Common methods used of fortune telling include astromancy, cartomancy (fortune telling with cards), tarot card reading, crystallomancy (reading of a crystal sphere), and cheiromancy (palmistry, reading of the palms). The latter three have traditional associations in the popular mind with the Roma and Sinti people (often called “gypsies”). Various forms of fortune-telling appear throughout the world. Typical topics that fortune-tellers make predictions on include future romantic, financial, and childbearing prospects.
In contemporary Western culture, it appears that women consult fortune-tellers more than men: some indication of this comes from the profusion of advertisements for commercial fortune-telling services in magazines aimed at women, while such advertisements appear virtually unknown in magazines aimed specifically at men. Telephone consultations with psychics (charged to the caller’s telephone account at very high rates) grew in popularity through the 1990s.
Virtually all scientists regard fortune-telling as pseudoscience. They believe that several factors explain its popularity and anecdotal accuracy:
- Predictions almost always use vague terms and do not lend themselves to falsification. Therefore, the prediction is never wrong, but a person’s interpretation of it can always be wrong.
- Confirmation bias predisposes people to look for cases where predictions can be interpreted as accurate more than they look to find inaccurate ones.
- Consumers of fortune-telling services may also fail to realise that statements made about them might reflect reality, but would equally apply to most other people (for instance, the statement “you fought with your parents sometimes as a teenager” applies to a large majority of people). This is the Forer effect.
- Fortune-tellers usually exhibit skills at reading people and telling them what they wish to hear (the technique of “cold reading”).
- A person who performs a divination for himself or herself may be using his or her reactions to the arbitrary stimuli (such as tarot cards) as a way of mentally organizing his or her own thoughts.
- Predictions can be a source of amusement and diversion.
- Predictions can reduce anxiety about the uncertain future.
- When making a decision based on incomplete information, the fortune teller or oracle can reduce the anxiety associated with guessing.
- It can be an external source of authority to invoke in support of a decision to be made, or in defense of a decision that was made.
- The predictions themselves can cause the subject to alter his or her behaviour in a way that makes the predictions become true, see self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Fortune-telling in the context of an individual’s belief system has a good chance of being believed.