There have been many attempts to discredit or "explain away" divination and the use of Tarot cards. In the literature, non-paranormal or sceptic beliefs around Tarot cards and Tarot reading mostly involve the Barnum effect or cold reading.
This blog is not about "exposing" Tarot readings as fraudulent and Tarot readers as fakes. It takes a sceptic stance toward divination, but does not dismiss it as an attempt to deceive a client.
The Barnum effect, also known as the Forer effect, was identified in the 1940s when a psychologist, Bertram R Forer, gave his students a personality test to complete. He asked them to rate the results of the test, indicating how poorly or how well the resulting description fit them. On a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent), the average score was 4.26. Only afterward did Forer reveal that all the students had received exactly the same personality description. Forer had assembled a vague, generic description by borrowing from horoscopes.
The Forer or Barnum effect demonstrates that people can take vague, general statements and apply them to their unique circumstances. The effect is also known as the Barnum effect after an American entertainer who used it in his shows. This phenomenon is widely believed to explain the perceived accuracy of horoscopes and some personality tests.*
Closely related to the Barnum effect is a cognitive bias known as subjective validation. Subjective validation happens when someone believes in a statement, such as a personality description based on a horoscope, because they have a personal stake in the validity of the statement. Someone who believes strongly in the accuracy of astrology might focus on what is correct and disregard any inaccurate information simply because he or she wants to believe.
Cold reading is used to explain how a Tarot reader can accurately describe so much about the querent and the client's life, without recourse to psychic or supernatural help. Cold reading is the ability to infer information from subtle clues in a person's appearance, tone of voice and body language. Cold reading also involves querying the client ("fishing for information") to use later in the reading, when the client has likely forgotten that the information had already been volunteered.
A good 'cold reader' will be familiar with statistics and demographic information that can lead to educated guesses about the client. If the client is a woman in her forties, for example, statistics on marriage and divorce may make it likely that she has been divorced at least once. Vague statements on failed relationships and marriage may lead to more clues to the client's life. If a 'cold reader' knows the most common causes of death in the area, a guess that someone close to the client had died in such a way may make a fraud seem genuinely psychic.
When the Barnum effect and cold reading are mentioned in relation to Tarot cards, the assumption is usually that a reader uses these phenomena to fraudulently claim psychic abilities. Many sceptics assume that a Tarot reading is "nothing more than" cold reading—sharp observation skills and a good memory—and the application of the Barnum effect. At the same time, the client is assumed to be gullible and prone to self-delusion.
This blog is not about "exposing" Tarot readers as fraudulent or deriding their clients. My use of the cards for creative thinking does not rely on divination, but neither do I believe that all Tarot readings are fraudulent, or that, even if a reading can be "explained," it does not have enormous potential for healing. I also contend that cold reading is a technique routinely applied—consciously or unconsciously—by therapists and counsellors in a variety of settings, with no intent to claim supernatural powers. An empathetic and observant Tarot reader might be good at cold reading and a querent eager to accept the information given, but this does not mean that these factors can explain away the "magic" that does happen during a skilful reading.
Divination, creative problem solving, and critical reflection are different ways to approach a problem, all with their advantages and drawbacks. The techniques described in this blog do not involve divination for two reasons: I am not convinced that divination "works," and there are already excellent books and blogs that focus on using the cards for divination.
* The original study is described in Forer, B.R. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Vol. 44. pp. 118-123.