Apr 01 2008

The Psychics’ True Power

I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in December 2004.

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At a recent medical conference, a pharmaceutical company was offering free handwriting analysis–for “entertainment” of course. Always game, I agreed to have the depths of my personality laid bare, betrayed by the sweep of my s and the boldness of my t . To my skeptical eye, the results were laughably mundane and predictable. The reader knew, of course, that I was a physician, so it was no surprise when he “read” in my handwriting that I like science and have a desire to care for people. Wow!

But others were impressed by the apparent accuracy of their readings. The results are not dissimilar to many friends and acquaintances who have visited a local psychic, tarot card reader, or astrologer, and the many more who have seen TV psychics like John Edward and Sylvia Browne. “How do you explain this?” people ask, very impressed, convinced that something paranormal must be going on.

But like any magic trick, the real answer is far simpler than you would imagine. Psychics will continue to shout “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” while they try to dazzle their marks with fire and smoke-but once you’ve seen the man behind the curtain, the show is over.

So let’s have a peek.

The real answer to psychic ability is “cold reading,” the trick mentalists have used for centuries to convince people they have psychic powers. The technique has evolved into a polished art, and experts can truly amaze. But even simple cold-reading techniques can seem compelling. Some na├»ve “psychics” even confuse instinctive and inadvertent cold reading as their “psychic intuition”-that is, they manage to convince themselves that they have psychic powers, when in fact they are using basic intuition and common-sense instinct.

The basics of cold reading involve starting with general statements that are likely to be true about anyone: “I see you have financial concerns.” “You feel as if no one truly understands you.” “Your family has been on your mind a lot recently.” Such vague and general statements can seem quite specific when someone is applying them to you. As you nod and express amazement, the reader makes other comments, following up on only those statements which garner a good reaction. The psychic says, “Maybe your sister…or an aunt…definitely a woman close to you…”-and he or she watches for your reactions to gauge when the trail is getting warm. Working this way, in a few moments the cold reader is telling you your most intimate secrets. Deprive a cold reader of this feedback, and his psychic powers are quickly short-circuited.

A cold reader may also start with a general statement, and then once the subject answers positively or negatively, they follow up with a more specific statement, pretending that’s what they had in mind all the time. For example, they may claim to “see” the letter “J.” A willing participant might then dutifully fill in the detail of “John.” The reader will then pick up on this and say, “Yes, John. I see a male figure named John who is important in your life.”

“John is my father,” the subject may volunteer.

“Yes,” continues the reader, “because I see that he is an older man, and he was with you as a child.” But later on, the subject will likely recount to others that the psychic knew his father’s name was John.

Another strategy is to make high-probability guesses. For example, psychics will commonly see the letters ‘J’ and ‘M’, or actually guess the names John or Mary, because these are the most common. Watch the TV psychics carefully-they never see the letter ‘Q’. They may tell an elderly, affluent New Englander that they see palm trees in the near future. So-called psychic detectives will often see water, or a red door-items that seem specific but are common enough that they are likely to be found somewhere near the eventual location of the victim. John Edward is fond of guessing, “I see the number ’3′, it can be a month…or a day…or part of a year.” He will keep going until he gets a hit.

The art of cold reading also involves turning misses into hits. If a statement about the subject of a reading turns out not to be true, well then maybe it is true of the subject’s friend who is with them. TV “psychics” who work a crowd use this technique to great advantage, for they can increase their probability of a random hit by opening up their guess to a room of 20 or more people. Or, a miss can be turned into a future prediction. You haven’t found a lost animal recently. Well, keep that one in mind, you will in the near future.

But the most important element of a successful cold reading is not the psychic but the subjects themselves. Most people who visit a psychic want to believe; they want a successful reading, even if they fancy themselves initially skeptical. Subjects will typically remember all the lucky hits and forget the misses, even egregiously blatant misses, so that the reader’s performance will be all the more impressive in the retelling.

Think about these techniques the next time you see an alleged psychic on TV, or a friend tells you of an amazing experience. Pull back the curtain of cold reading; the wizard is not that impressive after all.

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25 responses so far

25 Responses to “The Psychics’ True Power”

  1. Jim Shaveron 01 Apr 2008 at 10:37 am

    Also, the cold-reading “psychic” is far, far less impressive if you can see the entire, unedited session. These creatures often do not even perform their cold-reading tricks well enough to pass muster, so they edit the video to make their lamer performances seem more impressive (or just remove them from the show if they are not salvageable).

  2. pecon 01 Apr 2008 at 10:53 am

    Many psychics use cold reading, but this doesn’t mean all of them are fake all of the time. Even if a psychic has some ESP — if there is such a thing — they might use cold reading to fill in gaps. ESP is probably not something anyone can completely control consciously. So people who claim to have special powers have probably always resorted to cheating whenever their powers are weak.

    I am NOT saying everyone who claims to have psychic power does. I don’t know. But my opinon is that we all have some intuitive abilities that defy materialist explanations, whether we are aware of them or not.

    John Edward is a performer, and I am not at all impressed by his TV show. It would be too easy to edit out most of the misses. But the research by Gary Schwartz is impossible to explain by cold reading or cheating. “Skeptics” have tried desperately to find tiny holes in the wall, assuming psychics have an amazing ability and desire to cheat.

    Let’s face it, Edward and the other psychics tested would never have volunteered to be in controlled experiments if they were fake. And Schwartz would have to be a moron, which he certainly is not, to be fooled consistently and repeatedly.

    Cold reading was prevented in the experiments, by the way.

  3. DevilsAdvocateon 01 Apr 2008 at 11:30 am

    In that the cold reader’s success relies in the main on a cooperative mark:

    “There are no greater liars in the world than quacks–except for their patients.”

    Ben Franklin

  4. Blair Ton 01 Apr 2008 at 12:06 pm

    I was once out at a restaurant with a cousin who dabbled in palm reading. She didn’t claim psychic powers, only technique.

    She did a reading of our server that went beyond cold reading though. Instead of making vague general statements she made some very concrete ones – namely that he would never get married nor would he ever have any children (he was in his early twenties).

    He was blown away by the reading, practically jumping up and down – probably a true believer ever since.

    Afterwards my cousin explained what she did. She sensed that he was gay – not at all obvious to me – and used that to make concrete declarative statements about marriage and children.

    So, the reading which was so powerfully convincing for the server of pyshic powers was made with one simple observation/guess.

  5. Steve Pageon 01 Apr 2008 at 12:56 pm

    I was going to reply to pec, but I realised that it’s April 1st. Good to see that you have a sense of humour! :)

  6. petrucioon 01 Apr 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Strange, I never thought of handwriting analysis as Cold Reading-friendly. Don’t you just write and draw some stuff and they make their stuff based on that, no talking done?

    It was like this with me once, the company psychologist made it. It had accurate results, but I disregarded it because he knew me, so he had Hot Reading information available. Although some of it was quite impressive, and he never claimed to have any sort of paranormal abilities.

  7. Roy Nileson 01 Apr 2008 at 2:36 pm

    This is purely anecdotal, but I once had an information source who was also feeding information to a very prominent psychic based on the license plate numbers of vehicles parked in her lot by prospective clients. The source asked if I could help this psychic out, and it turned out the psychic’s husband was cheating on her and she was desperate to find out who it was with.
    It turned out that she was right about the cheating part, but aside from that, her powers were severely limited.

  8. Roy Nileson 01 Apr 2008 at 2:55 pm

    Oh and I note that Nancy Grace believes psychic detectives and psychics who help detectives are the real deal. She had one on her show that completely lied about having a part in a case that I knew for a fact she didn’t have.
    Of course the psychic wasn’t worried about enough people like me being able to come together and prove she was a liar. And Nancy Grace made no effort to research the facts of that case beforehand, because apparently she’s psychic as well.

  9. Michelle Bon 01 Apr 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Pec wrote: “So people who claim to have special powers have probably always resorted to cheating whenever their powers are weak.”

    ________

    The whole sentence is just nutty, but I particularly relished the “probably always.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would not want Pec sitting on a jury deliberating any legal case of mine.

    Lawyer: “We have evidence that the defendant beat his wife.”
    Pec: “So what, it does not mean that the defendant does not love his wife, it is obvious as I possess both a crystal ball and an uncanny ability to read other people’s mind, the defendant just has trouble expressing his love. Why punish a man just because he is a bit clumsy in expressing his invaluable love?”

    The psychic’s true powers are intimately bound with the gullibility and murkiness of fogged out rationalizing like what Pec does with such ease and consistency, that my jaw drops open from time to time.

  10. Potter1000on 01 Apr 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Pec, why?

    Just why.

    OK, I’ll say something else. You boldly proclaimed in a previous comment something to the effect that materialism is a wrong, outdated view, yet you often come back to this “I don’t claim to KNOW anything, I just have an open mind” approach. First of all, please see Dr. Novella’s post about an open mind from the other day if you haven’t already, and second, you clearly believe some things, and it seems that you don’t apply the same kind of criticism to whatever your “non-materialist” beliefs are that you do to materialism. I don’t know much about philosophy, but to me, materialism isn’t a philosophy, it’s a model. If evidence is contradictory to the model, then what’s the evidence? If Schwartz is good enough for you, I recommend reading this for a start:

    http://skepdic.com/essays/gsandsv.html

    I don’t think a single scientist is claiming to understand every property of every physical thing in the universe, just as nobody claims to understand exactly how evolution has produced every form and function that exists in humans or any other life form. We’re not saying it’s absolutely impossible that psychic phenomena could exist, we’re just saying that we don’t think it does–and I mean REALLY don’t think so, based on its not making any sense in context of the evidence to date. The only thing in its favor that I know of is the fact that people think it’s true based on personal experiences. I believed it was true when I was younger because I didn’t understand how I was being fooled, and I didn’t understand the implausibility of it. I look back on how I felt then, and wonder how I was fooled by John Edwards, and all I can say is it just felt so right–just as I’m sure Tom Cruise feels the power of L. Ron Hubbard’s spirit coursing through his superstar veins.

    Also, your statement that Schwartz would have to be a moron reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ false trichotomy about Jesus. Didn’t have to be crazy or a liar to not be a magical man. He could’ve just been mistaken, which seems most plausible to me. Of course, I could be wrong.

  11. petrucioon 01 Apr 2008 at 5:55 pm

    DevilsAdvocate:

    I certainly agree with you, I even said he had access to all that information and more.

    I only mentioned it because Steven mainly gave examples of oral Cold Reading.

    I’m married but I don’t use a ring or any obvious signs of it. I wonder what percentage of psychics would guess that (I think very few married people don’t use rings).

  12. Steven Novellaon 01 Apr 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Factual correction – Randi is not in complete control of the testing. I have conducted prelim testing all on my own with no input from Randi. AND – the primary criterion is that the person being tested agrees to the entire protocol – they are in control to a large degree. The only thing that we insist upon is proper scientific control – that’s it. So you just dismissed a very important piece of information – the Randi Challenge – based upon a lie that you never bothered to verify yourself.

  13. anjooooon 01 Apr 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Pec, I’ve been waiting and waiting for you to finally admit that you are a credulous fool. I think that fact has been well demonstrated by your comments to this post.

    I mean, we all knew it before, but now we really, really, really, really know it.

  14. Potter1000on 01 Apr 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Pec: “No, it was because you had not yet been indoctrinated into materialism.”

    Another bold claim from you without justification. You’re just wrong, man. (for some reason I’m assuming you’re a man. I’m not sure if that’s been established. Sorry if your’e not). What happened was I became better educated, and I thought more deeply about my beliefs. I don’t allow myself to be indoctrinated into anything.

  15. Freddy the Pigon 02 Apr 2008 at 1:03 am

    When I was in university there was a psychology professor who gave half his class a handwriting analysis test and the other half a sentence completion test during the first lecture of the semester. He then prepared personality profiles of each student and handed them out during the next lecture. He asked the students to refrain from discussing their profiles with other students and asked them how accurate the profiles were. Most of the students felt the profiles were very accurate. The professor then asked the students to show their profile to the student next to them. The class discovered that all the “personality profiles” were identical. Such “Barnum Statements” are a big part of the psychics technique.

  16. badrabbion 02 Apr 2008 at 2:27 am

    Pec: “I think most psychics are fake most of the time. I think most alternative medical treatments are probably worthless. I think most of the beliefs of traditional religions are fabricated myths. I think most of what most people believe most of the time is wrong.”

    Pec, I think you are mostly right!

  17. badrabbion 02 Apr 2008 at 2:41 am

    I agree with Dr. Novella about psychics and ‘cold readings’. These are universally fraudulent. He used the example of handwriting analysis, though, and the latter is a bit more tricky.

    Courts have used hand writing experts mostly to verify that documents have been written by the same person. This is the so-called forensic hand writing analysis, and as a technique, while much maligned, it may have some legitimate use.

    Graphology, on the hand, is the technique of analyzing someone’s personality based on her handwriting. For example, people who loop their y’s are thought to have high sex drives! I am not certain whether this has been put to scientific scrutiny, but I suspect that it is totally bogus. Does anyone know of a study looking at the validity of graphology?

  18. Steven Ron 02 Apr 2008 at 7:41 am

    badrabbi:
    I do know that if some one can scientificly demonstrate that they can analize who some one is via graphology, there is 1 million dollars(pinky to lips)….in it for them. You can still apply for the 1 million dollar challenge via special request if I recall.

    You could buy alot of porn and tacos with 1 million dollars. Hell, i bet you could find alot of girls who “loop their y’s” with 1 million ;)

  19. Steven Novellaon 02 Apr 2008 at 10:18 am

    badrabbi – you are correct – I was referring to graphology. Forensic handwriting analysis to individualize a sample or match it to another sample is legitimate, while difficult.

  20. Roy Nileson 02 Apr 2008 at 2:49 pm

    My professional experience with those who do handwriting analysis for the courts is that almost all of them these days claim a proficiency in graphology as well.

    Here’s a good take on the general subject:
    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/030418.html

  21. rochabillon 03 Apr 2008 at 8:37 am

    I was recently made aware of the work of Lynne Kelly that I found to be very relevant. She was interviewed on a podcast I heard recently. I’m pretty sure she was not the first “non-psychic” to learn how to perform a cold reading, but I found her work to be fascinating. In my very humble opinion I feel that this whole hand-writting bit is nothing more than a different angle on the “art” of a cold reading. And I’m sorry to cast more stones in pec’s direction especially because this has already been quoted above, but man. . . I honestly can’t help it.

    pec: “So people who claim to have special powers have probably always resorted to cheating whenever their powers are weak.” I want to say that Meteor Man had this same problem at one point and had to resort to trickery. Perhaps there is a connection we are not looking at.

  22. Steven Novellaon 03 Apr 2008 at 9:52 am

    pec: “So people who claim to have special powers have probably always resorted to cheating whenever their powers are weak.”

    For once we agree – except that I would also say the evidence strongly suggests that such special powers are always weak, and therefore such people are always resorting to cheating. At least that interpretation is compatible with all the evidence and there is no compelling reason to reject this as the most probable explanation.

  23. Larryon 07 Jun 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Hi Steve,

    You deal with some interesting topics on your blog. Many of your opinions appear to be diametrically opposite to my own, but at the same time, your skeptical approach is very similar to mine. As I thought about this, I couldn’t help thinking of two guys looking at a glass of water (half-full vs. half-empty).

    When it comes to PSI, more people are clearly aligned with the half-empty view that it’s all bunk, but I’ve come to know better. About five years ago, I got around to thinking about how could I prove this. Last year, I realized that I really don’t care about proof, experience is all I am really seeking.

    It is extremely easy to introduce nagging doubt about something one doesn’t know much about, but typically extremely difficult to resolve the truth of a thing. Let me give you an example.

    —————————-

    The sun actually revolves around the earth. People who say otherwise have to resort to complex mathematics and scientific theory to substantiate their claims. This wouldn’t be necessary if it was really true.

    For over 10,000 years of human history, people knew that the sun revolved around the earth. It’s only been in the past few hundred years that some people with very biased agendas, seeking money for their so-called scientific reseach and physics (note the similarity with word “psychic”), have pushed this theory and gotten the educators (another group who makes money by spreading the gospel of the scientist) to play along with their absurd, half-baked, ideas.

    If you really have any doubts, just go outside tonight and watch the sun “go down”, the same way it has since the beginning of recorded time.

    —————————–

    Perhaps this is a little far fetched, but hopefully readers see the point; doubt can be easily established, but truth is hard to prove. I would challenge anyone to “prove” that the earth goes around the sun in less than 100 words.

    As a pundit, therefore, what can we do to seek the truth rather than simply raise doubt as to one outcome or the other while sitting on the fence of neutrality?

    People enjoy the witty barbs and jabs of the pundit. Some even garner masochistic fulfillment as the pundit rips their ill-thought and marginally justified opinions to shreds, while others sadistically pleasure in seeing those brave enough to venture forth with an opinion flogged with fuzzy logic and hoisted on their own pittards.

    Perhaps you care to offer an opinion, after all, it’s your blog :)

    Bright Blessings,
    Larry

  24. Steven Novellaon 08 Jun 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Larry – thanks for writing.

    I think you are committing a logical fallacy – truth is hard to prove, PSI is hard to prove, therefore PSI is true.

    You further conclude that you do not require scientific evidence but rather opt for anecdotal evidence (experience). This is ill-advised. Many times people who do not like the outcome of hard scientific data decide to opt for less reliable data because it can more easily be made to support their position.

    Being hard to prove does not make something true nor does it remove the requirement for adequate evidence. PSI remains both implausible and without sufficient empirical evidence to conclude that it is probably true.

    Personal experience is a poor guide for complex truth – it is almost guaranteed to lead you to conclusions you wish to be true rather than conclusions which actually are true.

  25. [...] the final analysis, practicing phrenologists were and still are using a method known as cold reading. Briefly, cold reading is the technique of making general statements about a target subject, [...]

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