by Emil Karlsson via Debunking Denialism
Alleged psychics who claim to have supernatural powers to communicate with the “spirit realm” have been around for centuries, from the priestesses of the Oracle in Delphi to Sylvia Browne (who has been debunked several times on this blog, such as here, here, here and here). Alleged psychics may seem very convincing at first, but that is a cognitive illusion created by the fact that these supposed psychics use psychological tools and techniques to attempt to create such beliefs in the brain of their unsuspecting victims.
This article goes into detail and examines the nature of some of these tricks. Although no division is going to be perfect, they can be divided into three categories (with some overlap): basic techniques that almost all psychics use, techniques used to increase the probability of getting a hit and techniques used to salvage a miss. When combined, they constitute a powerful method for deception, especially if the victim is in an emotionally vulnerable state or if he or she already has an inclination to believe.
Why don’t you remember this headline?
There are certain techniques that are used by almost all alleged psychics that the deserved to be called basic techniques. This involves cold reading (making guesses and getting information from the victim), warm reading (making barnum statements that apply to almost everyone), hot reading (gotten information from researching the victim) and time-shifting (asking a question and claiming that the information was gotten from the spirit world when the victim tells the alleged psychic the information).
Cold reading: cold reading is perhaps one of the most common and well-known tactic used by alleged psychics. It is a technique designed to get the victim to give the alleged psychic the information, and then the alleged psychic takes credit for it and makes it appear that he or she got that information from the deceased loved one. The alleged psychic typically employ estimates and guesses that have a high prior probability of being true about the person, often informed by body language, manner of speech, outward appearance and so on. If a guess is confirmed, the alleged psychic pushes forward in that direction, hoping that confirmation bias will make the victim forget the hits and remember the misses.
Warm reading: there is a related technique refers to as warm reading. Some skeptics consider it a type of cold reading, whereas others conceptualize it as an independent technique. Warm reading occurs when the alleged psychic uses statements that apply to almost anyone (barnum statements) instead of using cold reading to get the victim to give them information. Examples include guessing for a common case of death (such as heart condition or cancer). If this technique is combined with inflating probabilistic resources, the supposed psychic has a very high probability of scoring a hit.
Hot reading: hot reading occurs when the alleged psychic has actually gotten information about the victim beforehand, either from a Google search or probing other people close the victim (such as relatives, friends, TV producers and so on). Then, when they present that information to their victims, it seems like a miraculous discovery and evidence that the alleged psychic can really talk to the dead. In reality, they have just gathered that information from living or electronic sources without you knowing it. With the popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, this is becoming an increasingly powerful technique.
Time-shifting: time-shifting is a technique that begins with the alleged psychic asking a question. If the victim gives an informative response, the alleged psychic replies that the dead loved one just told him or her that. To credulous victims, it may appear that the deceased loved one provided the information before the question was asked. In reality, it was the victim that gave that information to the supposed psychic and the supposed psychic tried to make it look like he or she was actually communicating with the dead.
Techniques to Ensure a Hit
The techniques in this category attempt to increase the probability of getting hits. This is done by various means, such as making a statement without specifying what dead relative and hoping that it will fit for at least one or making a statement in front of a crowd so that at least someone will relate (inflating probabilistic resources), increasing the number of statements made hoping that some are true (shotgunning), making statements that are contradictory or cover a range of possibilities (covering all the bases), ensure that all responses by the victim can be twisted into a hit by asking questions containing negations (vanishing negative) and making unverifiable/unfalsifiable claims that can never become misses (escape hatch).
George Anderson, a former switchboard operator, now talks to the dead.
Inflating probabilistic resources: this technique can be used both when performing a private reading and when doing a reading on e. g. a TV audience. Both are based on the fact that the more possible connections that can make between what the alleged psychic claims and reality, the greater probability that the claimed psychic will score a hit. During a private reading, the psychic might make vague claims about the victim’s dead relatives (e. g. who had the cat?). Since any given person might have quite a few dead relatives, there is a greater probability to score a hit than if the psychic had asked “did your mother have a cat?”. During psychic readings on a studio audience, an alleged psychic will throw out a bait to the entire audience, such as asking “who had the dad with the clock?” or similar. The alleged psychic is almost guaranteed a hit, because there is bound to be someone who can relate to it. In this case, the inflation does not occur by making claims that could refer to any dead relative. Instead, the inflation occurs because there are so many people in the studio audience. Using these techniques, the probability of getting a hit is increased.
Shotgunning: the defining characteristic of the shotgunning technique involves throwing out a lot of claims, particularly names, and hoping that the victim can relate to at least one of them. The alleged psychic relies on the confirmation bias of the victim to ensure that he or she will remember the hits and forgetting the misses. This is based on the same general ideas as inflating the probabilistic resources, although here it is about increasing the number of allowed guesses instead of increasing the probability that a given guess is interpreted as a hit.
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