ladies in England who would like to contact a dead husband. Had he done so, he might have something to compare to the 73% accurate claim. Subjects given fake personality readings routinely rate them as over 80% accurate.* C. R. Snyder got similar high readings from subjects given fake astrology readings (Zusne and Jones 1989: 207). Without controls, the high ratings given by raters in Schwartz's experiments cannot be validly labeled as "extraordinarily high."

In his Afterlife Experiments Schwartz says almost nothing about subjective validation except to dismiss the charge of cold reading on the part of the mediums on the ground that they are not using the standard tricks of magicians and mentalists. The success of a cold reading with a sitter, however, doesn’t have to depend on guessing or cheating. It doesn't have to depend on using Forer or Barnum statements. It doesn't have to depend on going on a fishing expedition with rapid fire questions. Nor does it have to depend on playing Sherlock Holmes and picking up subtle cues from the sitter's demeanor, dress, intonation, perfume, jewelry, and the like. But cold reading always depends on the sitter being willing and able to connect the dots and make sense out of most of what the reader brings up.

Subjective validation, however, occurs not only in cold reading but in other instances as well. For example, subjects given phony personality or astrological readings often rate their accuracy as very high. Why? Because human beings are very good at finding meaning where there is none and giving significance to what is actually meaningless in itself. We are especially good at relating things to ourselves. Words, symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, and the like have no meaning in themselves. Human beings give them meaning and often we give them a personal meaning when none was intended. We're very good at this and you might say it is what distinguishes us from most other creatures on this planet. Sometimes, however, we don't see what is right before our eyes. We see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. If our motivation is strong enough we can sometimes even bring the dead back to life or come to believe that mundane things about our lives are imbued with paranormal or supernatural significance.

*Occasionally, a medium will be caught in an egregious error, as Sylvia Browne was when she appeared on the Montel Williams show and told the parents of a missing 10-year-old boy that their son was dead. Four years later, Shawn Hornbeck was found alive. Browne also claimed that the man who took Shawn was a "dark-skinned man, he wasn't black -- more like Hispanic." She said he had long black hair in dreadlocks and was "really tall." She was wrong on all counts. She was also wrong about the vehicle driven by Michael J. Devlin, the man arrested in the case. Another alleged psychic, James Van Praagh said that two people were involved in the abduction and that a person who worked in a railroad car plant was involved and the body might be concealed in a railway car.

A look at Van Praagh's message board will reveal why such errors do little to destroy people's faith in charlatans like Browne or Van Praagh. To the devoted believer, the psychic can do no wrong. If there was an error, it wasn't the psychic's fault. What may appear to be an error may not really be an error. It's possible the psychic got his or her wires crossed and mistook one spirit for another. And so on. And, as Van Praagh and Browne have often said, they're not gods and not infallible. When you're validated you're right and when you're wrong you're right. For the alleged psychic it is always a win-win with your devoted followers.

See also apophenia, Barnum effect, cold reading, Forer effect, pareidolia, selection bias, and "How F.B.I. profiles resemble cold readings" Robert Todd Carroll, my review of The Afterlife Experiments, and "Gary Schwartz's Subjective Validation of Mediums" by Robert Todd Carroll.

further reading

books and articles

Dickson, D. H., & Kelly, I. W. "The 'Barnum effect' in personality assessment: A review of the literature," Psychological Reports, 57, 367-382, (1985).

Forer, B. R. (1949) "The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A classroom Demonstration of Gullibility," Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 44, 118-121.

Hyman, Ray. "'Cold Reading': How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them," The Skeptical Inquirer Spring/Summer 1977.

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Randi, James. Video. NOVA. "Secrets of the Psychics."

Rowland, Ian. The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, 3rd. ed (2000).

Steiner, Robert A. Don't Get Taken! - Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself (Wide-Awake Books 1989).

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking. 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1989).


Hyman, Ray. (How Not to Test Mediums -Critiquing the Afterlife Experiments. Skeptical Inquirer.

My commentaries on various alleged psychics and psychic powers:

Last updated 06-Dec-2015

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