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How to Not Be Fooled – Part #2 – Psychics, Horoscopes and Cold Reading

4 August 2009 4 Comments
How to Not Be Fooled – Part #2 – Psychics, Horoscopes and Cold Reading

It’s unfortunate but there are many folks out there who are knowingly fooling or lying to the public. The best example I could give would be so-called-psychics John Edwards, Sylvia Browne or most recently Lisa Williams. These people generate incredible disgust in me and I will explain why.

James Randi has long offered the princely sum of $1,000,000 to anyone who can submit to clinical testing in a controlled environment (of their choosing) and demonstrate supernatural powers [LINK]. This has been called the “Million Dollar Challenge”. It’d be easy money if you had supernatural powers as these psychics claim. Sylvia Brown agreed to take the test over 10 years ago on the Larry King show but never followed through.

The truth is these folks cannot talk to the dead and do not possess psychic powers. What they are doing is knowingly fooling the public using a technique called “Cold Reading”.

Cold Reading involves a person (the Reader) making suggestions or statements, which at face value sound specific, but in reality are general statements which apply to almost anyone. The person being interviewed then takes these statements and applies them to their own lives, often without even realizing and the result is an experience in which the interviewee feels as though the Reader has either spoken to a dead relative of theirs or completely read their mind.

It’s called “cold” reading since the reader needs no prior knowledge of the subject. If they had prior knowledge that’d be “hot” reading.

Here’s an example:

  • Reader: I see a male figure (guaranteed hit)
  • Client: Yes
  • Reader: An older male, with a strong temperament but a gentle demeanor, could be a uncle, father or grandfather (we all have at least one make figure who’s dead). The demeanor part sounds specific but it’s actually not. )
  • Client: Yes, my Uncle passed away. He was very soft spoken.
  • Reader: Yes a gentle man. He kept his strong side hidden.
  • Reader: He’s upset. Something about “too soon”. He didn’t get to finish. (again, sounds specific, but if it’s an uncle then depending on the Client’s age this would be a high-probability hit).
  • Reader: Was he sick for a while? (leading question)
  • Client: No (What? a miss? Our psychic’s stumbling…)
  • Reader: No, that’s right, because he’s saying it was quite sudden. (See what he did there? Turned a miss into a hit).
  • Client: That’s true, he was taken suddenly.
  • Reader: I see a huge pressure in his chest area. (this is a really useful statement which can mean anything from massive heart attack to lung cancer to getting hit with a stick in the chest to breaking a rib etc.)
  • Client: No I don’t understand
  • Reader: He says there’s something in the chest area, you have to help me here, something about a burning or smoke maybe?
  • Client: I don’t understand, my uncle drowned. (the reader’s completely missed)
  • Reader: Yes, that’s right, he says he felt pressure in his lungs from the water. (he’s turned it around)
  • Client: (client is now sobbing) Wow! That’s amazing
  • Reader: He says he’s ok now, things were very sudden but he wants me to acknowledge that he’s fine now.
  • Client: Oh thank goodness.

That’s just a sample made up out of whole cloth but you can see how the Reader just made artful guesses whilst the Client did the work. The Reader made numerous guesses, all high probability hits and when things went well he built upon them.

The mind plays a role here. Most folks who’d seek a psychic’s help are already true believers. They WANT the thing to work. In fact this desire is so strong that a client will subconsciously fail to remember all the incorrect guesses that a cold reader makes and only recall the hits that actually were close. Our friend, Confirmation Bias again.

Anyone can be a psychic if you know the types of things to say: Lots of folks use “Barnum Statements” – Named after P.T. Barnum, they sound specific but apply to everyone:

  • “I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well.”
  • “You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house.”
  • “You had an accident when you were a child involving water.”
  • “You’re having problems with a friend or relative.”
  • “Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen.”

Horoscopes work the same way. In “Cosmos” Carl Sagan famously read the horoscopes from different newspapers for the same sign for the same time period, all with different answers. When shown any horoscope, even ones which are not intended for that individual, the individual will find some nugget in there that makes sense.

As an aside: Astrology isn’t doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme nor reason anyway; Years ago the astrological signs were determined by the rotation of the heavens over the earth. At the time there were 12 astrological signs. Due to incremental changes in the earth’s rotation the number of constellations now is actually 13 but no one recognizes the 13th sign, Ophiuchus.

By now you get the idea. Psychics and Astrologists are all con artists. Over time a number of techniques have developed, here are a few more types : “The Jacques Statement”, “The Fuzzy Fact”, “The Greener Grass technique”, “The Diverted Question”, “Sugar Lumps”, “the Russian Doll”, “Forking”, “The Jargon Blast” and the “Good Chance Guess”. John Edwards seems particularly fond of using “Push Statements” – stories that are made up out of whole cloth and usually don’t make sense to the client. The client goes away and ultimately tweaks the story until it fits something in their lives. The point being that he is such a good psychic that he even knows stuff that at first doesn’t make sense.

Unfortunately the Media plays a big roll in perpetuating this nonsense. It doesn’t always go the Reader’s way though. Here are a few videos of Sylvia and John making completely wrong guesses and here’s what gets me; these folks are flat-out lying to people in extremely unfortunate situations. There could be nothing worse than giving false hope where there is none or telling someone their loved one is dead when in fact they are alive and well. Only the lowest scum of the earth would do such a thing.

Watch as Sylvia tells Shawn Hornbeck’s parents that he is dead. She provides incorrect information which diverted the police search. She gave false information on the description of his abductor. Despicable. Shawn thankfully showed up 4 years later alive.

Don’t be fooled; look for plausibility supported by evidence. http://www.stopsylvia.com


  • Alexander Davis said:

    It’s funny that your Google ad for this post reads: “The Love Psychic – Free Reading by Phone – Reunite Lovers in Hours – Call Now” (it’s from BestLoverPsychic). :-)

  • Benita@Cold Reading said:

    Cold reading has always surprised folks. And what’s not to be very impressed about? Whether or not the person can’t actually read your mind as he might read words in a novel, there’s still something undeniably striking about a individual who can profile you instantly.

  • Francis (author) said:

    I think you mis-understand what’s going on with Cold Reading. The reader has no actual insight into the subject’s personality or profile at all. They’re simply taking wild high-probability guesses with no idea of accuracy. The subject is actually doing the work of modifying the guesses to apply them to their own lives. This type of thing requires no skill or insight on the part of the reader and in fact the reader could easily be replaced by a machine/computer.

  • bop nam said:

    They’re simply taking wild high-probability guesses with no idea of accuracy. The subject is actually doing the work of modifying the guesses to apply them to their own lives. This type of thing requires no skill or insight on the part of the reader and in fact the reader could easily be replaced by a machine/computer.

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