Reading: The Tricks of the Psychics
All lies in jest 'til a man hears what he wants to
hear and disregards the rest - Paul Simon
When the editor of this zine asked me to write an
article on the manner in which so-called psychics perform their tricks, he
knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I'd say yes. He wasn't really being
clairvoyant. He knew that so many of my clients had been burned badly by
these charlatans that I'd welcome any opportunity to warn others about
them. I'm a clinical social worker, and I specialize in working with
former cult members. I've worked with people who've told me stories of
witnessing psychic surgery (i.e. surgery performed without anesthesia,
scalpels, wounds or scars), of seeing their cult leaders materialize
physical objects out of thin air, or of individuals who seemed to possess
the ability to read their thoughts. When I debunk these phenomena and
tell them how the cult leader probably performed these feats, my clients
are often relieved of cult-induced anxieties, phobias and fears. The cult
leader, after all, has feats of clay. He's just a mortal like everyone
else, albeit more exploitative and evil than most.
The initial hook that's used by many of the cult leaders
to overwhelm their victims and to prove their putative abilities, is the
cold reading. A cold reading occurs when the psychic (or "reader") tells a
person whom he or she has never met before facts about that person and
that person's life. These facts are supposedly divined because the reader
is able to sense things about that individual that the rest of us mere
mortals can't sense. Cold readings also occur when a customer goes into a
psychic's parlor to ask for help with a problem. Sometimes the customer's
physical presence isn't even necessary. You've seen ads touting the
services of psychics who are so sensitive to whatever it is that the
customer is supposed to be emitting, that they can sense it over thousands
of miles through a telephone line, for crying out loud. (Just dial
On a few occasions, I've had clients tell me of wondrous
things that psychics told them about themselves and that they even have
audio tapes of these miraculous sessions. When I ask if I may listen to
those tapes, they readily give them to me. The funny thing is, the things
that my clients said they heard - the pronouncements that proved the
psychic's ability -just aren't there! Everything the psychic told them was
something that my clients had told the psychic and that the psychic was
repeating back to them in a somewhat different context, with a slight
twist, and with a lot of drama and hoopla. My clients half-remembered
things that were said, forgot other things that were said, or even
constructed dialogue that never took place, all of which proved to them
that this seemingly kind, gentle, concerned psychic had extrasensory
It's an interesting component of the human condition
that we want so much to believe that someone can help us to make sense out
of an often senseless world, to gain control over that which is beyond our
control, and to give us certainty in the face of the unknown and
unknowable. Recognizing these facts, and realizing that we're all subject
to the same wishes and needs, it behooves us to be particularly vigilant
about believing that which we most desperately want to believe, especially
when that belief flies in the face of logic and the laws of science.
When examining so-called psychic phenomena; or, for that
matter, any supernatural claim, we should apply Occam's Razor, a test for
validity named for William of Ockam, a philosopher of the fourteenth
century. Occam's Razor, in the original Latin, states, 'Won sunt
multiplicanda entia praeternecessitatem." or, "Things must not be
multiplied beyond necessity." Another way to state this principle is, "The
simplest explanation for a phenomenon is likely to be the correct
explanation." In other words, when something occurs, don't assume that
it's caused by an extraordinary phenomenon that defies the laws of science
if a simpler explanation also fits. If I pull a hard-boiled egg from
behind your ear, there are at least two explanations - either I'm able to
defy laws of physics and produce something out of thin air, or I had
concealed the egg somewhere and through deft sleight of hand was able to
make it appear to materialize behind your ear. By applying Occam's Razor,
we can pretty safely assume that the most likely explanation for the
appearance of the egg is the latter.
The second principle which we should apply when
examining psychics' miracles (or the reports of their customers) is that
extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. It's not enough for
someone to tell an anecdote about a feat supposedly performed by a
psychic. We are all susceptible to selective memory and misperception. At
the very least, before we believe that a psychic has had a successful
"hit," we should know the context in which the "hit" was made, exactly
what was said by both parties, and how many "misses" were racked up, so
that the "hit" can be seen in context. It's not proper to call someone
psychically gifted if every now and then they score a "hit." Even a blind
squirrel sometimes finds a nut.
Sometimes friends have told me that they have psychic
abilities because they "always" know who's calling when their phone rings.
Recognizing the significance of selective memory, I ask them to conduct an
experiment. For the next month, every time the phone rings, they're to
write down their prediction of who's calling. No fair doing it in
retrospect. I tell them that if they achieve more than 50% hits, I'll
consider that a pretty impressive statistic.
Now, the fact is that not one of them has ever reported
back to me. That may be because the experiment shows that their psychic
ability doesn't hold up to scrutiny, or it may be because they find my
bursting of their bubbles a little on the obnoxious side. I tell you, the
life of a skeptic isn't an easy one.
Let's talk about what happens when you walk into a
psychic's parlor. (I won't go into such obvious and easily arranged tricks
as the use of one-way mirrors, accomplices who can eavesdrop on
conversations or peek into cars, etc. Suffice it to say that these ruses
are not unheard of.) The psychic will often use a gimmick to focus your
attention - the creases on your hand, the bumps on your head, a deck of
cards, a personal object such as a ring or bracelet, a crystal ball, etc.
The gimmick is used to lend an air of scientific accuracy to the reading -
the psychic is merely interpreting a physical object.
Often, the psychic will begin by explaining that his or
her gifts sometimes work and sometimes don't. It depends upon your
receptivity and sincere cooperation. Because the messages aren't always
clear, it's important for you to interpret the message on your own terms
and fit it into your life. In this manner, the expectation is established
that if only you are open and receptive, the reading will work. If you
fail, it's not because the psychic is a fraud.
Psychics know that almost all of the questions people
have will fit under one of three headings. Usually, people are concerned
about affairs of the heart, problems with health, or issues around money.
Therefore, the psychic might explain that he or she senses three areas
that either now are giving the customer, that have in the past given the
customer concern, or that will give the customer concerns in the future.
There isn't time to discuss all three, so the customer is asked which one
to focus on. The customer's answer, combined with an assessment of his or
her age, ethnicity, socio-economic status (as ascertained by dress, car,
jewelry, etc.) and a common sense knowledge of typical life crises people
encounter (i.e. birth, puberty, career choice, work, marriage, children,
middle age, declining years, death), narrows the field of inquiry. This
knowledge, combined with a scrutiny of the customer's involuntary (and
sometimes voluntary) reactions to the psychic's pronouncements can be used
to quickly lead the pair in the direction the customer wants to go. If
initial, highly general statements are off the mark, the customer's facial
expression, breathing pattern, eye movements, etc. will let the reader
know. A good reader picks up on the cues and is able to adjust the reading
to fit the cues. In a short period of time, the reader is seemingly able
to "discover" what's on the customer's mind. At this point, the customer,
especially if he or she is inclined to fall for the psychic's hype,
charisma and mystical surroundings, will often let his or her guard down
and reveal the burning question or questions.
Ray Hyman, a psychologist who has written about this
topic, points out that all forms of communication are incomplete, and that
the recipient of every form of communication becomes a creative
problem-solver, looking for meaning in the communication. Hyman explains
that, "the task is not unlike that of trying to make sense of a work of
art, a poem, or, for that matter, a sentence. The work of art, the poem,
or the sentence serves as a blueprint or plan from which we can construct
a meaningful experience by bringing to bear our own past experiences and
memories." The psychic's customer fills in the blanks, ignores
contradictory messages and emphasizes statements that are meaningful while
discarding or de-emphasizing statements that don't fit. The process is
completed when the customer, in time, forgets all the contradictory
"misses" and remembers only the "hits."
In their book, The Psychology of the Psychic,
David Marks and Richard Kanunann discuss an all purpose cold reading
developed by psychologist Bertram Forer. Students were told that this
reading was developed especially for them after the administration of a
personality test they had taken. Ninety-five percent of the students rated
this "reading" as either Excellent or Good. See whether there are more
"hits" than "misses" here for you:
You have a need for other people to like and admire
you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some
personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.
You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your
advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to
be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times, you have serious
doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right
thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become
dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also
pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept other's
statements without satisfactory proof, but you have found it unwise to
be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times, you are
extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are
introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be
Accomplished psychics have memorized a number of stock
readings which they then modify to fit the circumstances of the customer.
The fact is that there are more qualities that we share with others than
that differentiate us from others. Obviously, an elderly, upper-class man
will get a very different stock reading than a teenage girl. Stock
readings, combined with the unique, individual characteristics that the
psychics are able to trick their customers into revealing make up a cold
reading. Our human tendency to focus on the "hits," to forget or
reinterpret the "misses," and to fill in the blanks, complete the
experience. The next time someone tells you of a wondrous "truth" that a
so-called psychic has revealed, ask about how that "truth" was revealed
and whether there were a lot of half-truths and non-truths mixed in.
Booth, J. Psychic Paradoxes. 1984. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Gordon, H. Extrasensory Deception. 1987. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Hyman, R. '"Cold Reading': How to Convince Strangers that You Know All
About Them." 1977. The Zetetic Vol. I, No. 2: 18-37.
Marks, D. and R.Kamman. The Psychology of the Psychic. 1980. Buffalo:
Randi.J. Flim Flam. 1982. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Snyder, C.R. and R.J. Shenkel. "The P.T. Barnum Effect." 1975. Psychology
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This article was
originally published in Badaboom Gramophone #2.
It is reprinted here with the author's position.