Monday, 6 October 2008

Sensing exploitation

I'm the first to admit that there are things out there I don't understand. In fact, I don't really understand how traffic lights work. So for all I know, there could be psychics out there who are the real deal. But I have a strong suspicion that most mediums who ply their trade for money, like those on Sensing Murder, are not.

Psychics are criticised for many reasons. They rip people off, selling a service they can't possibly be delivering. They take advantage of the bereaved, cynically offering them false comfort when they're vulnerable. I'm not sure how I feel about this. If dubious news from the afterlife makes people cope better with loss, maybe it's not so bad.

The thing I really don't like about mediums is that this largely female 'work'force makes a mockery of one of the great things about being raised female: being attuned to other people's feelings. As lots of feminists have argued, women are (or historically have been) trained from birth to be able to read and respond to people's emotions. There's really nothing mystical about it - it's emotional labour, and, like cleaning the bathroom, someone has to do it.

Of course, not all women are good at emotional labour, and some men are great - but by and large, our culture expects that the realm of feelings will be dominated by women, whereas men will be strong and silent and never cry. And like any other form, emotional labour can be exploited. Traditionally, women have been responsible for diffusing arguments, probing the thoughts and feelings of uncommunicative teenagers, consoling distraught friends or putting on a smile to make everyone feel comfortable.

But as I see it, psychics turn the ability to read people's feelings - usually negative feelings, of grief or loneliness or anxiety - into something exploitative. They work out what it is you most want to hear and sell it to you. They remind me of an HR woman I made a complaint to about workplace bullying. She smiled so kindly as she belittled each of my concerns that it wasn't until some time afterwards that I realised I'd been completely shafted. Another example: remember a Weightwatchers ad with the theme, 'This is a song for the lonely'? It featured a bunch of middle-aged women dancing about together and rejuvenating their self esteem through weight loss. It was clearly targeted to middle aged divorced women, playing on their feelings of aloneness and unhappiness with themselves. The ability to use insights into people's emotions skilfully can be an incredible tool of manipulation, which (at least some) psychics use for naked commercial gain. (Being able to identify people's emotional vulnerabilities can also, I think, equip some people to be formidable bullies. Perhaps this is why, instead of resorting to physical harassment like boys, girls will often tear down the confidence of their schoolmates in non-physical ways.)

My psychic powers are pretty weak, but I sense that as long as there's a buck to be made by turning emotions into commodities to be exploited, the future for psychics is pretty bright.


Lucy said...

Psychics are one of the worst kinds of fraud, because, as you point out, they take a very normal human skill - reading others' emotions through body language and voice cues - and fine-tune it into a tool to defraud people. I don't think giving people fake messages "from the beyond" helps them; I think, in a lot of cases, it can prolong the grieving process, especially in the case of shows like "Sensing Murder" when they're bringing back up very painful memories and either cold-reading or making crap up. And that's not to get started on the psychics who claim to tell the future and "know" what people should do.

Furthermore, psychics encourage people to accept at face value a whole lot of different types of woo and pseudoscience, like homeopathy or exorcism. People *die* because they take fuzzy belief over actual reality, and other people make money out of their suffering. It's just not acceptable.

stephen said...

Aren't the women's magazines the biggest peddlers of crap and donors of credibility here?

Along with their mission of making their audience feel insecure, fat and inferior, they seem to be aiming for making them stupid as well.

I dunno, but it seems as though women are form the majority of the victims as well as the perpetrators of psychic fraud.

Lucy said...

@stephen: that, too. Pretty much every women's magazine has two or three pages of "psychic" readings. And it's lined up there with the otherwise not unhelpful columns on topics like budgeting and pet care, as if a self-proclaimed psychic is as expert as a vet or an accountant.

Anna said...

A good point, Stephen. I can see why women are more often psychics, but I've not idea why we're also more likely to be clients of psychics. Theories, anyone?

Hugh said...

I can see why women are more often psychics, but I've not idea why we're also more likely to be clients of psychics. Theories, anyone?

Because too often explanations of why psychic powers aren't real our couched in terms that devalue empathy as a whole?

Anna said...

I think you may be on to something there, Hugh. Your comment reminds me of when I went to see Richard Dawkins speak a few years ago. He told the story of when his six year old son was very ill with measles (I think) and they thought he might die. Dawkins said there was no point reassuring the boy by talking about heaven or anything like that, so he just sat by the child's bedside and explained to him how an aggressive virus programmed by evolution to replicate was attacking his randomly chosen body. Comforting. The science may have been right on the money, but it was the most socially unskilled thing I'd ever heard of. In comparison to that, you can see why psychic explanations would be appealing.

Hugh said...

I was wondering if somebody was going to make the comparison between psychics and organised religion, Anna, but I didn't quite expect it to come that way.

I wouldn't be too dismissive of what Dawkins did. Presumably it worked for his kid, and knowing exactly what is happening to you is pretty empowering. I think my own six-year old self would have found it pretty comforting.

I was more thinking of people who, in their zeal to criticise psychics, claim that the need is as imaginary as the method used to address it. Usually they're advocates of the 'toughen up' school.

Anonymous said...

I don't about Dawkins case (with a child near-death) but yestrday I found myself taking the scientific approach with my 5-year-old and a severe tummy bug. She wanted to know when she would get better (and stop throwing up) and we sat in bed talking of viruses and bacteria and white cells and why resting was good etc.

All children are different but she seems to be a realists and wants to know 'the facts' and got very upset at school when they suggested fairies might be real (NO - they are just imagination!)

Maybe I am bringing her up wrong

Anna said...

I guess you had to be there for the Richard Dawkins thing. In the context of what he was speaking about (he'd been taken the piss out of people with religious views at some length, in what I felt was a nasty way), and what he was implying was that people who take comfort from non-scientific things are stupid. There was no hint that he was responding to his child's emotional needs - he seemed to be trying to show what a scientific hard man he is.

I think it's fine, and indeed good, to tell your kids about science - I encourage my daughter's reading in this area. However, I don't tell her she's a retard for believing in Santa. I think the enjoyment she gets from it is more important that the truth of the matter.

Anna said...

PS My daughter also gets annoyed when people pretend that fairies are real. She grimaces and says, 'That's FICTION, mum'.

She recently said to me, 'Elves aren't real, are they?'. I said, 'No, love, they're not'. She responded, 'Who helps Santa make his presents, then?'

Hugh said...

Well, what Dawkins actually did and the way he presented it in a speech are very different things. It's possible that his son did benefit from being told how viruses work, but that Dawkins in recounting the story presented it in an overly aggressive and 'I-know-best' way. That doesn't mean what he did was wrong.

When I was five or six I told my father that I believed in Jesus. (I'd been listening in on some religious studies classes at school). He calmly explained to me that it was all bollocks. Was he wrong to do so? From my current perspective, I don't think so.

barvasfiend said...

"Another example: remember a Weightwatchers ad with the theme, 'This is a song for the lonely'? It featured a bunch of middle-aged women dancing about together and rejuvenating their self esteem through weight loss."

They really did this??!! I am actually really shocked any company would be stupid enough to be so insulting!

Anna said...

My daughter is quite interested in things religious, and when she asks me, I try to explain the different kinds of beliefs people have, including aetheism. I like to give her the options so she can go off and think critically about it. If and when she decides religion is crap, I hope she'll have thought about it enough so she can understand why religious belief is appealing to some people - that way, I hope she can be respectful of people's different views, even when she thinks they're crap!

Anonymous said...

My daughter is also curious about religion and I have taken the same approach Anna. However we have a divergence of views within the family so the Christian aspects are being laid on fairly thickly. I have actually said "You know how some people believe in fairies and some people don't..."