Now removed from my Dallas talk regarding the arts of mentalism, suggestion and their application in jury selection, I come back to the concept of belief. What struck with me the most wasn’t the talk’s reception. People enjoyed it and found it interesting, but the takeaway point for me is that peoples’ belief structures are incredibly subjective.
When I perform as a mentalist I always call myself a “psychological mind reader.” I make it a point to tell the audience my talents are those gained from a life of experience and understanding patterns in people. I don’t call myself a psychic, because I don’t believe in psychic powers, but I don’t discount the possibility of true psychics existing. I personally don’t possess those gifts.
One participant at the Dallas seminar approached me afterward and said “Hey thanks for not pretending to be a psychic and not knocking the real ones.” I thanked this individual and reiterated I wasn’t willing to discount the possibility of real psychic phenomena. He then told me “You should check out my guy in Austin. The man is legit. James Randi couldn’t even get to him.”
That comment bothered me a little bit. James Randi, for those unfamiliar with the name, is a former magician who made a career out of debunking “psychics,” “faith healers,” and “mediums.” Randi forced Uri Geller to start calling himself a “psychic entertainer” through his work. The evangelical faith healer Peter Popoff called Randi the bane of his existence when James Randi exposed Popoff’s dirty methods of collecting information from the audience so he could get their money and make them toss aside their medicines in Jesus’ name. Randi even established a group of “psychics” called Project Alpha and fooled a group of scientists into thinking they’d discovered individuals with real psychic gifts. One of those “subjects” was a man named “Banacek” who performs in magic circles to this day.
I’ve done readings, but I like to be consistent with what I do when I perform. I tell people as I read them they give away most of what they’re thinking without even realizing it. When I set the stage for one of my readings, I tell people how I read them is very similar to if they overhear a conversation between a couple in a restaurant. I do all of these things because I want to make sure the participant knows I’m as honest of a liar as they’ll get.
My issue with those who perform as psychics, mind readers, or otherwise isn’t that they hold themselves out as someone with paranormal abilities. I take no issue with these people charging a fee for their performances. What I can and will take issue with is when those who have such talents fleece people and offer them misleading information in the hopes of gaining fortune, fame, and glory. The same holds for those who have “tent revivals” and attempt faith healings. If you’re doing this for money and tell people to cast aside the medicine saving their lives in the name of faith, you’re some of the world’s worst scum.
On the flip side, if the audience is complicit in the performance, the belief is their own. They bought into the lie, and if they lose out on life as a result of the lie, does that make them just as culpable as the liar? My answer to that question would be “no,” as folks who visit entertainers seeking advice of a legal, monetary, or health concern are usually coming from a point of emotional desperation. They simply cannot think of any other options acceptable to their worldview. In those cases, the onus falls to the performer. Herb Dewey and Richard Osterlind, two very successful performers, advocate if someone is asked a question regarding any of the previously mentioned topics, the best suggestion is to say “My instincts tell me that’s a question best addressed by your doctor/lawyer/accountant.”
Suspension of belief is easy to achieve if one is a skilled performer. Manipulating that belief to a degree where people rely on you for advice in life is dangerous. The moment belief becomes subjective, and the believer’s mind is pushed to “Oh you just did a magic trick but the guy down the street does it for real?” That’s when a person needs an intervention.