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.


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 naïve “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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