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Reverse-reading a psychic, or Can I con a con artist?

Note: Some details in the following article, such as names, have been altered to allow for further investigations.

What happens when skeptics pose as non-skeptics? Can they keep their questioning temperaments under wraps long enough to keep up the pretense? I had a chance to find out.

In early November of 2004, shortly after Skeptics Canada had held its Skeptical Exposition, I spotted an advertisement in the newspaper for a Psychic Fair. This surprised me, as we had traditionally held the Skeptical Exposition at about the same time as the annual Psychic Fair. Indeed, the SkeptEx was originally known as the “Psychic UnFair” to highlight its role as a counterpoint.

The advert piqued my curiosity. Were the Psychic Fairs becoming a monthly event? I decided I should investigate further.

At that point it dawned on me: although I’ve posed as a fake psychic and have analyzed many sessions, I’d never had a reading myself. This seemed like a serious oversight, so I figured that when I went to the Psychic Fair I would also get a reading.

I did not expect to learn any new tricks, since I was already fairly well versed in the art of cold reading. I did, however, have three specific goals in mind.

First, I wanted to see if I could successfully pose as a “mark” without being identified as a skeptic. Second, I wanted to see if I could spot any evidence of collusion between the mystics, such as passing around tidbits of information that might be useful during a reading. Third, I wanted to see how good I was at spotting intentional deception. That is to say, I wanted to see if I could figure out if a purported psychic actually believed he or she possessed the power, or was simply an “eyes open” charlatan.

The new me

Half the fun of this project was creating a fake identity. I couldn’t go as myself, because they might recognize my name. In addition, I wanted to be sure that the reading could not possibly be right so that (with a nod to Karl Popper) the entire test was falsifiable.

Creating a new identity is not merely a matter of thinking up a name: I needed to create a complete background. It would hardly do for the psychic to ask me, “What is your date of birth?” and then have to think about it for a moment. In order to do this right I had to become the character. Bear in mind that even if psychics do not have paranormal gifts, the successful ones do have a strong intuitive ability to “read” a person. So my alter-ego required extensive preparation.

For verisimilitude, I chose a name that sounded a bit odd. A really common name such as “John Smith” would be a dead giveaway. The name I chose also sounded a bit like a nickname I’d had many years ago. This was important because if somebody spoke my name I had to look up instinctually, rather than pausing until I realized, “Oh, yeah, that’s supposed to be me”.

I also had to create a back-story for the character. This went into considerable depth, including the person’s life history and a bit of genealogy. I also included a few small irrelevant details that I could toss in if the opportunity arose.

I then set up an email address for the character, created some “wallet fodder” (various fake membership cards, which I carefully weathered so they’d look like I’d had them for a few years), and brought along an item that supposedly had some deep personal meaning to me in case the psychic performed psychometry.

Finally, I wanted to change my appearance, in case some of the people at the Psychic Fair had attended one of our events. I am hardly a master of disguise, but altering my hairstyle and clothing was simple enough. I also found that when I was “in character” it was natural to change my posture and mannerisms. One thing I forgot to change was my gait, but if I do this again I could use an old espionage trick: put some extra padding in the heel of each shoe.

I decided to walk to the Fair from about three kilometers away so that I could practice being in character. On the way I struck up a conversation with a pair of pedestrians. As it happened, though, I recognized one of them – it was actress Teresa Pavlinek. Being a fan of the show History Bites, I simply had to talk to her about it, and in the process I fell out of character.

Perhaps, since I was talking to an actress, I should have asked her for some tips on remaining in character. However, I would not have been wise to reveal my plan to anybody I did not know, so I could not take advantage of the opportunity.

An Overview of the Reading

The Psychic Fair, as it turned out, was not the large annual event. Rather it was a small affair in the back room of a tavern, with only six or seven mystics in attendance. I do not know if there is a connection between the people running this Fair and the big one, but since they both use the same name I assume there is some crossover.

My reading cost $35 for 20 minutes and was performed by a woman whom I will refer to as Mary. As readings go it was rather unremarkable. I’ve done better ones myself, even with my limited experience at being a fake psychic.

The session employed standard cold reading tactics. There were shots in the dark, such as tossing out common names and waiting for me to make a connection. Things I had said earlier were fed back to me in altered form. The psychic made some reasonable inferences, but phrased them in flexible ways. These are all well-worn techniques, but it did not matter since I was not there to hone my own craft.

There was one notable departure from what you see if you watch a psychic on television: the absence of what I call “The Patrick Syndrome”. This is where a psychic passes along messages from the Great Beyond far faster than they could possibly hear them. (I named the syndrome after a television commercial where somebody relays a phone message half a second after picking up.) I now realize that psychics on TV have to keep things rolling, but somebody who has already received their $35 for a 20 minute reading has no such pressure.


In a cold reading, the psychic has to establish a rapport with the mark, try to extract information, and generally control the process. In my case, I had to do precisely the same with the psychic, so I called this a reverse cold reading.

It takes a fair bit of nerve to walk into a room full of psychics and believers and try to hoodwink them. I wasn’t very confident that I could pull it off. If I was exposed, I wanted to at least know where I made my mistake, so I secretly tape-recorded the session.

There were many ways I could have tripped up. For example, if my tape recorder ran out of tape, there would be a suspicious “clunk” sound. I had taken many precautions to avoid silly mistakes like that, but since I may do something like this again some day I cannot describe these preparations here.

As it turned out, I was not caught in my deception, but the recording was still useful as an aide-memoire. I was rather nervous during the reading. While I used this to my advantage, it did mean that my recollection was incomplete, so I was glad to have the recording.

The recording also helped me recall what information I had revealed so I could see how the psychic fed it back in mutated form. I could also determine how she formed her inferences. For example, I had said that I wanted to speak to my departed sister. The psychic arrived at the reasonable conclusion that she had died prematurely, since I am 47 years old and I had mentioned that my sister was just a few years older.

Dance of deception

The psychic’s first assumption was that my sister (whom I will call Wendy) had committed suicide. Of course, the psychic did not state that flatly but made some statements to evoke some kind of validation of the guess. I gave her a hint to steer her away from that, because it did not fit my back-story.

She then worked on the assumption that Wendy had been murdered. In reviewing the tape, I spotted the point at which I had made this a viable option. However, this also did not fit the back-story, so once again I had to steer the psychic away from this line of inquiry.

Wheels within wheels. Here we had a psychic trying to con me while I was trying to con her. Surprisingly, though, the process was not as difficult as it might sound. All I had to do was act as my alter-ego, while my real self lurked in the background.

An interesting side-effect of this technique is that I did not have to think about how I should behave. If the psychic said something wrong, I simply disagreed, and my level of bafflement came naturally. I had earlier worried that if I disputed something the psychic said that I would seem too contentious, which would have spoiled the rapport.

Thinking back on cold readings I have done myself, I am now more aware of how frequently people actually disagreed with me. It is, in fact, rather amusing that I tend to forget my own failures. Like any mark, I remember the hits and fail to note the misses! In any case, disagreement during a session need not be troublesome. A skilled psychic performer will do the necessary damage control and repackaging so as to reframe the reading in a positive light. Mary did an adequate job in this regard.


Despite my preparations, I had to invent some new tactics on the fly. I did not realize that I would be so frequently required to nudge Mary in a direction that matched my back-story. These methods did not always work as I had intended, though. For example, when I had to disagree with Mary I tried making up an excuse for her, such as “Maybe your spirit guide actually said …” To my surprise she did not accept this easy path, insisting that she had heard correctly.

When I do cold readings, I avoid “forcing”. This is where the psychic insists on the veracity of a statement even if the mark disagrees. It is a common strategy. I do not fully understand why they do this, but it may have something to do with maintaining control of the process. A “force” is not as risky as it sounds, though, as there are standard damage-control techniques to make it work. For example, if I was to insist that the name “Gerald” is significant, and you said you know nobody with that name, I could say that you soon will.

In any case, Mary’s reading kept straying from my back-story. At one point I could see that she was leading up to absolving me of blame for my (fictitious) sister’s death. I did not want to disagree too often, but since the psychic’s statements were deliberately flexible, I was able to use that flexibility to my advantage. That is to say, if a statement can be interpreted five ways, I would choose the one that was closest to the direction I wanted to go.

Real-life connections

The discerning skeptic may wonder if I was simply trying to debunk Mary’s claimed psychic ability, looking only for failures. However, I did listen for any genuine hits, and checked the tape afterwards to see if I had missed any. As it turns out, she did very poorly in this regard.

Actually, I am astonished that she got so few real-life hits. During the reading she was tossing out some middle-frequency names, and none of them matched up with my actual identity. Perhaps I should explain this part in more detail.

A psychic will not impress anybody if they ask something obvious such as, “Do you know a Mike or a Joe?” The reading sounds much better if the names proffered are somewhat uncommon. For example, she tried the name “Scott” on me, which is the 75th-most-common name in North America. I did know a Scott once, but that was years ago.

Mary also tried the names Edgar (rank 161), Stewart (436) and Les (726). The last two choices are actually quite clever. Stewart can be a first name or a last name, so its ranking at 436 is misleading. As for Les, it could also be Lester, which is both a first and last name. A seasoned psychic knows how to capitalize on these advantages, though in Mary’s reading she obtained no hits either in my back-story or my real life. Sometimes the vagaries of chance just don’t cooperate.

I’ll give one more example of the name game. Evan is the 72nd most common name, but it can be easily changed to Kevin if necessary. (“Yes, Kevin … isn’t that what I said?”)

If I had to rank Mary’s reading on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give it a 4. It was an acceptable performance, but only just.

Lying for a living

As always when I do things like this, I felt sullied afterwards. I do not enjoy lying or playing tricks on people. This is not just a moral issue to me but a practical one. I cannot imagine a life of lies. Can people who live by trickery ever trust somebody else? I don’t know. I suppose I am not cut out to be a professional liar.

Fool Me Fool You

Sowing for comfort but reaping confusion
Life staggers on as we harvest delusion
All by ourselves we can make such mistakes
With no need for charlatans, gurus and fakes

Hawking fresh myths that we might entertain
Blurring our vision of that which is plain
Yet they’re not free of enrapturing lies
Such as their ultimate inner disguise

There is the risk of their clever production
They’re not immune to their art of seduction
Where do we turn if we end up disgusted
Having discerned that we cannot be trusted?

Copyright © 2004 by Timothy Campbell

Perhaps that is why I was not able to spot even a hint of deceptiveness in Mary. She was definitely spinning a falsehood, since she was talking to a dead sister that existed only in my mind, but I could not spot any “tells” that suggested that Mary knew that she was conning me.

I later reflected on the irony of this situation. I am not an actor, and it’s not my job to fool people. So why did I think I could spot deceptiveness in her when I did not expect her to spot it in me?

A psychic’s story

So I did not come away with clear answers. Is Mary an “eyes open” psychic? That is to say, does she know she is conning people? I can only go with a vague feeling that yes, she does know, but I cannot back that up. I am still left wondering what is going on in Mary’s mind.

Apart from the affront to empirical truth, Mary does not seem to be doing any harm, nor do I think she would want to do so. I should mention that I had planted several seeds which indicated that I was an easy target to be cheated out of a large amount of money. Mary did not seize this opportunity or even delve deeper. Assuming she did not figure out that I was really a skeptic (and I am sure she did not), I conclude that she genuinely thinks she is helping people.

In general, her message was upbeat. She told me what I apparently wanted to hear. She included some inoffensive pop psychology. All in all, I imagine that most people would think that the reading was indeed worth $35.

The reason I bring this up is that I am curious about how psychics justify to themselves what they do. We must be careful not to measure all psychics with the same yardstick. While somebody like TV psychic Sylvia Browne is almost certainly a flat-out con-artist, people like Mary probably tell themselves that they serve a useful function.

The psychic profession

Mary probably sees herself as basically honest. To her, being a psychic is just a job, but a job that makes people feel better about life’s travails.

This rationalization may not make sense to other people, but what matters here is how Mary sees herself. Let me quote a passage from the book The Psychic Mafia by reformed psychic M. Lamar Keene:

Looking ahead, if I stayed in mediumship I saw only deepening gloom. All the mediums I’ve known or known about have had tragic endings. …. Wherever I looked it was the same: mediums, at the end of a tawdry life, dying a tawdry death.

It is important for us to understand a psychic’s tactics, but I think it is also important to understand what makes them tick, and understanding the tales they tell themselves is crucial. Professional psychics must be well aware that their job can potentially devastate their soul. If they have a normal desire for self-preservation, they will need to concoct their own back-story to justify to themselves what they do.


In addition to Mary, I had the chance to speak briefly to a tarot reader. He also seemed very sincere.

If I’ve learned anything from my expedition, it is this: a con-artist (me, in this scenario) cannot always spot another con-artist.

I do not consider myself particularly good at lying. I avoid it if at all possible, so I suppose I do not have much practice. Yet when I listen to the recording, I cannot hear deception even in my own voice! Apparently I can indeed lie convincingly if I am sufficiently motivated.

I left the Psychic Fair with the impression that the people I had met basically meant well. I cannot shake that feeling. Maybe I really did get conned!

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