The Real Truth about Tarot
Ready for a big tarot truth bomb? Tarot is not supernatural.
Did I pop a bubble? I am sorry, I had to though. This post comes as a response to Aeon’s “ The Truth About Tarot: Whether divining ancient wisdoms or elevating the art of cold reading, tarot is a form of therapy, much like psychoanalysis” by James McConnachie.
It is important to take an outsider’s evaluation of tarot with a grain (or pound) of salt. McConnachie had a tarot reading and is now explaining to people how it works. You know, like when you go to the doctor you then become qualified to explain how doctors operate! Pass the salt….
Towards the middle/end of the post McConnachie divides tarot readers into two “schools”, “soft” and “hard.” I am sure he would put me into the “soft” school.
Those who think that the cards help them access unconscious wisdom (the ‘soft’ version), and those who believe that the deck channels the supernatural or even incorporates its own spiritual power (the ‘hard’ school).
McConnachie’s explanation for how tarot works is part cold reading technique and the client’s own confirmation bias.
The true power of tarot reading, however, is not based on simple or cynical guesswork. The querent is complicit in the process…..We prefer to have our existing beliefs confirmed, and selectively pay attention to statements that perform this happy function for us. So when a tarot reading is momentarily inaccurate, we ignore or forget it. When it hits the mark, we are struck by its success.
Tarot reading works, ultimately, because we make ourselves the willing victims of our cognitive biases. Under the influence of false-pattern detection, or apophenia, we turn the string of necessarily disconnected statements made by a medium or tarot reader into a coherent narrative in which we are the hero. (And plain old flattery amplifies the effect.
Confirmation bias is a common critique of tarot readings, and I understand the argument. You reject/accept what fits or does not fits. But confirmation bias is presented here in the example of personality tests with “two-headed statements that describe the human condition” such as “[a]t times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved” that are meant to debunk astrology.
That is not what tarot is, a tarot reading is not about finding out what your personality is. Did this guy go to a reader and ask her “tell me about me?” that is what it sounds like from his article, it seems he asked for a “general reading” well if you ask for a general reading, be prepared for general answers. It seems he did not ask his reader a hard question that were important to him.
While thoughts and feelings are included in readings, as a means for the querent to evaluate themselves in a situation. Outside of that, in most of the readings I do for others, the reading is often about seeking answers to something often outside the client’s internal life. Questions such as “which graduate program is best for me, X program or Y program” cannot be explained by confirmation bias or cold reading.
But let’s humor the confirmation bias thing a bit. Again McConnachie writes,
We prefer to have our existing beliefs confirmed, and selectively pay attention to statements that perform this happy function for us. So when a tarot reading is momentarily inaccurate, we ignore or forget it. When it hits the mark, we are struck by its success…Tarot reading works, ultimately, because we make ourselves the willing victims of our cognitive biases. Under the influence of false-pattern detection, or apophenia, we turn the string of necessarily disconnected statements made by a medium or tarot reader into a coherent narrative in which we are the hero.
First off, tarot readers are not magical beings that can see into your soul and reveal untold truths that will blow your mind. Tarot reading is a craft, a skill which is learned and improved. What sort of craft you may ask? The craft of interpretation.We look at cards and decode them, apply their meanings to create an answer to the question. This process of interpretation is based on what we *think* the cards are saying based on experience and the subtleties of card interactions (how different cards alter meanings in combination). Can we be wrong, yes of course. But so can other professionals yet we don’t devalue their profession as bunk, so why tarot? Because, the common assumption is tarot is supernatural. But like I said, I do not think it is supernatural.
When you visit the doctor, the doctor will ask questions to get the root of a symptom. They are looking for the cause to the effect. Do you punish the doctor for not knowing right off the bat what is wrong with you? Like the doctor, a good reader is looking for causes to the effect. When a querent asks “why is my relationship not working” they are looking for the cause to a symptom. Tarot readers investigate, working together with the querent to figure it out. This is not mystical and ethereal stuff , it is practical. A doctor can give a poor diagnosis because the doctor’s conclusions were wrong. A tarot reading can fail through bad conclusions.
That is why if a reader says something “off” they ask for clarification, they are looking for the proper context of the card. Each card has many meanings, figuring out how the card is being expressed is a skill. Experienced readers make it look like magic when they say things that are accurate. It is not magic, it is experience that when ABC cards come up together, they will more likely mean XYZ.
The problem I think is that we are using cards to figure out the cause instead of science. That is where the supernatural stuff is inserted to explain how tarot cards could possibly answer questions. I do think that there is something special in the way cards fall in a reading, but not the interpretive process itself. “Spiritually” speaking, the cards fall the way they are meant to, for me, it is by the Gods. But I still have the hard work of figuring out what the heck the Gods are telling us with the cards.
The issue with skeptics and debunkers is that they come to the subject with assumptions, and when we do not live up to those assumptions, they cry confirmation bias or cold reading. They don’t really know how tarot works.
Last words: Don’t go to a reader expecting to be a passive observer. Do not expect magic. Go into a reading expecting to be engaged and ready for dialogue. It takes two to tarot.