Can you test psychic claims with science? Here are a few creative ways that you can test psychic powers scientifically as well as the results of these types of tests that have been performed hundreds of times over the last fifty years. This is part of my Exposing Psychics series.
Subjective validation is the process of validating words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate because one is able to find them personally meaningful and significant. Subjective validation explains why many people are seduced by the apparent accuracy of pseudoscientific personality profiles. Subjective validation deludes everyone from the housewife who thinks her happiness depends on her blood type or horoscope, to the FBI agent who thinks criminal profiles are spot on, to the therapist who thinks her Rorschach readings are penetrating portraits of psychological disorders.
Subjective validation is an essential element of any successful cold reading done by astrologers, palm readers, tarot readers, mediums, and the like. The sitter in such readings must cooperate. Fortunately for the medium, most sitters are usually eager for the reader to succeed and are willing to work hard to find personal meaning in whatever the reader throws out. In a successful cold reading, the sitter will be convinced that the accuracy of the reading was not due to her ability and willingness to cooperate but rather to the powers of astrology, palmistry, tarot, or mediumship.
Sitters are often very compliant. A medium will say he senses a father figure trying to contact him from the spirit world and the sitter has only to find someone to fit the bill. It need not be the sitter’s father. So, when the sitter identifies this father figure as her deceased husband, the medium is validated by the subject. The medium is validated by the subject when the medium says she is getting the message “I do not walk alone” and the sitter makes sense out of this by seeing it as a communication from a departed soul who was in a wheelchair before she died. There may be thousands of ways to make sense out of an ambiguous stimulus like the name ‘Michael’ or the expression ‘broken wheel’ but all it takes is for the sitter to find one and the medium is validated.
Selective memory is also involved in subjective validation because it is very unlikely that any sitter will be able to find meaning in every utterance the medium makes. Fortunately for the reader, the sitter will usually forget the misses and remember only the hits. That is, the sitter will remember what she was able to make sense out of and forget the stuff that made no sense to her. Also, it rarely occurs that anyone makes an independent check of the accuracy of the sitter’s rating of the reader.* So, if a sitter is satisfied that a reading is very accurate that is usually taken as sufficient evidence by the medium – and by experimenters who test mediums such as Gary Schwartz – as proof of the accuracy of the reading.
The stronger the desire to make contact, the harder the sitter will work to find meaning and connections in the medium’s items. This fact should impact the design of experiments that are supposed to test a medium’s ability to get messages from spirits. Experimenters should always checks factual claims made by sitters. But even though the concern with factual accuracy is important in verifying the success of the medium, one should not lose sight of the importance of the studies that have been done on how the human mind works when it comes to making sense out of and giving significance to disparate data presented to it. The overall effect of subjective validation should show up in the way sitters rate the accuracy of the mediums’ claims.
Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation. While some psychics are known to cheat and acquire information ahead of time, these ten tips focus on what is known as “cold reading” — reading someone “cold” without any prior knowledge about them.
What are Barnum Statements (The Forer Effect)? Let’s uncover how psychics use the Rainbow Ruse and psychic number games to fool their victims. We’ll examine clips of Theresa Caputo, John Edward, James Van Praagh, Joe Power, Rosemary Altea, and other alleged psychics to expose psychic tricks and cold reading methods just as magicians/skeptics like Derren Brown, Paul Zenon, and James Randi have done before. Don’t fall for their tricks, stay skeptical and don’t drink the psychic Koolaid!
There are many people who promote themselves as psychics or clairvoyants, and who claim that their powers enable them to read your character, make contact with dead relatives, or provide insights into your life and your future.
Despite their claims, there has never been a successful demonstration of these powers in a laboratory, under properly controlled conditions. Indeed, the National Committee of Australian Skeptics offers a cash prize of $100,000 for any PROVEN demonstration of such powers. See The Prize.
By far the most common method employed by psychics who have been put to the test is called cold reading. This method involves the psychic reading the subject’s body language etc, and skilfully extracting information from the subject, which can then be fed back later, convincing the subject that the psychic has told them things they couldn’t possibly have known!
The following is our 13 point guide to cold reading — Study them well, then amaze your friends with your new found psychic powers!
1. Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reading is confidence.
If you look and act as if you believe in what you are doing, you will be able to sell even a bad reading to most subjects. One danger of playing the role of reader is that you may actually begin to believe that you really are divining your subject’s true character!
2. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.
These can provide you with much information about what various subclasses in our society believe, do, want , worry about etc. For example, if you can ascertain a subject’s place of origin, educational level, and his/her parents’ religion and vocations, you have gained information which should allow you to predict with high probability his/her voting preferences and attitudes to many subjects.
3. Set the stage for your reading.
Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. You will then catch your subject off guard. You are not challenging them to a battle of wits – You can read his/her character, whether he/she believes you or not.
4. Gain the subject’s cooperation in advance.
Emphasise that the success of the reading depends as much on the subject’s cooperation as on your efforts. (After all, you imply, you already have a successful career at character reading — You are not on trial, your subject is!) State that due to difficulties of language and communication, you may not always convey the meaning you intend. In these cases, the subject must strive to fit the reading to his/her own life. You accomplish two valuable ends with this dodge — Firstly, you have an alibi in case the reading doesn’t click; it’s the subject’s fault, not yours! Secondly, your subject will strive to fit your generalities to his/her specific life circumstances. Later, when the subject recalls the reading, you will be credited with much more detail than you actually provided! This is crucial. Your reading will only succeed to the degree that the subject is made an active participant in the reading. The good reader is the one who , deliberately or unwittingly, forces the subject to search his/her mind to make sense of your statements.
Use of props serves two valuable purposes. Firstly, it lends atmosphere to the reading. Secondly, (and more importantly) it gives you time to formulate your next question/statement. Instead of just sitting there, thinking of something to say, you can be intently studying the cards /crystal ball etc. You may opt to hold hands with your subject — This will help you feel the subject’s reactions to your statements. If you are using , say, palmistry (the reading of hands) it will help if you have studied some manuals, and have learned the terminology. This will allow you to more quickly zero in on your subject’s chief concerns — “do you wish to concentrate on the heart line or the wealth line?“
6. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue.
Even during a cold reading, a liberal sprinkling of stock phrases will add body to the reading and will help you fill in time while you formulate more precise characterisations. Use them to start your readings. Palmistry, tarot and other fortune telling manuals are a key source of good phrases.
Detecting psychic scams & debunking mediums is easier when you know how psychic methods like cold reading work. Don’t be fooled by psychic misdirection. Cold reading tricks are used by psychics to convince an audience that they know things that they don’t – using high probability guesses, generalized statements, and linguistic techniques. Stay skeptical, dare to be curious, but don’t fall for this bullshit, and don’t drink the koolaid.
Detecting psychic scams & debunking mediums is easier when you know how psychic methods like hot reading work. Don’t be fooled by psychic misdirection. Expert mentalists, skeptics, and magicians Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, Paul Zenon, James Randi, and Mark Edward will reveal the secrets of psychics by exposing disgraceful psychic tricks used by psychic Sally Morgan, The Long Island Medium (Theresa Caputo), Rosemary Altea, Peter Popoff, Joe Power, James Van Praagh, and more. Stay skeptical, dare to be curious, but don’t fall for this bullshit, and don’t drink the koolaid.
Psychic mediums perform one-on-one sessions for sitters. Stage mediums typically offer personal readings, but they also perform short psychic readings to an audience. Unless the stage medium performs a hot reading, otherwise known as cheating, the main tool is cold reading. This involves observation, psychology and elicitation to provide the appearance of psychic powers. Let’s look at the typical formula used by stage mediums, and explore some commonly used linguistic and psychological techniques.
Naming is a fundamental part of any psychic medium reading. The medium mentions a common name, in order to find willing subjects for readings. Additional names or initials may be added, to narrow down the contenders to a single subject. I recently witnessed a different technique used by up-and-coming medium Rebecca Rosen at her Denver show. She began her performance by reading a list of names of spirits that had “lined up all day to leave messages for the audience.” This way, the audience was already drawing connections to the names and preparing for a reading. Her list included:
These two videos are absolutely brutal to watch. I love it. I enjoy watching these con artists fail at their con game.
Part 1 –
Part 2 –
I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.
When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?
In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.
A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible.
How the scam works
Encounters usually begin like any street-corner psychic, with a simple reading. Everyone who comes in for a reading is a potential mark. The more desperate the better.
Such psychics (I am just going to use the term “psychic” for convenience, but assume the usual caveats – alleged, fake, etc.) are adept at creating the illusion that they have some magical insight. They are, after all, just mentalists, and usually not very good ones. They don’t really have to be, as their audience wants to believe, often desperately.
Their primary tool is the cold reading. This is the technique of listening to what your mark says, then feeding it back to them as if it came to you magically. You can also make vague statements that are likely to apply to most people, then following up when you get a positive reaction, while glossing over any misses. Simple observation also plays a role. A willing target will do most of the hard work, making all the connections in their own mind. This can seem quite impressive to someone naive to the technique – in fact a skilled mentalist can seem impressive even to someone familiar with it.
This is all part of the grooming, drawing the mark in and gaining their confidence. This is, after all, a confidence game. Once you believe that the psychic has the magical power to fix your life, you are lost.
They then use a variety of tricks to bleed their marks of all their money. They may use some slight of hand, like pretending the water their mark gargled is full of insects, or an egg used in a seeing is full of black ichor. They try to convince their mark that they are cursed, and that the psychic has the power to lift the curse. This frequently involves praying over cash, gift cards, or other untraceable items of value – items the mark never sees again.
In one case a psychic scammed a business man whose girlfriend died unexpectedly out of $700,000.
It starts out in Russian, the English begins at the 0:50 mark. The description below the video has been translated from Russian to English by Google Translate.
I have my fingers crossed. 🙂
Description via Google Translate:
Paul Zenon is one of the most famous British magicians with extensive experience in the representation of different tricks, illusions, frauds and paranormal topics. It has several hundred appearances in television shows and almost 30 years experience in participating in public. Began to earn money as a street magician and learns how people can be fooled and manipulated. Then apply their practical knowledge of human psychology and attention to good causes like exposing pseudoscientific “stars”.
Gender Ratio of Zeno presented the most common techniques of mediums, illustrated with examples from the past few centuries. Cold reading (cold reading) and pre-collect information about companion enjoy the same frequency as in the 19th century and television fortune-tellers today.
Some People Certainly Think So
Every show on TLC really knows how to tug at your heartstrings, but The Long Island Medium does it pretty much better than anyone else. That is because the Long Island Medium herself, Theresa Caputo, has an amazing ability to connect strangers with their loved ones who have passed away. By communicating through “spirit,” Caputo can learn how someone died, his or her nickname, and even deliver a message to the living. Her readings are so spot-on, it’s freaky.
Maybe even a little too freaky for some people. When a person has a supernatural ability like this, there are of course going to be skeptics. Caputo encounters them all the time on her show, like when one self-proclaimed skeptic, Brian, started to believe after Caputo’s tape recorder magically stopped without any prompting. Like with most issues in our society, the debate has mainly been alive and well on the Internet, the trolliest of troll-y places, since the show premiered back in 2011. Whether it’s through opinion pieces, blog posts, or videos, there are plenty of people online who make it their mission to debunk Caputo’s ability. So who are these people, and why do they think Caputo is not for real?
Caputo’s main opponent is James Randi, a former magician and escape artist who now spends his days “as the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims,” according to his website. Randi is famous for his “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge,” where anyone who can prove “evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event” will be awarded $1 million.
Randi claims Caputo uses a technique that many mediums employ called “cold reading,” where it may look like Caputo is simply chatting with the person, but she’s actually picking up information that she’ll use to make what she says seem very specific to the person she’s reading. He says Caputo’s questions about initials and life events are basically just guesses that she hopes turn out to be true. Randi, who has also taken on the famous mediums John Edward and James Van Praagh, awarded Caputo a 2012 Pigasus Award, which is awarded to parapsychological frauds who are most harmful to society.
Inside Edition performed an entire investigation on Caputo in 2012, which found that she was much less accurate in her live readings than she is shown to be on her TV show, as she would “strike out time and again.” Inside Edition had former psychic Mark Edward perform the “cold reading” techniques he believed Caputo uses, and the audience believed him.
Palmistry, also known as chiromancy, is the practice of telling fortunes from the lines, marks, and patterns on the hands, particularly the palms.
Palmistry was practiced in many ancient cultures, such as India, China and Egypt. The first book on the subject appeared in the 15th century. The term chiromancy comes from the Greek word for hand (cheir).
Palmistry was used during the middle ages to detect witches. It was believed that certain spots on the hand indicated one had made a pact with the Devil. Palmistry was condemned by the Catholic Church but in the 17th century it was taught at several German universities (Pickover, 64). Britain outlawed palmistry in the 18th century. It is popular enough in America in the 20th century to deserve its own book in the Complete Idiot’s Guide series.
According to Ann Fiery (The Book of Divination), if you are right handed, your left hand indicates inherited personality traits and your right hand indicates your individuality and fulfillment of potential. The palmist claims to be able to read the various lines on your hand. These lines are given names like the life line, the head line, the heart line, the Saturne line. The life line supposedly indicates physical vitality, the head line intellectual capacity, the heart line emotional nature, etc.
Some palmistry mimics metoposcopy or physiognomy. It claims that you can tell what a person is like by the shape of their hands. Creative people have fan-shaped hands and sensitive souls have narrow, pointy fingers and fleshy palms, etc. There is about as much scientific support for such notions as there is for personology or phrenology. All such forms of divination seem to be based on sympathetic magic and cold reading.
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.
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).
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.
- North Hollywood Woman Sues Psychic Over Love Curse (illuminutti.com)
- Pam Ragland, Terry Smith: No, psychics can’t help murder victims. (illuminutti.com)
- Skeptical ‘Zombies’ Attack Alleged Psychic James Van Praagh (VIDEO) (illuminutti.com)
- It’s a boy – psychic fail (doubtfulnews.com)
- Mediums, Psychics – Snakeoil Salesmen (skepticsguidetolife.wordpress.com)
- National Geographic Supports Pseudoscience (skepticblog.org)
- Investigator: more phony psychics in FL (wptv.com)
- Psychic no help to police in Isle of Wight case (doubtfulnews.com)
- Psychic scam in Florida: $800,000 is a lot of voodoo (doubtfulnews.com)
- Psychic Sally Damages (In More Ways Than One) (randi.org)
“In the course of a successful reading, the psychic may provide most of the words, but it is the client that provides most of the meaning and all of the significance.” —Ian Rowland (2000: 60)
Cold reading refers to a set of techniques used by professional manipulators to get a subject to behave in a certain way or to think that the cold reader has some sort of special ability that allows him to “mysteriously” know things about the subject. Cold reading goes beyond the usual tools of manipulation: suggestion and flattery. In cold reading, salespersons, hypnotists, advertising pros, faith healers, con men, and some therapists bank on their subject’s inclination to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is. The desire to make sense out of experience can lead us to many wonderful discoveries, but it can also lead us to many follies. The manipulator knows that his mark will be inclined to try to make sense out of whatever he is told, no matter how farfetched or improbable. He knows, too, that people are generally self-centered, that we tend to have unrealistic views of ourselves, and that we will generally accept claims about ourselves that reflect not how we are or even how we really think we are but how we wish we were or think we should be. He also knows that for every several claims he makes about you that you reject as being inaccurate, he will make one that meets with your approval; and he knows that you are likely to remember the hits he makes and forget the misses.
Thus, a good manipulator can provide a reading of a total stranger, which will make the stranger feel that the manipulator possesses some special power. For example, Bertram Forer has never met you, yet he offers the following cold reading of you:
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.
Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.
Here’s another reading that you might find fairly accurate about you:
People close to you have been taking advantage of you. Your basic honesty has been getting in your way. Many opportunities that you have had offered to you in the past have had to be surrendered because you refuse to take advantage of others. You like to read books and articles to improve your mind. In fact, if you’re not already in some sort of personal service business, you should be. You have an infinite capacity for understanding people’s problems and you can sympathize with them. But you are firm when confronted with obstinacy or outright stupidity. Law enforcement would be another field you understand. Your sense of justice is quite strong.
The last one was from astrologer Sidney Omarr. He’s never even met you and yet he knows so much about you (Randi 1982: 61). The first one was taken by Forer from a newsstand astrology book.
The selectivity of the human mind is always at work. We pick and choose what data we will remember and what we will give significance to. In part, we do so because of what we already believe or want to believe. In part, we do so in order to make sense out of what we are experiencing. We are not manipulated simply because we are gullible or suggestible, or just because the signs and symbols of the manipulator are vague or ambiguous. Even when the signs are clear and we are skeptical, we can still be manipulated. In fact, it may even be the case that particularly bright persons are more likely to be manipulated when the language is clear and they are thinking logically. To make the connections that the manipulator wants you to make, you must be thinking logically.
Not all cold readings are done by malicious manipulators. Some readings are done by astrologers, graphologists, tarot readers, New Age healers, and people who genuinely believe they have paranormal powers.
- How did the psychic know that? (illuminutti.com)
- Graphology (illuminutti.com)
- Cold Reading: Sylvia Browne, Amanda Berry and Recruiters (thecynicalgirl.com)
- Psychic reading: Tips on what to look for or those readings leave me cold. (areyouanempath.com)
- Live demonstration of Psychic Powers (skeptical-science.com)
- Sylvia Browne exposed as a fake. Again (skepulation.wordpress.com)
- Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them (theinternettimessupplement.wordpress.com)
- Cold reading (sethgodin.typepad.com)