The Cognitive Bias Spread

Tarot readers are human. We make mistakes. And sometimes, we see what we want to see. This is especially true because Tarot is an interpretive medium, more so even than other forms of divination. (After all, something like a pendulum or a passage from the I Ching is going to give you a pretty straightforward answer to your questions. Perhaps not a helpful answer, but a straightforward one.) Any time that information has to be refracted by subjective human information, there’s going to be some cognitive bias.

All readers are susceptible to cognitive bias. This problem plagues novice and experienced Tarot readers alike. It’s not a moral failing or a sign of inexperience or poor artistry; it just means that readers are (shocker) not omniscient. With myriad interpretations available for any given card, we have to choose the interpretation that makes most sense to us in a given context. Often, that interpretation is colored by our preconceived notions, our biases regarding what the card should mean.

So I’ve come up with a spread to help examine potential cognitive biases. This spread cannot tell you definitively What The Card Means; if you want something as cut-and-dried as that, Tarot is not the divination technique for you.* What the spread can do is bring to light certain biases that you may not have considered, and then suggest alternative interpretations to correct for the way those biases may have skewed your reading of the card.

Before we begin, I should give a massive disclaimer. I am not encouraging people to second-guess themselves, or (gods forbid) to do multiple successive readings on the same question because they didn’t like the cards they drew. I’m offering this spread as a way for readers to reevaluate cards when they (the readers) think they have failed to read objectively due to cognitive bias of one form or another. There’s a difference between “I really want this reading to be positive, so I’m going to interpret the Tower as sudden change for the better, but in my heart I know that’s probably not what it means” and “I drew the Tower here, but I don’t like what it means, so I’m going to draw more cards and hope they say something else”. The point is not to try to change a reading to something more palatable, but rather to try to put to rights a reading where you know you misstepped. Does that make sense?

Onwards. Here’s how it works: Perform your Tarot reading as normal. Lay out your Celtic Cross or your three-card-monty or whatever, and interpret all the cards to the best of your ability.

Now stop.

Take a look at that card. You know the one. It’s the card that maybe doesn’t quite fit with the rest of your interpretations, the card that you really wish meant one thing but that probably means something else altogether. Pluck that card out of the reading and lay it face-up at the center of your new spread. Around that card, arrange four face-down cards.



In the example above, our problem card is the Five of Pentacles. I actually drew this card at random when I was setting up my sample photos for this spread, but I think it’s fitting. The Five of Pentacles is such an emotionally loaded card that it’s difficult to read objectively. Some readers (the nicey-nice sort) refuse to provide a negative interpretation, talking about how it probably means something totally innocuous about spiritual growth or some such; other readers (*ahem* me), trying to overcorrect against nicey-nicety, see the Five and spew out apocalyptic messages of doom. This card could mean either, or neither, but the trappings of cognitive bias so often interfere with reading it straight.

Now, the two cards to the left of the spread represent biases and preconceptions that affect the way you’re interpreting the card. The cards on the right (unsurprisingly) suggest ways to address those biases.

Before we go any further, we need to talk about the two main kinds of cognitive bias:** motivated and unmotivated bias.

Simply put, motivated cognitive bias is when we see what we want to see. I’m performing a love reading for myself, I draw the Tower, and I decide a new lover is about to fall into my life because I really don’t want to accept the (much more likely) message that something is about to go disastrously awry.

Unmotivated bias, on the other hand, is when we see what we expect to see. Whether we think it’s a good thing or not is not at issue; we simply see what makes the most sense to us, what seems normal. I’m doing a love reading for myself, I draw the Tower, and I conclude that (because the Tower is a SCARY CARD) I’m going to continue to be single for the foreseeable future, and nothing is likely to change. I’m constructing a mental narrative that aligns with my subconscious expectations, but that narrative completely ignores the nature of the card I drew: the Tower is all about change, and it makes absolutely no sense for this card to represent the continuation of the status quo.


The two “bias” cards in our spread, then, represent the motivated and unmotivated biases that affect your reading of the central card.

In this case, the motivated bias is the inverted Two of Wands: Maybe this is a career reading, and I’m predicting nothing but hardship and strife for my querent because of a subconscious desire to see her plans fall through. Maybe I dislike her for some reason, or maybe I think she’s lazy and unambitious, and I don’t want to believe that someone who possesses those qualities will be able to find financial success.

The unmotivated bias here is the inverted Wheel of Fortune. Interpreting this for myself, I would probably say something about the unpredictability of the job market and how I frankly don’t expect anyone to flourish in finding a new job right now. This would pretty clearly impact the way I read a card like the Five of Pentacles.


The cards on the right are proposed solutions to the problems posed on the left. Here, we have the inverted Queen of Wands and the inverted Hierophant.*** The Queen in this case makes me think about first impressions, outward appearances, and letting go of those judgments so that I can see my querent more accurately for who she is. The Hierophant (hello, old friend) speaks to letting go of my conceptions about the traditional job market; maybe my querent is an artistic type who can find success and happiness outside the structure of corporate America.

This is just a brief sample reading, but I have actually used this spread before for actual readings where I felt I wasn’t reading the cards right. If nothing else, it always helps shed some new light on the way I’m reading the cards, and if my interpretations have grown crusty and stale, it encourages me to change things up and approach each reading as a fresh loaf of bread.

As always, I’d love to hear about your results if you end up using this spread. I apologize for having taken so long to post this; I started this post weeks ago, but then there was a fiasco with me not being able to upload pictures to my computer, and, well, time slipped away. The moral of the story is that technology is my enemy. (Nasty hobbitses, we hates it.) I should be back next week, possibly with a fun and out-of-the-box post on Western geomancy (if I don’t decide it’s out of place on a Tarot blog). Stay tuned.

*Although there are various mobile apps and LWBs that would lead you to believe otherwise.

**I hear you shriek in indignation, “There are multiple kinds?” Of course there are. Of course there are. There’s no such thing as objectivity, and there are so many different and delicious ways to slide into subjectivity. What fun!

***Lots of inversions in this spread, and once again, I drew these cards at random. This suggests that I am doing a crappy job of providing an accurate reading to my hypothetical client. Good thing I didn’t charge for it.

2 thoughts on “The Cognitive Bias Spread

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