Since the beginning of time, there have been legends and stories told about magical things having to do with life and what is to come in the future. These stories and premonitions have evolved very much over the years, causing fear in some and creating comfort in others. But is any of it real? Ron Riggio, PhD and author of the latest Leader Interpersonal and Influence Skills: The Soft Skills of Leadership (Leadership: Research and Practice) takes this topic head on to discuss what he believes psychic abilities really are. We interview him and discuss his article posted on Psychology Today about Who Has Psychic Powers?
What is your background in psychology and how did you come about researching this topic, specifically? What inspired you to write about psychic abilities?
I have a Ph.D. In Social/Personality Psychology. Social Psychology deals with biases in social perception, and much of the belief in psychic abilities is caused by these biases. For example, the confirmation bias whereby we remember and give credence to instances where we seem to have a psychic ability (e.g., having a premonition about an event and it happens) and forget or discount instances where there was no evidence of psychic ability (e.g., all the times we have a premonition and it doesn’t happen). Part of my interest is being a scientist — scientists search for empirical evidence — data — that supports the existence of phenomena, and there simply is no verifiable evidence of any psychic abilities, despite an enormous amount of research on the topic.
Your current stance on the subject seems to be that you don’t believe in psychic ability, because of the lack of support that science has for it. Was there ever a time when you did believe in psychic abilities? If so, did you have any scientific theories about it then?
I think I always wanted to believe that there were some “untapped senses.” For example, in regard to mental telepathy (which is communicating mentally to someone over a distance). The scientist in me said, “Maybe the brain is something like a radio and can emit waves that can be picked up by another brain?” So, I remember going to see a talk by Parapsychologist Charles Tart (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Tart) while I was in graduate school. He presented research purporting to show evidence of psychic abilities, but I was not impressed with his findings, and his method and results have been subsequently criticized as flawed.
You say some people are simply better at reading others, with the senses all humans already carry. Do you believe that the “psychics” all over the world possess these strong reading skills, or do you believe it’s all just a facade for the world?
You are talking about “cold reading” — being able to pick up on subtle nonverbal cues that give away a person’s emotions, feelings, or attitudes, and then using those to make “educated guesses” about a person’s state (e.g., the cold reader inferring that the subject is sad because of a death in the family, for example, which can then be used to say that the psychic is communicating with the dead person). Many of the “psychics” who are on stage know exactly what they are doing. They practice it, and those who are skeptics — James Randi, Penn and Teller — can show exactly how it is done. Some of these “psychics” may simply be fooling themselves into believing they have some supernatural power, when it is really just ability to read others’ body language.
What do you think, specifically, about those who say they can “communicate with the dead”? How do you think they get their information, when they’re basically just “reading” as well (from body language, mannerisms, etc.)?
I think I answered this above (not having read the questions ahead…). Not only are these psychics good at reading nonverbal cues but they possess some forms of social intelligence — knowing a lot about patterns of human behavior, and they use this information to make educated guesses.
Would it be beneficial for people to work on skilling themselves in being better connected with their existing senses as well? How could someone go about learning more about how to do this?
Yes. Absolutely. People can learn to develop their skills in reading others’ nonverbal behavior, and they can learn to better communicate themselves, both nonverbally and verbally. The net result of working to develop these skills is that these people become better communicators, it improves their interpersonal relationships, and, it can increase the perception that the individual is “charismatic.” I wrote about our research in this area (I.e., improving nonverbal communication skills) in my book, The Charisma Quotient, years ago. And, I’ve written about improving nonverbal skills in scientific articles/chapters, and in my blog:
Where could our readers find more information about you, and your studies?
I put several blog posts above. I also published a recent book on The Soft Skills of Leaders — that talks about research that shows that leaders who have effective communication skills are better.
Whether you decide to believe in psychic abilities or not, it’s inevitable to see that there are some out there who use these methods to “read” people. That being said, science only goes so far, and is always being proven and disproven throughout the decades. So what are your thoughts? Are psychics really psychic? Can premonitions be an actual thing? Ultimately, it’s up to you.