Death, Tarot, Rorschach, scripts, and why economies crash

By Gordon Rugg

The best examples of powerful principles often come from unexpected places.

Today’s article is one of those cases. It’s about why it often makes excellent sense to use a particular method, even when you’re fully aware that the method doesn’t work as advertised on the box, or doesn’t work at all.

It’s a story that starts with one of the most widely misunderstood cards in the Tarot pack. The story also features some old friends, in the form of game theory, pattern matching and script theory. It ends, I hope, with a richer understanding of why human behaviour often makes much more sense when you look at the deep underlying regularities, rather than at the surface appearances.

So, we’ll start with Tarot cards. A surprisingly high proportion of people who use Tarot packs will cheerfully tell you that the cards have no mystical powers. Why would anyone use Tarot cards if they don’t have those powers? There are actually some very good reasons.

bannerv2Sources for images are given at the end of this article

One major reason for using the Tarot even if you don’t believe it has any supernatural powers is that it can be a very good way of helping people to re-assess their lives, and how they are handling the issues in their lives. (Standard disclaimer: There are numerous different views of the Tarot, and I’m giving a short, simple version in the interest of keeping this article to a manageable length.)

The Death card is a good starting place. It’s a usual suspect in B movies, as an omen of very bad things about to happen. Its appearance is usually the cue for some extreme over-acting and some very loud dramatic music, with perhaps a thunderclap thrown in for good measure. In most Tarot readings, though, it’s treated very differently. Terry Pratchett did an excellent job of illustrating this issue via his much-loved character Death in the Discworld novels. In both traditional Tarot and the Discworld, Death isn’t the end of everything; instead, Death is a change. Sometimes that change is for the worse, but often, it’s a change for the better, the loss of dead wood so that new shoots can grow.

This perception can be extremely useful for people who are going through stressful times, and who have been focusing only on what they might lose, as if it were the end of the world. In this situation, the Tarot card can be a useful way of reminding people that there’s more than one way of interpreting what’s happening, and of breaking them out of the obsessive fearful focus on potential loss. It can do that perfectly well without any need for invoking mystical powers, which is why so many users of the Tarot don’t believe that there is anything supernatural involved, but still find it useful.

Here’s an example of how that insight is designed into the cards. The two cards on the left show the Tower, which symbolises destruction and loss. The two cropped images on the right show details of the faces in the Death card (upper image) and the Tower card (lower image). The faces from the Death card look calm and unconcerned; the faces from the Tower card don’t. The symbolism extends further; Death is usually shown carrying a scythe, a tool normally used for harvesting, as part of the timeless cycle of death and re-growth.

facesv2Sources for images are given at the end of this article

This explains why the Tarot’s depiction of Death can help people to re-perceive their situation more constructively. However, it raises a new question, namely how the image of nihilistic destruction in the Tower can help people.

Again, the answer lies in broadening the context. The Tarot card is traditionally divided into two sets, known as the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana is very similar to everyday playing cards, with four suits (Clubs, Coins, Swords and Staves) each of ten numbered cards plus four court or face cards (King, Queen, Knight and Jack/Knave). The Major Arcana usually consists of 22 cards, which are each unique (i.e. they don’t belong to suits).

One traditional use of the Major Arcana is to symbolise life as a whole. The cards below show four classic examples of this.

life journeyv2Sources for images are given at the end of this article

The first card in this image is the Fool, setting off on life’s journey. The second is the Hermit, on a lonely journey through the wilderness in search of understanding. The third is the Wheel of Fortune, showing how fate can cast down a king, and raise up a beggar. The fourth is the World, which contains repeated symbolism about underlying unity beneath surface appearances.

In this broader context, the Tower is part of a much bigger whole. It may not bring re-growth and better things in its wake, but it’s not the end of the world, and it is part of gaining a deeper and richer understanding of the world.

What’s going on under the bonnet/hood?

That’s a brief description of how the Tarot can be useful for gaining broader and deeper insights into the situation that you’re going through. There’s a fairly consistent body of anecdotal evidence that it works reasonably well for this purpose. That raises the question of just how it works.

Rorschach and pattern recognition

There’s a plausible argument that the Tarot pack can function as a form of Rorschach test, where people’s personal interpretations of an image give insights into how they view the world. This can be a useful starting point for understanding someone as part of a process of counselling.

rorschachv2Rorschach ink blots: Sources for images are given at the end of this article

In terms of processing mechanisms in the brain, it’s a classic example of pattern matching, which is a usual suspect when making sense of how people interpret objects and situations.

Script theory

This leads on to script theory and schema theory, which deal with people’s mental templates for actions and for organising their knowledge. Much of what is popularly lumped together as “wisdom” involves having a bigger mental toolbox of scripts and schemata than most people, so that you can draw on more possible ways of handling a given situation, or of making sense of a situation.

A classic example of how this can help is the advice to aim for a 75% rejection rate in your job interviews. At first glance, this looks like a really bad idea. When you look under the surface appearance, though, this schema makes excellent sense. If you’re getting a 100% success rate in terms of job offers, you’re aiming too low, and you could be applying for better jobs with a good chance of success. Conversely, if you’re getting a 100% rejection rate, you’re either aiming too high or you’re doing something wrong, so you need to change your aim and/or your application package.

That explanation makes sense as it stands. It makes even more sense when you dig deeper. The figure of 75% isn’t completely arbitrary. The classic recruitment process often ends up with a shortlist of about four candidates being interviewed, all of whom are appointable. Often, there’s hardly anything to choose between them, and the final choice hinges on some comparatively minor point. So, if you’re applying for jobs where you’re appointable, then by sheer chance you’re going to be offered the job about a quarter of the time, and not offered it about 75% of the time.

There’s another advantage to this schema. Psychologically, it turns a letter saying that you haven’t got the job from being a “rejection letter” into a data point that you will use to check that you’re broadly on track with your application process. That can be a huge boost to your morale, and to your feeling of control over your life. Instead of thinking in terms of a rejection letter being like the Tower in the Tarot pack, symbolising external forces causing pointless destruction and tragedy, you’re thinking of it as being part of a bigger, healthier whole, like Death being part of the cycle of change.

Game theory and graphology: When what’s bad for the system is good for the sub-system

So far, I’ve focused on how something that doesn’t work in one way can work very well in a different way. In a perfect world, I would stop at that point, with some nice, fluffy thoughts about kittens and trees and sunshine.

However, the world is not a perfect place, and most methods are open to abuse of one sort or another. In the case of Tarot, techniques such as cold reading and Barnum statements can be used by unscrupulous practitioners to give the impression of psychic powers, as a step towards bilking the unfortunate client out of money for promised services.

That form of abuse is fairly easy to spot, and to understand. A different form of abuse involves a subtler set of mechanisms, where something that looks irrational actually makes perfect sense when you unpack what’s really going on. It’s the cause of a lot of organisational problems, up to and including the various banking collapses and economic crises of the last few decades. It involves game theory and systems theory; the example that I’ll use to illustrate it involves graphology.

Back in the days of big hair and shoulder pads and companies with money to spare, quite a few companies used graphologists as part of the hiring process. Job applicants would be processed in the usual way, but the company would also pay a graphologist to study the handwriting of the applicants, and give opinions on each applicant’s character, as allegedly revealed in their handwriting.

Psychologists as a profession were not very amused by this, since the documented evidence showed pretty clearly that graphology was at best only slightly better than chance in assessing people’s characters; even back then, it was generally viewed by researchers as a pseudo-science. However, companies kept on using graphologists regardless. What was going on?

The answer, ironically, came from organisational psychology. Imagine that you’re one of the people hiring a new member of staff. You choose someone, and six months later they flee to the Bahamas with a large amount of loot pilfered from the company’s accounts. What does this say about your abilities to judge character, and about your prospects for promotion? Nothing good…

Now let’s imagine that you’re in the identical recruitment process, only this time you pay a graphologist to give their assessment of each candidate. The graphologist doesn’t say anything alarming about any of the candidates. You go ahead and hire someone, and six months later they do the “Bahamas with the loot” routine.

What happens now? What happens is that you immediately fire the graphologist, and hire one with a better reputation. The buck no longer stops with you; instead, it stops with the graphologist. From your point of view, this is a good strategy, and worth every penny that you pay the graphologists. From the company’s point of view, that money is going straight down the drain, but that’s not your problem, and if the company folds, you can always apply for jobs in another company.

In formal terms, this is a classic example of the principle from systems theory that subsystem optimisation does not necessarily lead to system optimisation. In terms of game theory, the payoffs to the employee from following the graphology approach are at the expense of the company.

This issue has been at the heart of various banking and economic disasters. When there are incentives for individual employees to work in a way that is bad for the organisation, there is going to be trouble. Often, those incentives aren’t intended by the organisation’s managers, but that’s not the point. The point is that the incentives are driving in a direction that is counter to what’s good for the organisation as a whole.

That’s bad enough when it’s just an individual bank involved. When it’s an entire sector, such as banking, or an entire economy, then words such as “catastrophe” and “disaster” come into their own.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, sometimes things work for reasons different from the advertised reasons. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, or a mixture.

In the case of Tarot, where this article started, the results can be useful in terms of helping people develop a richer and broader set of strategies for handling situations. The underlying philosophy of most schools of Tarot thought is very much about the bigger picture of morality; going beyond ignorance and selfishness into a deeper understanding of the world as a whole, and of our part in it.

In the case of incentives within banking and economics, the conceptual tools for fixing the problem have been available for decades. As for how to get those tools deployed by people with an incentive for making them work, though, that’s a separate question, for some future article…

Notes and links

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

Overviews of the articles on this blog:

There’s a reasonable overview of the Tarot here:

Banner images:

“13 – La Mort” by Oswald Wirth – Le Tarot. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Visconti-Sforza tarot deck. Death” by Anonymous – Visconti-Sforza tarot deck. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Death tarot charles6” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“RWS Tarot 13 Death” by Pamela Coleman Smith – a 1909 card scanned by Holly Voley ( for the public domain, and retrieved from (see note on that page regarding source of images).. Via Wikipedia –

Tower images:

“Maison-Dieu tarot charles6” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“16 – La Maison de Dieu” by Oswald Wirth – Le Tarot. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Life journey images:

“Hermit tarot charles6” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Sforzawheel” by B.Bembo? – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“21 – Le Monde” by Oswald Wirth – Le Tarot. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Jean Dodal Tarot trump Fool” by Original uploader was Fuzzypeg at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Jerome Charles Potts using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Rorschach images:

“Rorschach blot 01” by Hermann Rorschach (died 1922) – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“Rorschach blot 02” by “Hermann Rorschach” (died 1922) – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –



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