Divination Practices: An Empirical Psychological Investigation

Charles Mason Olbert, Fordham University


Although divination—the attempt to gain insight into human life (and particularly the future) through the interpretation of unorthodox practices (e.g., magic, occult ritual) or sources of evidence—is a nearly universal phenomenon of human culture, little psychological research has been undertaken to describe or understand the practice as it actually occurs in human life. Historically, most psychological research pertaining to divination has occurred in the context of magical thinking (belief in unorthodox causality, which researchers typically associate with psychopathology) and literature on parapsychology (the attempt to demonstrate the existence of non-standard causes or psi phenomena). Some contemporary research has suggested, however, that magical thinking is a normative cognitive phenomenon that characteristically extends into adulthood. Moreover, interdisciplinary literature (e.g., within the disciplines of anthropology and sociology) attests to a range of positive meanings and functions of divination practices. The present study used phenomenological and ethnographic methods to describe and understand the practice of Tarot card divination as it actually occurs in daily life. Ten in-depth interviews were conducted with Tarot readers and querents, and the researcher engaged in participant observation fieldwork in the Brooklyn occult community. Data were analyzed using the descriptive phenomenological method. Findings revealed that the experience of Tarot reading and the experience of having a Tarot reading reflected two perspectives on an intersubjective, dyadic event; the structures of these experiences shared a temporal structure, the constituents of which bear strong analogy to the aims and structural features of psychotherapy. Readers brought their full personhood and core values to their practice and typically engaged in the practice with the aim of helping and healing others, and the practice of Tarot reading involved complex cognition in the act of interpreting Tarot cards. Querents typically sought validation, insight, and playful experiences, and brought a wide range of concerns that they sought to address through reading Tarot. Tarot divination constitutively involves a progression from indeterminacy to greater determinacy, an encounter and dialogue between reader and querent, and the expression and negotiation of agendas in mutual intersubjective encounter. The findings of this study support viewing Tarot as a nuanced cultural practice involving playful creativity, nuanced cognition, healing aims (and associated risks of harm), and spiritual expression and exploration.

Subject Area

Psychology|Clinical psychology

Recommended Citation

Olbert, Charles Mason, "Divination Practices: An Empirical Psychological Investigation" (2018). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10838562.