Why do we believe people can predict the future? Usually because we remember the hits and forget the misses. Or in some cases, the misses are hidden from us. Like in my favorite "psychic" scam ever, which also happens to be the plot of a classic 1957 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Mail Order Prophet."
Esther Inglis-Arkell at io9 has a great post today explaining one of the reasons that we believe humans can possess some kind of supernatural psychic ability. It's called survivorship bias, and a version of the concept was brilliantly immortalized by Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the show's third season. A man makes a lot of money with the help of a mysterious psychic but, of course, not everything is precisely as it seems.
The episode is embedded below from YouTube if you'd prefer no spoilers. It's also on Netflix streaming, if that's more your speed.
We open in a 1950s office with a serious looking man—a frustrated cog in the company machinery who can't seem to get ahead financially. This man, Ronald Grimes, receives an unsolicited letter in the mail at work. The writer of the letter calls himself Mr. Christiani and explains that he has supernatural psychic abilities, but can't use them for his own enrichment. So, the psychic has decided that he would help Mr. Grimes—and Mr. Grimes alone—by sharing his amazing talents.
After a few letters in which Christiani proves his ability by accurately predicting the outcome of a mayoral election and a boxing match (both of which were upsets) Grimes is convinced that this Mr. Christiani is the real deal. How could he be right so consistently without being a true psychic? There's no other explanation!
"After all, he's been right six times," Grimes tells his skeptical friend. "Now you can't put that away as luck! I know something about the law of averages too!"
Mr. Christiani finally sends a letter asking that Grimes share a bit of the wealth, a move that Grimes' friend warns is probably yet another element to a complex scam. Out of guilt (he'd won nearly $1,000 making bets so far, and spent all but $200) Grimes decides he'll send Christiani the $200. The only problem is that if he does, Grimes won't have any money to invest in the psychic's latest stock tip. He'll have to resort to a bit of theft. Which he does.
Grimes turns to the business he works for, stealing $15,000 in bonds as collateral for a huge gamble on some mining stock. The distraught Grimes even writes a suicide note and plans to poison himself should the investment go south.
Just 10 minutes before the stock market closes that day, Grimes calls to see how his high-risk gamble has gone. Unbelievably, Grimes has made $140,000 in the deal—over $1.1 million if you adjust for inflation from when the episode first aired.
"You tell 'em tomorrow to get a new cog for the machine," Grimes tells his friend and coworker. "I'm not coming back."
That skeptical friend who can't seem to figure out what happened is determined to find this Mr. Christiani. After talking to a postal investigator, he learns that the "psychic" Christiani is in jail for mail fraud. As it turns out, Grimes wasn't the only person getting letters from this psychic.
"He sent out thousands of letters to people offering to make them rich," the postal investigator explains. "Half of them he advised to bet on Mayor Twist to be re-elected. The other half were told that Hanton would be the winner."
"Now, suppose we started with 4,000 people, he couldn't fail to have 2,000 winners! His second letter predicted the outcome of the championship fight. Using the same system, he now has 1,000 people who begin to believe in his power. After another four letters, he's reduced the number to 125 customers who are absolutely convinced he's an authentic prophet."
"And then he asked for the contribution," Grimes' friend says.
"Right. He offers to give them a tip in the stock market that will make them rich. How many people would be able to resist? None, of course. Christiani has already demonstrated that he's infallible. So, he gets his donations. Ranging from $200 to $500 a piece. A total of over $30,000."
"But the stock did go up!" the friend insists.
"Well, it's quite possible. He gave all 125 persons a different tip. If even one of them turned out, he could make one final appeal for another donation. After that he leaves town and starts up somewhere else. It was really quite an ingenious scheme."
Grimes was able to believe because he never saw the misses. When you witness correct predictions for the future "first-hand" as it were, it's hard to remain skeptical.
Now, I don't suggest trying out this scam for yourself. Not only because you could go to prison, but it's not very nice. I do, however, recommend watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Your mother lied to you—TV can sometimes be quite an education.
Image: Screenshot from the 3rd season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents