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A closer look at psychics

On February 13, 2004, Toronto-area skeptics attended a reenactment of highlights from the December 3, 2003 instalment of Larry King’s phone-in show. Skeptic Deirdre Breton, sporting a blonde wig, played purported psychic Sylvia Browne. David Gower wore Larry King’s suspenders. Francesca Groves stood in for the callers by adopting a variety of accents.

For research purposes, I have successfully posed as a psychic on Yahoo Voice Chat ( on the Web). Thus prepared, I was able to follow up each of the reenacted readings with a detailed analysis of Sylvia Browne’s performance, which I believe were simply cold reading.

“Cold reading” is the extraction of seemingly unknowable information by a psychic, using a variety of tricks. In the skeptical literature there are many references to cold reading, but seldom is it explained in any detail. In my opinion, the best reference is “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading” by Ian Rowland (, which was reviewed in the Fall 2003 edition of this newsletter.

Cold reading is not a science, so when I was describing Browne’s methods to the audience, I had to invent some of my own words. I will be using these terms here, but other skeptics may use different ones.

The psychic game

I would like to clear up a misconception about cold reading. It is not a matter of making vague statements and uttering generalities. A psychic who relies on these won’t hold on to many of his or her customers. Good cold readers have at their disposal hundreds of techniques.

In many ways, a cold reading is like a game of chess. There are opening moves and standard gambits. The gambits are especially important when the psychic does not have time to think. Also, as in chess, the psychic has to plan ahead, setting things up to score big later on, yet always having a fall-back position in case things don’t go as planned. In both chess and a well-executed cold reading, the player does not take chances without considering all of the ways that the game may proceed.

One final similarity to chess: to play the game well, you can’t panic. You have to keep a cool head, even when things are going badly. That is why most people can’t play chess competitively or do effective cold readings. You may understand the techniques fully, but actually putting yourself on the line, where you can be swatted down, is a risk that few people are willing to take.

Cold reading basics

The first term I introduced in my presentation was “the mark”, which is the psychic’s customer. The word “mark”, of course, is normally associated with confidence tricksters, but I think it is appropriate in this context.

In cold reading there are “hits” and “misses”. Most people think of a “hit” as revealing something that the psychic seemingly couldn’t have known, while a “miss” is saying something that turns out to be wrong. Those definitions are essentially correct, but incomplete.

Remember that the psychic is providing a service, and they try to give their customers what they truly want, which might be at odds with what they say they want. Professional psychics know that people who request a reading usually aren’t looking to be convinced that the phenomenon is genuine. On the contrary, the mark will work very hard to avoid exposing the psychic.

For example, in one experiment I logged into the Yahoo Chat system with the intention of doing a terrible job of posing as a psychic. I made many howling errors. Yet the other people in the chat room obligingly made up excuses for me. They desperately wanted me to be the real thing. People might be asking about a dead relative, but they usually have additional needs, such as a desire for validation, absolution, or empathy. They cannot get these from somebody they believe is a fake, so they have a subconscious motivation to avoid debunking the fraud.

Because of this, what sometimes appears to be a “miss” is better described as a “no-hit”. In other words, the psychic was working towards a goal and failed. However, the customer is not disappointed. First of all, he or she has no idea what the psychic was going for. Second, the mark has a strong desire for the psychic to succeed and thus will tend to overlook mistakes. An experienced psychic like Sylvia Browne makes very few conspicuous misses, but she does get plenty of “no-hits”.

Another important concept in cold reading is “repackaging”. A psychic will often rehash bits of the reading but put an expedient spin on it. Repackaging is usually what makes or breaks a cold reading session. An example of repackaging is when the psychic emphasizes a hit by rephrasing what was just said, taking the liberty of enhancing the performance by mixing up who said what, or what actually happened. When the mark later thinks back, they will often credit the psychic with a near miracle.

In one cold reading I did two years ago, I used repackaging to convince a woman that I had told her precisely what she had dreamed the previous night. What I actually did was alter her recollection of what had occurred. If you were to ask her today what I did, it’s quite likely that she would have a vivid and detailed memory of something that never happened. (To learn more about the malleability of memory, a good place to start is by searching the Web for “Elizabeth Loftus”.)

In addition to hits, there are what I call “magic hits”. Occasionally the psychic will take a risk, saying something that can result in a potentially embarrassing miss. If the psychic is successful, the mark will be extremely impressed. If the psychic fails, though, he or she will have to go into “damage control”. This can involve repackaging what was said, or refocusing the mark on something else — in short, anything to get the mark to forget the miss and move on.

Damage control sometimes requires some very fast thinking, but there are plenty of standard fall-back positions. For example, the psychic can insist that he or she is correct, but the mark has forgotten, doesn’t know, or will soon find out.

Are any psychics genuine?

You will note that I tend to use the word “psychic” as if it meant “charlatan”. Is it possible that some people genuinely have psychic abilities such as are claimed by Sylvia Browne and John Edward? I consider this highly unlikely.

Psychics claim to have access to the collected wisdom and intelligence of everybody who has died, and various spirit beings as well, yet they have never produced a single invention, or cure, or scientific insight. It’s hard to see how the entire population of the dead, which includes such notables as Galileo and Newton, have failed to come up with at least one revolutionary idea — especially considering that we’re told they are happy and no longer have any worries.

Incidentally, after a local newspaper interviewed me about psychics, a woman phoned to inform me that she was in daily communication with Albert Einstein. I said that this was wonderful news, and asked her what new discoveries he had made. She responded that Albert felt guilty about the atomic bomb and thus was no longer interested in physics! He did, however, pass along the message that we should all love one another. I can’t disagree with that.

People do occasionally have astonishing insights and make amazing predictions. For example, I predicted in public that the Blue Ghost Tunnel (described elsewhere in this issue) would be sealed up this summer. Lo and behold, this is indeed what happened.

Does that mean that I am a true psychic? No. What I just did was repackage the truth. What I actually said was that I considered it likely that this would happen. It was an educated guess, not a definite prediction. However, if I was a self-promoting psychic like Sylvia Browne, I might have overlooked that fine distinction.

What about people with astonishing insights? Well, I’ve never been convinced that ESP (Extrasensory Perception) exists, but I do believe in what I call XP. No, not the Windows operating system, but something I call Extraordinary Perception. I invented this term back in the 1970’s after I met a woman who could, as the expression goes, “read people like a book” simply by watching them in social situations. She never claimed to be psychic; she simply said that she paid attention.

I sometimes wonder how many people think they are receiving information from the Great Beyond when they are, in fact, using their innate capabilities.

Where’s the harm?

Some people may ask, “What harm do psychics do?” They figure that psychics actually do some good, by helping people get over their grief. Well, when people say that to me I ask: who gave the psychic permission to tell someone how they should remember somebody they cared about deeply? The psychic is altering the legacy of the beloved. In a way, it’s as if they are spray-painting that person’s grave stone. It strikes me as a particularly egregious form of vandalism.

There’s another problem. What happens to those people who believed the psychic, but eventually realize that it was all a trick? Now they have to go through the grief all over again. What’s more, they no longer know what to believe, and their memory has been tainted. Because of the psychic, the person has to endure another funeral, so to speak.

The final problem I have with psychics is that they are pitching a lie about the way the universe actually operates. I happen to believe that the truth is always better than a lie in the long run. Imagine what hospitals would be like if we still believed that disease was caused by evil spirits!

Although my objections are philosophical, I also feel a sense of moral outrage. I see these psychics as con-artists, turning grief into money.


Next time you watch a psychic perform, you may not be able to figure out every trick they pull. Sometimes they may even do something so amazing that you will be utterly baffled. Remember, though, that some of these people have been doing this for decades. They are master illusionists and we can grudgingly acknowledge that they are highly skilled at what they do. So it’s not surprising that we can’t explain every deception.

Incidentally, nothing that Sylvia Browne did in her readings on the Larry King show struck me as particularly clever. The only thing that mystifies me is how she can live with her conscience.

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