Achieving the Impossible

AHA Board Member Becky Hale (left) with 2019 Humanist Media Award recipient Richard Wiseman (right).

British psychologist, speaker, and author Richard Wiseman is known around the world for his innovative research into the psychology of luck, self-help, persuasion, and illusion. Wiseman started out as a magician, performing street shows around Covent Garden in London’s West End from an early age. He studied psychology at University College London and continued his focus on the science of behavior and mind, obtaining his PhD in that field from the University of Edinburgh. Today he is a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, where he holds Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology.

Wiseman is a prolific author whose books have sold over three million copies worldwide and been translated into more than twenty languages. Many of these works explore the science of success and focus on practical, evidence-based techniques to improve people’s personal and professional lives. They include: The Luck Factor (2003); Quirkology (2007), which looks at the psychology of so-called quirks like laughter, lying, and love; and 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot (2009), on the science of self-help and techniques one can learn in under a minute. Other popular titles include Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There (2011); and Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep (2014).

The investigation and critical examination of the paranormal and other psychic phenomena is another area of Wiseman’s interest and expertise. “I find it amazing how malleable people’s testimonies are, and also quite terrifying,” he said in a 2011 interview with the Scotsman in regard to why people believe in the paranormal. He also takes issue with people’s faith in the power of prayer:

I’m always very skeptical of anything which is low-input but makes you feel good. Whenever anybody does very little and it makes them feel good, you almost certainly know it’s for their benefit and no one else.

Wiseman is one of the most followed psychologists on Twitter, his illusion-based YouTube videos have attracted over 500 million views, and he’s been a creative consultant on shows like Ghost Stories and Brain Games. He’s presented keynote addresses to the Swiss Economic Forum, Google, and Amazon, and the Independent on Sunday chose him as one of the top 100 people who make Britain a better place to live. A patron of Humanists UK, Wiseman is also a distinguished supporter of Humanist Society Scotland and a fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. On June 7 Richard Wiseman received the 2019 Humanist Media Award at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

THE IMPOSSIBLE comes in many shapes and sizes. At one end of the spectrum are the paranormal claims of psychics, mediums, and fortune-tellers. These individuals appear to be able to read minds, predict the future, magically cure disease, and move objects with the power of their minds. I spent the first decade of my career putting these fantastical claims under the microscope and discovered that all was not what it seemed in the wonderful world of the paranormal. Time and again, my research revealed evidence of self-delusion and downright trickery. Fortune-tellers often relied upon general statements that were true of most people (we all like to think that we have untapped creative abilities and an above-average sense of humor), those appearing to bend metal with mind power were often relying on trickery, and the pitch-black darkness of the séance room proved to be a fertile breeding ground for people’s imaginations.

After discovering that such fantastical claims were the stuff of nonsense, I turned my attention to a somewhat different question, namely, why do so many people believe in the paranormal? Whereas evidence for impossible happenings proved remarkably elusive, research examining belief into such matters quickly yielded dividends. Perhaps not surprisingly, people were motivated to believe in mediums and psychics because they seemed to present magical solutions to difficult problems. People who had lost a loved one wanted to believe in the existence of a spirit world, those suffering from illness were drawn to the idea of psychic surgery, and those struggling in life were reassured by fortune-tellers proclaiming that the future would be bright. Although these seemingly magical solutions sometimes provided short-term comfort, they failed to deliver genuine and long-lasting wellbeing.

More recently, my work has adopted a somewhat different perspective on the impossible. A few years ago I started to examine how people had genuinely achieved goals that were considered impossible. As a starting point I focused on the moon landings. In the early 1960s John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. At the time, the US had only sent an astronaut 100 miles away from Earth, and the idea of being able to travel over a quarter of a million miles through space seemed inconceivable. However, over 400,000 people came together and made that dream a reality. Motivated by Kennedy’s visionary goal, they found novel ways of solving problems, developed new technologies, and overcame the fear of failure. I describe this work in my latest book, Moonshot, arguing that the same mindset will allow people to attain other equally amazing goals in their everyday lives.

After spending much of my career tackling the impossible, I believe it to be a double-edged sword. At one level, buying into the illusory claims of psychics and mediums can easily lead us astray. However, our ability to entertain these fantastical claims, no matter how briefly, reflects our phenomenal ability to imagine that the impossible might be possible. Humanism is about creating a better world without the need for religion, gods, psychics, and mediums. Being able to imagine the impossible, and then transform that dream into reality, is key to our success.

And if we ever feel discouraged, we would do well to venture outside on a clear night and look up at the moon. In the early sixties the idea of reaching the moon before the end of the decade seemed impossible, but we did it and have the potential to achieve equally astonishing goals.