Will you meet a tall, dark stranger?

This morning, I am on my way to Delphi, the centre of the world for the ancient Greeks. Sitting on a tripod and breathing hallucinogenic fumes, Pythia, the god Apollo’s priestess delivered her opaque prophecies to the kings of the ancient world. She was the Oracle of Delphi, the Greek’s most famous and feared window to the will of the gods.

In 560 B.C. Pythia told Croesus, King of Lydia: “If you cross the river, a great empire will fall”. He assumed the doomed empire would be the Persians’, and crossed the water. He lost, and it was his own empire fell.

One thousand five hundred years later in New York City, I visited a great number of the city’s fortune tellers also hoping for a glimpse of the future. Desperate and in the middle of a hopeless affair I was looking for reassurance that all would turn out well. For a tenner, each, I visited several until one delivered exactly the answer I was looking for.

There’s something irresistibly indulgent about visiting a fortune teller. You pay them and they talk about you. Given a little bit of guidance, they will even confirm what you want to hear and offer insight into an affair that is not going as planned. They will promise that Mr Right may or may not be just around the corner. For as long as you keep paying them, they will validate your choices on the spot without the hard work and drama of years in therapy.

72% of you do not think astrology is just superstition and 78% have read a book about your sun sign in love. Almost 90% of you will go searching for the sun signs of the man in your life, even though only 15% would alter your behaviour according to what you read in a horoscope. Bauer and Durant (1997)

”You have a need for people to admire and like you and enjoy their recognition when you achieve certain milestones in your life.”, “You’re a person who is prone to bouts of self-examination and have a tendency to be critical of yourself.” Does this sound like you? Then you fell for the Barnum effect named after P.T. Barnum who famously said: “There is a sucker born every minute”. This term refers to the belief that an overly broad personality description is meant just for us. Most fortune tellers use this effect with great success. Asking for specifics, such as your time and place of birth, they come up with a special description of you “based” on those details. With their credibility firmly established they proceed predict your future.

Single women and women that are going through a breakup or other relationship turmoil are the most vulnerable and also the most likely to visit a psychic. They go because they want to believe that there are greater forces in the universe than themselves and a psychic has the ability to know what the future holds for them. Yet, most of us would like to think that we control our own actions and make our own decisions in life. If a fortune teller can give us a glimpse of the future, then our future is pre-determined and there is no free will and we cannot control our destiny.

We humans have a great ability to find patterns in randomness and fortune telling relies heavily on this faulty premise, that reading meaning into random phenomena predicts destiny. Any prediction is presented as a vision of something that may or may not happen. Anyone can do that; From meeting a tall dark stranger to winning the lottery, all of this is possible, whether it will actually happen, remains uncertain.

Perhaps the Oracle of Delphi will shed some more light on my future when I visit today.

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