The New York Times reporter Ruth La Ferla has written an article, “Love, Jobs & 401(k)s” about the popularity of psychics (including tarot readers) in the economic downturn. It seems that business is booming in this profession. La Ferla quotes one stock trader as saying, ““When conditions are this volatile, consulting a psychic can be as good a strategy as any other.” To which she responds that when the Treasury secretary changes his mind weekly “a good set of tarot cards might come in handy.”

A current trend is that today’s clients include a growing number of men who are, themselves, often professional advice-givers in fields like real estate and investments. Their questions are highly specific and focused. They want to know the psychic’s accuracy, but they seem to keep coming back.

This is not the first time that it’s become obvious that people turn to psychics and divination in times of crisis or when the past does not provide reliable guidance or direction. When the rational collapses where do you turn?

I’ve heard of two cases among those living in the World War II Warsaw ghetto who claimed that fortunetellers were what kept them going when there was no other hope. One of these was from a PBS television interview with a male survivor of the ghetto who said it was the fortune tellers who helped by saying it would soon get better—even when it didn’t. Another was from an oral history with Minna Friedland who was housed with twelve other women—one an illiterate country fortune teller: “For each she found a positive explanation – they would be released soon, they would receive a food parcel and so on. Thus she kept hope alive.”

Sometimes the predictions prove accurate. Other times they simply keep you going until conditions change enough to feel confident that the future will work itself out. (Also read this story about another WWII “fortune-teller” – here.)

One other effect is the “randomizing” factor. It seems that normally people make decisions based on what has been successful in the past. But, when old, habituated resources are depleted we need something that will initiate exploration in new directions. Randomly putting together new combinations increases our chances of finding something that will work. Plus, a belief in the outcome gives us a positive edge that is likely to turn a risky endeavor into success.