Cold Reading: The Tricks of the Psychics
William Goldberg, MSW, BCD
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 1-900-SUCKER).
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 powers.
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 unrealistic.
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: Prometheus Books.
Randi. J. Flim Flam. 1982. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Snyder, C.R. and R.J. Shenkel. “The P.T. Barnum Effect.” 1975. Psychology Today, Vol. S7.S4
This article was originally published in Badaboom Gramophone #2. It is reprinted here with the author’s position.