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Cold Reading: Confessions of a ‘psychic’

This article is based on an interview with OSSCI executive member Timothy Campbell.

A diligent channel surfer should notice a new trend in TV talk shows: psychic guests supposedly channeling the dead relatives of audience members, often conveying information they could not possibly have known in advance. Can psychics really divine the future by speaking to the dead, or do they, as skeptics insist, just use an old magician’s parlour trick called “cold reading”?

The undisputed king of talk show psychics is John Edward, who has his own hit syndicated show on CBS, “Crossing Over.” Edward allegedly delivers messages from the spirit world to members of the studio audience, who are often shocked and moved to tears.

Timothy Campbell, an executive of the Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry, doesn’t buy it.

“The thing with John Edward is, not only is he not psychic, but he’s not even very good faking it,” Campbell says. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how these people are doing these things.”

Campbell says that Edward and all other so-called psychics use the technique of cold reading, not clairvoyance, to wow their audiences.

Cold reading, Campbell explains, is no single feat, but rather the use of several tricks and skills to subtly coax information from a person – information which can later be fed back to the subject, repackaged as a new and amazing insight. It involves deductive reasoning, quick thinking, a sense of psychology, a reasonable grasp of statistics and demographics, and a healthy dose of modest charm. With a little practice, skeptics say, anyone can be a “psychic.”

And Campbell knows that of which he speaks: he was once a “psychic” himself.

“A year or two ago I decided I wanted to try to do some cold reading, just to see how hard it would be, because I had seen TV psychics do it on the air.”

Campbell signed into to an Internet chat room and declared himself to be a psychic who channeled the fortune-telling spirit of an Eighteenth Century French soldier named Gaston. In no time he received e-mails from people asking for readings.

“I was extremely successful with the readings I did there. No one ever suspected I was anything but the real thing.”

The way to start a reading, Campbell says, is first to feign modesty about your psychic ability: “John Edward doesn’t claim to be that good. I always told people I didn’t do readings very often, and might make mistakes.” Revelations seem more impressive when they catch a subject off guard.

Campbell’s readings always began with what he calls “hot button topics”:

“They are relationships, money, spirituality, loss and honesty. They’re universal. I’d say something vague like ‘you’re seeking to hide your pain behind a façade.’ Now, there is no person on Earth who doesn’t hide from pain.”

It’s a phenomenon skeptics call the fallacy of personal validation: people will often believe a very general statement to be specifically applicable to them.

“Pick up the horoscope section of any paper, choose any sign at random and start reading. It will apply to you,” Campbell says.

Campbell’s hot button topics were vague enough that he was sure to score a “hit” – a positive response that suggests the supposed psychic is barking up the right tree.

He would then “go fishing” for more hits, using subtle clues and feedback from his subject to gradually move his line of questioning from the vague to the specific.

During one voice chat, for example, Campbell noticed that the woman he was “reading” spoke with a drawl typical of a person who would live out in the country.

“I guessed that she lived in the country, and probably near some horses. I said to her, ‘my spirit guide Gaston is telling me about something to do with horses, and something to do with your mother.’ She told me that she had a dream the night before about her mother driving a pickup truck into some water. I said, ‘ah, that’s what Gaston must be talking about – a horseless vehicle. Remember, he died during the Napoleonic War and doesn’t know what a truck is.'”

“Luckily, the word mere is French for mother, mare also means horse, and mer also means sea.” Campbell milked the coincidence for all it was worth – a necessary evil in cold reading.

“When that woman looks back on that reading, she’ll think that I told her exactly what she dreamt the night before. That’s how she’ll remember it. All I did was mention horses and her mother. She did the rest. Cold readers keep things nice and ambiguous and let the person do all the work.”

Of course, not all educated guesses are as lucky as Campbell’s one about the horse.

For every solid “hit” a cold reader must be prepared for several outright “misses.”

“I had stock phrases to use as dodges – subterfuges to use for getting out of mistakes,” Campbell says. “For example, I’d say, ‘Gaston just used a French word I don’t know. Hang on while I look it up.’ It gave me a chance to think of the next thing to do.”

Cold readers capitalize on the human tendency to remember remarkable or strange thing (i.e. hits), and to quickly forget that which is ordinary and unimpressive (misses).

Campbell moved his way through his readings as if moving along a computer flowchart, veering away from dead ends and constantly honing in on specific information.

Because his subjects could not see him during the online or readings, Campbell would sometimes look up information about the subject on the Internet, or find their address in the phone book (which, in the reading, would come out as a number Gaston had been repeating).

Campbell says that even psychics who do readings in person employ similar techniques. “In [John Edward’s] studio there are microphones hanging over the audience, to pick up their applause and whatnot. What else do you suppose those microphones are used for? People sit there before the show and say ‘Oh, I hope John contacts my Uncle Bob’ and then John Edward comes out and says, ‘I sense someone has lost an uncle named Bob.”

And psychics who don’t have the luxury of a wired TV studio? “If you go to one of these psychic parlours in Toronto, I would note, for example, if they ask you to hang your coat in another room. If they do, there’s a good chance their confederate will be going through your pockets [looking for clues]. There are any number of tricks they can use.”

Cold readers often study statistics, polls and surveys on which they base educated guesses about their subjects based on their race, hometown, religion or financial status. They will also capitalize on traits common to most people: many women who wear black clothes are conscious of their weight; most red haired people suffer hay fever in spring and summer; many people who have lost a loved one keep a picture of that person at their bedside, and so on.

When such generalities are expressed as insights from the spirit world, Campbell says very few people question them: “If you’re not suspicious, this stuff can seem just absolutely miraculous.”

Armed with this new knowledge of psychic trickery, but also with a nagging desire to believe that some psychics could be the real deal, I went to Mystical Vision Psychics on Toronto’s Yonge Street for my very own reading.

After being given the run-down of prices, which ranged from $20 to just under $100 (depending on the depth and style of the reading), I checked my wallet and opted for “twenty dollar special.”

I was told in advance that this reading would not provide the kind of insights that could be gleaned from one of the more expensive treatments. I recalled Campbell’s assertion that a good cold reader feigns modesty right off the bat.

The psychic, a twenty-something South Asian woman, led me to a small, round table behind a black curtain, and handed me a tarot deck to shuffle.

“Shuffle it and concentrate on what you want to know about. Then divide it into three piles, choose one pile, and hand me any five cards you like from that pile.”

I did so, and as she laid out my five chosen cards, she asked me about which three broad topics I would like to know about. Rather than fishing for “hot button topics” as Campbell did, she just asked for them.

I obliged, telling her I’d like to know what the future held for me in terms of money, love, and family relationships.

“Have you made any investments lately?” she asked. “I’m seeing something about an investment or a big purchase.”

I answered, truthfully: “no.” A miss.

“You will be making an investment in the future or the near future. You’ll buy a car, or a house, or property. It won’t just be given to you, it will be yours.”

That’s good news, I thought. But it is also quite universally applicable. I could hear Campbell repeating the principles of cold reading in the back of my mind: “Use things that can apply to anyone.”

We moved on to my love life. My psychic reader said she sensed a recent split in a relationship. I told her I have been with my girlfriend for almost five years. Another miss?

“I’m still seeing a kind of split,” she persisted. “Maybe in your family? Maybe your mother and your father?”

I told her my parents are divorced. “That’s it,” she said. “I feel that there was jealousy and anger there, but things are better now?”

This could be construed as a hit, but she didn’t actually say my parents were divorced; I did. And it happened 15 years ago, not recently.

At another point, she told me I should finish my schooling, but only after outright asking whether I was working or in school.

Again, Campbell seemed to be shouting in my head: “Cold readers keep things nice and ambiguous, and let the person do all the work.”

My reading continued as such. She had a few more outright misses, like when she told me she saw a brother or an uncle in my life who often gives me advice. I’m brotherless, and don’t speak to any of my uncles more than once or twice a year.

She made other statements about my future, which, by sheer probability alone, will likely come true:

“You will move to a place near water, or travel over water.”

“You will work in a firm, or a business or a company.”

“You’re not going to be poor. You’ll have money.”

She told me I should eat right and get lots of sleep.

Within 15 minutes I left, unimpressed and relieved of 20 dollars. Judging by all of Campbell’s criteria, I seemed to have been shystered by a cold reader.

But, I asked him, isn’t it possible that there are some real psychics out there? Could cold reading simply be a natural means of simulating a supernatural feat?

“I don’t think there are any real psychics,” he replied. “Absolutely I don’t. For the simple reason that, if a person had such abilities, we would know about it. They could do an enormous amount of good with it.”

Campbell mentioned stage magician and renowned skeptic James Randi, who for six years has offered one million dollars to any psychic who can prove, in controlled scientific conditions, that he or she has supernatural powers. So far, no one has been able to claim the prize.

So all so-called psychics are just deceitful con artists?

No, not quite all, Campbell insists. “Skeptics distinguish between what we call ‘eyes-open’ psychics and ‘eyes-shut’ psychics. Eyes-open psychics are deliberately conning people. Eyes shut psychics are intuitive people who believe they actually have some powers. All they’ve really done is learned how to do cold reading without realizing it. I have no idea what proportions they’re in, but my feeling is that 99 per cent of them are eyes-open.”

Campbell’s days as an eyes-open psychic are behind him now. He quit doing his free cold readings when his conscience began to nag: “I stopped after I did a reading for a woman and uncovered a secret in her life that she had never revealed to anyone, ever.”

Through his subtle prying, Campbell realized the woman had been sexually abused as a child by an adult close to her. “I got her to say what happened. In a way it was good because it meant she had shared this secret with somebody. But in another way I just felt horrible because now this woman is convinced that I am a real psychic. At that point I couldn’t possibly tell her I was just fooling her, because that would have been horrible.”

As a member of the Ontario Skeptics Society, Campbell feels it was his duty to inform people about psychics, but not dupe them.

“I felt bad because I was lying to people. That’s not what I want to do with my life – to convince people psychics are real.”

“My personal belief is that a lot of people who go to psychics, in some level of their brain, are aware that it’s not real. But they don’t let that awareness surface to their consciousness.”

Campbell and the Ontario Skeptics Society hope that with a little coaxing they can help people see the light – not the light from the afterlife, but the light of reason.

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