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Psychics Aren’t Psychic Anymore

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

June 30, 2009

During an investigation of a supposedly “haunted hotel” in Jackson, California, with a group of ghost hunters I made the mistake of referring to a psychic as a “psychic”.

“I’m not a psychic!” sniffed the woman. “I’m an intuitive!”

You might ask, “Aren’t psychics and intuitives the same thing?” or, “What is an intuitive?” This article considers the changing names and claims of psychics.

Once a psychic, not always a psychic.

No one calls themselves a seer anymore, this seems archaic, while sibyls, sages and soothsayers sound like historical or fictional characters. It would be ostentatious to call yourself an oracle, and the only prophets are the supposed spokesmen of God, the Modern or Living Prophets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Mind reader makes us think of a magician rather than a mystic, and mystic sounds, well, too ethereal and intangible. Rather than being “clear” as suggested by their etymology, clairvoyant, clairaudient, clairsentient, and clairalient are obscure. Fortune teller sounds like a con-artist at a carnival; a Madame Something-or-rather in a tent, wearing dangling earrings and a scarf wrapped around her head as she gazes into her crystal ball.

These labels are outdated, obscure, or they’ve undergone some degree of pejoration. This latter expression means that a word has become tainted by negative connotations. These factors can lead to eventual obsolescence. Think of words you don’t think of, such as the archaic augur and vaticinator that have suffered this linguistic fate. To survive, pejorating words need to be reclaimed, that is, seized by the referent community and infused with positive connotations, or they need to develop polysemy, i.e., new senses, like the Mormon Prophets, or Oracle Corporation.

What other words do we have left to refer to psychics? Palm readers read palms, reader is too vague, and mediums are specifically channelers. So, the only modern, superordinate and neutral term left is psychic...or is it?

In my estimation, we are witnessing psychic undergo pejoration right now, not only for the average speaker of English, but amongst the psychic community in general. Interestingly, psychic is becoming the dispreferred term of psychics, who now appear to prefer intuitive, sensitive or empathetic. Some new labels sound more self-help than psychic, such as life coaches or spiritual teachers, counselors, and advisors; or spiritual healers and therapists that make them seem like healthcare practitioners.

Of these new labels, intuitive is by far the favored term. This has been used for awhile, particularly as part of the phrase medical intuitive, those psychic practitioners who claim to diagnose and even cure illness. As suggested by the above exchange, and advertising such as the “Intuitive Readings” sign outside my local New Age store, intuitive is slowly supplanting psychic; at least within the community. As intuitive Laura Day1 says, “I’ve developed a career in practicing intuition (a word I prefer to psychic, the more popular but misleading esoteric expression.”

What is happening to psychic is a phenomenon called the “Euphemism Treadmill”, as identified by Steven Pinker2 (Cf. Gresham’s Law in Economics). Forget perpetual motion, this is a process of perpetual pejoration whereby a highly-charged word becomes so stigmatized that a euphemism is introduced to replace the contaminated label. However, the replacement word will eventually acquire the same dysphemistic connotations of the preceding term, and so on.

A good example of the Euphemism Treadmill is the lexicon of words used to refer to people with disabilities. Cripple was supplanted by handicapped, then special, and now challenged. The phrasal “people with disabilities” is also preferred over “disabled people”. Within this trend I’ve noticed that the substitution is invariably more vague than the preceding term, nevertheless it still becomes associated with the preceding term, and tainted by the subject matter.

Why does this happen? This ongoing pejoration of introduced terms probably occurs because the subject itself is stigmatized; in the above example, disability, and in this article, the concept of psychic abilities.

So, why is psychic stigmatized? Historically, witches, warlocks, wise women and other people with alleged psychic abilities were ostracized in the belief that they brought bad luck to their community. They were blamed for fire, draught, ruined crops and seemingly inexplicable deaths.

Today, for some speakers, the belief in psychic abilities lacks rationale and logic, and by extension, implies that someone who believes they have psychic abilities is considered irrational, illogical, and, well, a bit silly. Stereotypically, psychic abilities are perceived as hocus-pocus and mumbo-jumbo, and psychics themselves as a bit crazy or mad...

The pejoration of psychic may be due in part to the efforts of skepticism, and is likely most affected by the above social stereotypes. Language is loaded, and there are positive or negative connotations associated with any label; think about the stereotypes associated with attorney, nurse, and of course, psychic...

My linguistic prediction is that psychic is on its way out, at least, among the community of believers. Whether people beyond the community embrace this change and start using the alternatives is another matter entirely.

That which we call a psychic, by any other name would be psychic?

There is an observable shift in the meaning and usage of psychic, resulting in a growing in-group preference for intuitive. Furthermore, it appears there is a related shift in the actual claims of psychics (intuitives).

Our folkloric understanding of a “psychic” is a person who claims to have extrasensory perception (ESP). These are abilities beyond the normal range of senses. Modern psychics normalize this ESP as another kind of sense, a “sixth sense” or “second sight”.

Traditionally, psychics harnessed this apparent ability to “see” the past, present and future. Readings provided specific prophesies, like Mother Shipton’s visions of “carriages without horses”, steel ships and aircraft, and Nostradamus’ foretelling of three Anti-Christs. (These predictions are still anecdotal, or subjective interpretations of extant writings.) In contrast, today’s psychics and intuitives don’t provide specific predictions of births, deaths, impending misfortune and events. Psychic abilities, as they are perceived today, are described ambiguously as a sense, feeling, knowing, inkling or hunch. This is cognition perceived as coming from the heart or gut. Some appeal to the language of creativity, and see their talents as inspiration bestowed upon them by a muse. Some see their ability in terms of consciousness, as insight, awareness or precognition. They claim to receive messages via the senses, although these are only vague ‘clues’; letters, names, incongruent images, sounds and smells. However, these symbols are left up to the imagination of the subject to interpret...

Psychics once regarded their alleged ability as a natural born “gift”, a special faculty or power they perhaps inherited. In contrast, some modern psychics and intuitives claim that everyone is psychic, including you! To their way of thinking, psychic abilities are natural and normal, and an inherent capacity. By this theory, we don’t all access this “forgotten sense”, sometimes our abilities go unrecognized, untapped and undeveloped. These dormant skills must be nurtured and trained; perhaps through a psychic’s workshops or courses.

These cryptic concepts pose problems for testing these phenomena. Abstract descriptions make it harder to define psychic abilities, and therefore harder to disprove, but no more plausible. In an attempt to lend credibility to the claims, psychic abilities are often framed in the theories and language of the social sciences. They are spoken of in terms of universality and innateness, and explained in conventional terminology, such as “intuition” and “perception”. This is much like the borrowing of energy and quantum into other areas of pseudoscience.

Client concerns have changed too, and psychic abilities have adapted to suit these needs. Modern psychics offer general advice about relationships, and most popularly, career and finances. Like reports of UFO sightings where the machines mimic available technology, supposed psychic abilities and readings reflect contemporary beliefs and address the human condition.

In the end, seer, psychic or sensitive, to the skeptic it’s always cold reading of some kind...

Notes

  1. Day, L. 1997. Practical Intuition. New York: Broadway Books.
  2. Pinker, S. 2002. The Blank Slate. New York: Viking.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.