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Undercover at the Woo Festival

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” —DOUGLAS ADAMS


Here is a picture of my aura. I had it taken at a woo festival that I attended “undercover” with two goals: learn more about New Age beliefs and annihilate some surplus neurons I no longer needed. Underneath that winky face, resplendent in reds and yellows, is a pseudonym—a nom de bullshit—that I chose for the occasion.

The festival was a two-day event, and the booths were exactly what you’re imagining: psychics, mediums, clairvoyants, tarot readings, chakras, reiki. The whole gamut of New Age stuff. One booth promised quantum spirituality—you can tell that it’s scientific because of the word “quantum,” you see. Another booth offered visionary guidance on your life path. A third promised to combine energy and chakra healing with past life regression. (I passed on that one because my current life is regressed enough as it is, thank you very much).

But back to that winsome aura: one of the festival experts kindly interpreted it for me. You’ll be shocked, I’m sure, to hear that the reading was a meandering three-minute analysis in which I was fed a variety of feel-good platitudes and told that I was going to start a successful and lucrative company. The price tag for this reassuring pablum: $25.

With my future now secure and my pocket considerably lighter, I moved on to the next booth, manned by a guy who specializes in past life readings. A full reading runs you $125, but you can get an abbreviated 40-minute version for $90. I couldn’t imagine sitting there with a straight face, hemorrhaging money as I listened to stories about my past lives for 40 minutes, so I declined and moved on.

Of all the booths at the festival, my favorite was run by a man who looked arrestingly like a wizard. He had a Merlinesque gray beard, flowing white robes, and the world-weariness of a guy whose bones are tired because, obviously, magic is draining and warlocks bear great responsibility. Customers came to him seeking relief from their medical ailments; he cured these by having the patients lie down and waving his hands above their bodies in especially good, healing-y ways. He referred to himself as a literal wizard and called his service Medical Intuitive, Quantum Shaman. (I swear I’m not making this up).

The Lectures

The festival included lectures, too, and they looked even more exciting than the booths, so I attended as many of these as I could. My goal was to take notes, ask questions, and learn as much as possible about people’s unusual beliefs.

The first talk was about ancestors, spirits, and messages from other planes of existence. The audience learned that our dead ancestors are constantly sending us messages. Also, animals that cross your path are sending you messages from other realms, and white feathers are special signs from angels. The speaker declared that she had been a Mayan warrior queen in a past life. In another, she had been an Egyptian priestess. In a third, she was one of the first human cave people. As she explained, she accessed these memories of past lives through her dreams because when you dream, you’re actually astral traveling. Perhaps tellingly, she had never been anybody forgettable or uninteresting in any of her past lives.

I was mainly there to observe and learn more about people’s beliefs, the way a non-believer might go to a religious service out of curiosity. But I was also interested in what psychological principles might be at play. (By day, I’m a psychologist who studies human cognition.) The first thing that struck me was that all the messages the presenter received from other realms were confidence-boosting. The missives told her that it was OK to be herself, to drop her anxieties, to strive for what she wanted. For some people, this can be a major motivator for woo-y beliefs: a desire for self-reassurance, for ego security, and for believing that things are going to be OK.

Another couple of themes leapt out quickly: hyperactive pattern recognition and promiscuous meaning-making. Humans are hyperactive pattern detectors, which means we’re prone to seeing patterns even where there are none.1 One of the festival speakers said that when she sees numbers like 11:11 or 10:10, it’s the spirits reassuring her that she’s on the right path. If she sees pennies or rainbows or hears a certain genre of music, it’s her deceased loved ones watching over her. This seemed to both reassure her and imbue her life with meaning.

The next lecture was on Sound and Harmonic Therapy. The presenter struck bowls of different sizes with a sort of drumstick, producing vibrations that were supposed to cure our health issues. This talk included some real head-scratchers. My favorites were “the whole point of sound is to get the energy from your head to go down to your feet,” which, if you think about it, is a fantastically teleological view of physics, and “harmonic sounds travel as fast as the speed of light.” (They actually travel at the speed of sound, which, in air, is about 880,000 times slower than the speed of light).

The presenter explained that the bowls’ vibrations force your emotions to come up, which helps you get grounded in your legs, and that enables you to make decisions with clarity. I learned that deeper vibrations are better than shallower vibrations and that if you ever get a sound bath, you should always ask “What is my message?” because the bowl will always give you a message. (To be honest, I can’t for the life of me figure out what that means, but I guess if thou seekest meaning from the bowl, the bowl will deliver meaning unto thee. Or something like that.)

The lecture on vibrations was distinct from the first one: the first presentation made no pretense to scientific accuracy, whereas this one was cloaked in a veneer of scientific jargon to make it sound respectable. But it bungled all the key concepts: energy, vibrations, and even harmonic. The presenter said that harmonic sounds relax us, so I asked what “harmonic” meant. The word has a precise formal definition, but all we got was a tautology: harmonic sounds are those that cause relaxation. The best line of all was the speaker’s cartoonishly immodest description of her trade: “I do very deep work.”

On we trudged.

The next presentation was about Divine Source, which turned out to be a tragically underspecified fount of life, divinity, and good stuff at the root of everything. The speaker exhorted us to “ascend into divinity, union, higher calling, purpose, and Source”. She had an obvious strategy: list so many good-sounding words in rapid succession that the audience would be lulled into a stupor, critical thinking faculties suspended, vaguely impressed but unsure why. I think the stupor was part of the point.

Like the presentation before it, this one was sprinkled with science-y words to create the implication of evidentiary grounding and paint a façade of scientific respectability. Listeners got sprinkles of quantum, genome, biological, neural, synapse, and energy adorning a cake of staggering BS. I learned that “The divine being in human form is imprinted with its true purpose,” a profoundly vacuous string of words reminiscent of the deliciously random nonsense churned out by the Wisdom of Deepak Chopra generator.2 We also learned that “The divine being is the being that is constructed out of light from the Source in the 5th-dimensional realm,” and that “the Earth is a portal for all 5 dimensions.” Rule of thumb: just take the number of dimensions in conventional physics and add one. This makes it sound as if you’re saying something groundbreaking (or at least tantalizingly mysterious), like you might just be wrapped in a shroud of secret esoteric knowledge. My favorite meaningless quote in the deluge of imponderables was probably “You’re creating a conscious energetic polarity with your own being.” You better believe I am!

I had questions—and decided that I was masochistic enough to read more of this word salad to try to get some answers. But read what? I raised my hand and asked the speaker how she acquired all this knowledge and what I could read to deepen my learning. Her answer took me by surprise: “,” she said, “I was guided not to take on the teachings of others so that my consciousness remains pure.” Translated into plain English: all the knowledge is simply within her; she didn’t learn it from anyone or read it anywhere.

Psychology at the Festival of Woo

A few key psychological principles shone through at the woo festival. The first is our irrepressible human tendency to “see” patterns even where there are none. Humans are meaning-hungry creatures;3 we constantly yearn for and seek meaning. We’re equipped with these pattern-detecting and meaning-making propensities because detecting patterns was crucial in avoiding threats and availing oneself of opportunities during the evolution of our species.4 And it was probably more dangerous to fail to notice a pattern that was there than to “see” a pattern that wasn’t there, so we evolved a cognitive bias toward the less dangerous of the two errors5—“seeing” patterns even where there aren’t any. This is why we’re so prone to false positives, and why we often “detect” patterns out of randomness and coincidence. And although this cognitive bias is adaptive on average and evolved for a reason, it can often lead us astray.6

We have a related tendency to project meaning onto ambiguous situations that can be interpreted in different ways. A combination of promiscuous meaning-seeking and self-centeredness tricks us into thinking that the universe is speaking to us when it’s really just events causing other events. I’m sorry to say it, but the universe has no message for us nor any particular concern for us.

Self-help was another important theme that reared its head repeatedly. Many of the beliefs at the festival were geared toward reducing people’s feelings of uncertainty, encouraging them to remove self-imposed shackles and pursue their dreams.

A fourth important theme was religion—but maybe not in the way you’d expect. Many of the attendees and presenters seemed religiously inclined in their epistemological disposition and cognitive style, and in their evidentiary requirements for belief. But they were resistant, or even hostile, to what they saw as the rigid and constraining doctrines of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. That combination pervaded the festival. To an outside observer, it looked a lot like a religious framework for people who wanted nothing to do with traditional religions.

The fifth key theme was pervasive confirmation bias.7 People sought confirmatory rather than disconfirmatory evidence for their hypotheses, and they required much thinner evidence for belief than for refutation. Since most humans fall prey to confirmation bias,8 this one isn’t all that surprising. But the bias does vary in strength across individuals, and it was in full force at the festival.

While those five themes—pattern detection, meaning making, self-help, religion, and confirmation bias—were the most important and pervasive, I’m not suggesting this is a comprehensive analysis of the psychology underlying woo beliefs. The point here is to relay some experiences I had at the festival and share some of the psychological principles at play.

If the experience sounds interesting, you might consider going to one or two of these events and chatting with people. You can even provide gentle, civil pushback, and see where the conversation goes. What are the attendees’ evidentiary requirements for belief? How deeply have they considered the alternatives? What do they think about confirmation bias? You and your interlocutor will probably both learn something about your fellow humans.

And who knows—if you’re lucky enough, you might even ascend to a higher vibration of love and light, where the healing is quantum, the energy is rarefied, and sound moves at the speed of light. END

About the Author

Laith Al-Shawaf is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Before moving to the U.S., he was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin and a researcher and professor in Turkey. His empirical research is focused on human emotion, with additional emphases on cognition and personality. His popular science essays for Nautilus, Areo, and Psychology Today have been translated into several languages. He is the primary editor of The Oxford Handbook of Evolution and the Emotions, and he has won awards for both his teaching and research.

  4. Mattson, M.P. (2014). Superior Pattern Processing Is the Essence of the Evolved Human Brain. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 265.
  5. Haselton, M.G., & Nettle, D. (2006). The Paranoid Optimist: An Integrative Evolutionary Model of Cognitive Biases. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(1), 47–66.
  7. Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (2013). Myside bias, rational thinking, and intelligence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(4), 259-264.

This article was published on June 7, 2024.

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