How Psychic Readings Work
Today we're going to pull back the curtain of one of the oldest professions in human history. Call it fortune telling, call it contacting the dead, call it a psychic reading, it's all basically the same thing — a reader telling a subject information that they could not possibly know without some guidance from beyond the grave, from a divine source, from spirits, or some other supernatural wellspring. How does one make a living selling such guidance without a reliable way to generate the product? Well, wouldn't you know it, there is just such a thing out there. In fact, there are several such ways to create the product — some easy, some requiring more skill and practice. By the end of this episode, we'll all be able to do it.
Many longtime Skeptoid listeners have probably read and heard plenty on this subject before, so there might be some of you for whom this information is nothing new. So if that describes you, consider this episode a handy one-stop resource you can share when you hear online discussion or praise for a particular celebrity psychic, or even just anyone talking about their own positive experience visiting a psychic. But for many of you, this show might be completely new. For those of you for whom that's the case, I invite you to be blown away.
Before getting into the nitty gritty of how psychic reading techniques are performed, we should ask the popular question: Are psychics all necessarily dishonest? The answer to this is an emphatic no. Some of the techniques we'll talk about today require preparation, and even equipment, that can't be reconciled with an honest belief in one's own psychic abilities. They are only used by people who are being deliberately deceptive, and if they present themselves as honest or gifted, then what they're doing is morally and ethically outrageous; and if they take money for it, it's arguably even criminal. But we're going to start first with one of the most basic techniques that can be used that way or not. It is the go-to technique relied upon by those who have deluded themselves into believing that what they are using is not a learned skill, but an innate intuitive gift.
The basic psychic reading technique is called cold reading. It's called cold because the reader does not have any prior knowledge of the subject person; they're coming into it cold. The reader begins with what's called shotgunning, asking very broad questions that almost everyone can answer yes to, and searching for a positive reaction:
Half a dozen statements like that will nearly always trigger at least one positive reaction, because nearly every subject wants the reading to be successful. Thus, subjects tend to be highly engaged and to look sharply for any matches.
Responding to a reaction, the reader asks for clarification and the subject tends to always give it. "Yes, my friend Jack, we've been having this big argument," and nine times out of ten, the subject is likely to report later how amazing it was that the psychic knew all about his problem with Jack. This misremembering of how the reading actually went is not the exception; it's the rule. The reader provides common basic starting points; the subject provides the details.
Many honest readers — those who truly believe that they do have some sort of psychic gift — are probably doing cold reading without realizing it. It is a skill that anyone can pick up, possibly without being aware of it; and if a reader with a typical level of scientific illiteracy happens to be pretty good at it, it is not unreasonable for them to conclude that they must have some special intuitive gift.
Some readers may perform cold reading in total honest innocence, and undoubtedly many do it with full knowledge of how and why it works and they use it to deceive subjects. Some also combine them. Everyone in the profession has (of course) heard of cold reading and they understand what it is, and so some have acknowledged that they see it as a way to refine and enhance an ability that they believe is genuine.
But now let's talk about cold reading's ugly cousin, which exists entirely outside the realm of the honest.
Hot readings, on the other hand, leave no room for honest belief in one's own intuitive powers. Hot readings are always, without exception, a deliberate scam — and are only performed with a conscious effort to deceive. In a hot reading, the reader has deceptively acquired actual information about the subject in advance, so that he can then pretend to conjure it up as the result of psychic powers, and appear to be incredibly intuitive.
Typical of the worst of these is the televangelist Peter Popoff, who since the 1970s, has held large-scale events at major venues and apparently gave miraculous "healings" to his faithful. Popoff would seem to receive divine guidance revealing to him the name and malady of someone in the audience with some medical condition, and would — incredibly — seem to know all about them. The famous debunker of charlatans James Randi, whose lifetime of experience told him Popoff was somehow cheating, brought in his friend the stage mentalist Banachek and an electronic surveillance expert named Alex Jason. They found that Popoff's wife was hidden backstage reading information to Popoff over a radio system and into a hidden earpiece — information that the faithful had naively written on "prayer cards" before the performance. These were hot readings because the reader, Popoff, had surreptitiously obtained "hot" information about his subjects.
But that was way back in 1986, and the advent of social media has opened up whole new universes of ways to obtain hot information. In 2019, New York Times Magazine published an article about Susan Gerbic and her team called the Guerilla Skeptics, who plan elaborate sting operations and successfully catch today's celebrity psychics cheating audiences through the use of hot readings. They create fake social media profiles for nonexistent people — taking care to go into great detail — then buy tickets and show up at the psychic's event, posing as the phantom owners of those social media accounts, and filling the psychic's audience with sting targets. In 2017 they had one of their greatest successes against celebrity psychic Thomas John, whose performance consisted nearly entirely of making detailed revelations he had divined from reading the social media profiles of the audience members. If any of them had been real people or real experiences, it might have even sounded impressive.
The lesson to be learned here is that if you plan to go to a psychic performance, watch out for forms you're required to fill out giving your social media profiles or other personal data. Such information is chum for the sharks who perform hot readings.
Tucked in between hot readings and cold readings are warm readings, but I've saved it for last because it's the most interesting. A warm reading doesn't rely on having any advance information about the audience, and it also doesn't rely on the reader's ability to read reactions. Warm readings rely on simple human nature, and they usually work with almost everyone in every audience.
The critical component here is called the Barnum Effect, also known as the Forer Effect. This is our human tendency to mistake general information that applies to nearly everyone for targeted information that applies explicitly to ourselves. When we hear Barnum statements, we find they describe us very well, and we don't necessarily realize they describe everyone equally well.
It came to be called the Barnum Effect based on the saying "There's a sucker born every minute," apocryphally attributed to showman P.T. Barnum, known for building a career and an empire out of exploiting people's general ignorance and curiosity. It's also called the Forer Effect after researcher Bertram Forer who researched it beginning in 1949, and who originally termed it the "fallacy of personal validation". And it's that personal validation angle that makes it work. If you tell me I have unfulfilled potential, hey, not only does that validate my desire to be seen as one with tremendous potential, it also justifies the fact that I haven't yet managed to become everything I wish I could. Like everyone.
Forer once gave some generic personality test to his psychology students, then a week later, gave each of them what he claimed was an individualized personality assessment based on the test results. He asked them to all rate how accurate the assessments were, and they ranked them very high: an average of 4.3 on a scale of 1 to 5. Then — as I'm sure you've guessed — Forer revealed that all the students' assessments were identical, and all consisted of a list of Barnum statements:
...and so on, all statements that apply to every human who's ever lived. Yet the students were convinced they were individualized.
James Randi once famously repeated this test, though he claimed the assessments were horoscopes, meticulously prepared for each student based on their astrological signs. Again, all the students rated the accuracy between 4 and 5. And once again, all were amazed to discover the assessments were identical for everyone in the room.
Is it any wonder that Barnum statements allow any reader to give any subject a reading that will astonish them with its apparently-individualized accuracy?
Real Psychic Abilities
There's one more type of psychic reading: an actual one, generated by real psychic ability. But when I said before that warm readings were the last one, I wasn't wrong. Because this is one that doesn't exist.
I realize that logically I can't really make that claim. Of course nobody can prove that there are no such thing as real psychic abilities, however we have a pretty good idea. The techniques already discussed on this show, in addition to a few other lesser-known ones that we didn't get into, adequately explain everything that has ever been presented as a psychic ability. There are no holes remaining that need to be filled with an exotic explanation. And so we are going to end on Occam's Razor: The explanation requiring the fewest new assumptions is to be preferred. Cold, hot, and warm readings make use of perfectly well established phenomena, whereas genuine psychic abilities would require us to make new assumptions about new phenomena never before observed or plausibly theorized. We just don't have any justification yet to go looking for exotic new explanations outside the natural world, so we stick to the adequate ones already in the world. That's what logic requires us to do.
And so, the next time a psychic offers to give you a reading, turn the tables on them, and give them one first.
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