Home > Uncategorized > What do you really see from Tarot — the Fast and Slow Processes of Your Mind Explains

What do you really see from Tarot — the Fast and Slow Processes of Your Mind Explains

Let’s picture a tarot scenario: you drop by a covert room to find someone who can read tarot cards. The person wearing a dark veil asks you to keep a question in your mind. Then, you are asked to pull three cards from the card deck after shuffling and the card reader will show you the spread (the card formation). The next step is to stay calm and wait for the tarot reader to tell you the tarot’s divine messages. Assuming the three cards are The Tower (Arcanum XVI), The Star (Arcanum XVII), and The Lovers (Arcanum VI). The tarot reader might check the reference book and translate the tarot result into the understandable language to address your concern. For example, the Lover indicates that you are uncertain about making an important decision; the Star represents your willingness to change; the Tower is a sign of an ambiguous state you are currently in. You might find these card readings are strikingly accurate but you cannot tell any scientific support for the phenomenon. The tarot scene you just imagined is one type of superstitious behavior prevalent today. Superstition penetrates your daily life in various forms that you may or may not even realize. Wearing lucky socks endows people with good charm in games or exams. For some people, the black cat is reckoned to bring bad luck as people encounter it. Superstition is not the byproduct of illiteracy or feudalism. The trick is that rational beings choose to believe in the improbable. What drives an educated person with a stable emotional state to superstitious practice is an intriguing topic to explore.


Before we dive into the discussion of why people pursue superstitious thinking, let me introduce the underlying cognitive mechanism of tarot. Firstly, I want to emphasize the role of tarot readers—the confident soothsayer—who are always at the helm of your divination journey. People feel good when they receive positive indications about their future or inquiries and feel bad when they find negative or unfortunate information. The tarot scene you just imagined is a superstitious land of superstition. They give intuitive narrations that translate the esoteric tarot language into verbal information. Are tarot readers more spiritual and mysterious than most common people? The answer is obviously no. Tarot readers are fallible humans who would be possibly hampered by their past experience and knowledge base. As far as I gleaned from tarot forum websites or social media, card readers themselves shared the concern of not being able to be detached from personal prejudices in the ‘reading’ process. One post on a tarot forum complained about the conundrum he confronted. The card reader was worried about implicating personal prejudices in reading tarots for people asking about marital infidelity or intermarriage moral concerns (Tarot Forum, 2022). This example shows that tarot readers can be vulnerable to personal prejudice and inherently rooted biases. Tarot readers are consciously aware that they are not the spokesman for the absolute power of divination. Past experience and prior knowledge help tarot readers retrieve related pieces of information from long-term memory accounts and gear up for producing meaningful interpretations. Therefore, it is rather difficult to stay unbiased in reading tarots.

Both tarot readers and customers fall prey to the confirmation bias in tarot reading. People experience confirmation bias (see more discussions about confirmation bias in the post) as they hear/see anything from tarot readers or cards. When considering how to respond to customers’ questions according to the tarot card spread, tarot readers are prone to retrieve memory information that is consistent with the intuitive interpretation and omit what goes contradicts (i.e., evidence that tarot has zero predictive power). The cumulative confirmatory intuition blinds tarot readers to the extent that some of them might truly believe that they are extraordinary ones in the world because they can tell prophecy of the supernatural power of tarot. On the customer’s side, the intuitive confirmation hinders people from taking a skeptical view to falsify the superstitious nonsense. Under confirmation bias, customers actively connect their past experience to the tarot reading to rationalize their belief in superstition.

Now you can see there is no actual difference between you and professional tarot readers in the lens of human nature. We all live under the same rule of human cognition. People are pleased to make sense of everything we perceive in the environment to better understand where we are and who we are. Although the elevated topic of self-meaning inquiry may prompt philosophical discussions, we want to zoom in on the cognitive basis to explain the rationale of superstitious thinking.

The cognitive process of meaning assignment is called pattern recognition. We master the art of pattern recognition since it occurs insofar as we perceive the world. As Dr. Doolittle suggested, humans are meaning-making machines that actively seek meanings and make meaningful connections between new information and prior knowledge(see Dr. Doolittle’s speech). You may have experiences with seeing some extraordinary or paranormal patterns that you never expect. When you see the floating human face contour in the clouds, that’s pareidolia. Pareidolia occurs when people seek familiar patterns in objects or places where there is nothing(post about pareidolia). Looking into the intrinsically meaningless pareidolia to interpret random meaning is the same as a novelty trying to understand tarots. 

Pareidolia in cloud

One central issue with tarot is that we are always over-interpreting by imposing meaning through pattern recognition. People tend to build fancy narratives around tarots even if they have zero professional knowledge about tarot symbolism. So, what bolsters people’s confidence in reading something they don’t understand at all? Torres and colleagues (2020) have found that the tendency to find causality is a critical building block of superstitious thinking. People actively associate information from their memory or prior knowledge with whatever coincident in real life because assigning meanings is better than bearing uncertainty. One empirical study examined the illusory pattern perception as the cognitive basis for supernatural belief (van Prooijen et al., 2018). In the coin toss experiment, many participants tended to see the meaningful pattern of coins that were actually randomly shuffled. In a similar vein, people try to make sense of the random tarot pattern. Being the meaning-making machine is the ONSET of believing the unbelievable, and no one can detach themselves from overthinking.

So far, we have talked about the cognitive essence of tarot reading. We want to investigate the question of why educated people choose not to take a skeptical view of superstitious behaviors like tarot reading? According to Risen’s findings on the dual processes model of superstitious thinking, the birth of superstitious belief can be illustrated by the interaction of the automatic and controlled processes. Automatic processing is responsible for producing quick intuition. The magical intuition gets activated when people confront a situation where only limited information exists and they have to deal with it. As people see tarot cards in front of them, reading the tarot pattern is like playing hard mode wordle without any hint. One empirical study has found that the motivation to manage uncertainty is critical in encouraging one’s magical thinking (Whitson, J. A., & Galinsky, A. D., 2008). Uncertainty can occur in any aspect of your life. Superstition works as the panacea to fill the void of unknown despite what information you have. One might not choose to ask tarots about dishes on the next dinner menu because such an issue is too trivial to cause a stressful feeling. On the other hand, people are more likely to ask tarot readers about something they don’t have control over, such as fate, career, and future obstacles in general.

One reason that the automatic pathway prompts quick and intuitive thoughts is to resolve uncertainty. People are happy with knowing and influencing unpredictable things because the sense of control grants people a sense of ease in navigating themselves in the world. Believing superstition offers people the cognitive shortcut to assume that everything is going well despite the actual situation. The motivation to minimize uncertainty in life is also associated with the pressure that people perceive from the external environment. If you are exposed to conditions with high stress, you are more likely to be more vulnerable to magical thinking than in usual conditions (Risen, J. L., 2016). The understanding of the need for control sheds light on what people want to gain from tarot. Sometimes people simply need an incentive to act upon or a reason to shun the decision-making.

Once the quick intuition gives birth to superstitious thoughts, the controlled process intervenes to examine whether the immediate thought is rational. This error-detection process is responsible for guiding people to regain sanity in the waves of wackiness. However, how do we explain that mentally stable people with educational backgrounds still embrace irrational superstition? In the refined dual-process model, Risen proposed that people experience acquiescence when they know something is wrong, whereas they choose to live with it. This process can be described as the malfunction of the controlled process to identify and correct superstitious thinking. Acquiesce soothes your mind by numbing critical thinking, specifically the error correction in the dual-process model.

From the cognitive perspective, it is not difficult to understand why people believe in superstition despite their educational background or inherent characteristics. Believing something unbelievable involves multiple cognitive processes that work coherently. Next time when people ardently tumble to tarots and say they wanna give it a shot, you know that they are either being influenced by confirmation bias or struggling in a stressful environment. On the bright side, you have a glimpse at the essence of superstitious belief — sometimes, people have to seek mental security from something superstitious to get through tough moments in their life.


Risen, J. L. (2016). Believing what we do not believe: Acquiescence to superstitious beliefs and other powerful intuitions. Psychological Review, 123(2), 182–207. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000017

Semetsky, I. (2010). Interpreting the signs of the times: Beyond Jung. Social Semiotics, 20(2), 103–120. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330903565600

Torres, M. N., Barberia, I., & Rodríguez‐Ferreiro, J. (2020). Causal illusion as a cognitive basis of pseudoscientific beliefs. British Journal of Psychology, 111(4), 840–852. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12441

van Prooijen, J.-W., Douglas, K. M., & De Inocencio, C. (2018). Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural: Illusory pattern perception. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48(3), 320–335. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2331

Whitson, J. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception. Science, 322(5898), 115–117. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1159845

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,
  1. No comments yet.
You must be logged in to post a comment.