I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In an interview with Richard Dawkins for the U.K.’s Channel Four, illusionist Derren Brown explained that so-called mind reading is nothing more than the use of open-ended statements and keen observation.
Cold reading is one technique that Brown says is in essence the psychic “supplying a lot of words and, as the sitter, the other person, is supplying the meaning to those words . . . It’s not forensic body reading . . . it’s not even that clever.”
Cold reading is a method used by faith healers, con artists, and various other charlatans to convince their subjects they possess some magical ability to cure their ailments or see into the future and, not incidentally, relieve them of some of their money.
The Forer Effect
In an article in Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne explains that cold readings, (also known as the Forer or Barnum Effect) rely on the willingness of subjects to defer to authority: “Simply put, people will believe any vague, generic set of personality descriptions of themselves if it appears that those descriptions come from a reputable source.”
This is confirmed by an experiment carried out by psychologist Bertram R. Forer in 1948. In the research, since repeated many times, a group of people is asked to provide a “psychic reader” with something such as a personal item or to answer a questionnaire. The reader then draws up an extensive, individual, personality profile for each member of the group.
Derren Brown says he’s done similar tests and that “invariably” the subjects say their personality profiles “are very, very accurate.”
That’s because they contain statements such as “you tend to be a reserved person but open up to friends and are hurt if those friends betray you.” Such a statement can apply to just about everybody, but if it’s presented by an “expert” it carries great credibility.
At the end of the Forer experiment, the subjects are then asked to share their profile with the person next to them. That’s when they discover the profiles are all identical.
Cold Reading Techniques
People who claim to have paranormal powers are very good at reading body language. They watch closely the dilation or contraction of the pupils and changes in breathing patterns and posture. They observe the choice of words and verbal intonation. All these things give them clues as to how the subject is responding.
As Robert Steiner notes in his 1989 book Don’t Get Taken, “From observation, the reader will feed back to the subject what the latter wants to hear. That is the overwhelming guiding principle of the mystics: Tell ‘em what they want to hear. That will keep them coming back for more.”
It works for politicians too.
How Do Stage Psychics Fool Their Audiences?
Entertainers make a good living by claiming extraordinary psychic powers.
Writing for The Daily Mail, Paul Zenon describes how a stage psychic will work a theatre audience:
“ ‘I’m getting a Derek, a Donald . . . no, it’s a David,’ the middle-aged woman on the stage announces to ripples of excitement from the packed audience. ‘Does that mean anything to anyone? Does someone know a David who’s passed recently?’ ”
With such common names and a large audience, the psychic is almost guaranteed to get a hit. She then goes on to give details about David that seemingly could only come from the “spirit world” in which he is now supposed to be existing.
He was concerned about his hair falling out, or he had back pain, or he worried about dementia; common fears among the elderly but in the context appearing to come from psychic communication.
Really, it’s all part of the cold reading technique.
A cold reader might say something like “I’m sensing a strong feeling about July.” The subject may say “I was married in July” or “My first child was born in July.” The “psychic” responds by saying something like “Of course, I can see that now.” “Wow,” thinks the subject, “This woman is really something.”
Once the “psychic” has established confidence in the mind of the subject the rest is easy. The cold reader can make all sorts of statements, knowing the subject will only focus on the ones that appear to be true.
More Deceptive Techniques Used by "Psychics"
Paul Zenon, a former “psychic,” exposes some of the behind-the-scenes jiggery-pokery and sinister goings-on.
He writes that most psychics have given up using plants in the audience to establish their credibility and then adds: “But what if the plants aren’t actually seen in the show? What if they just mingle with the audience, listening into conversations, only to sneak off and relay the information backstage before the show begins?”
He notes that if someone pre-orders tickets using a credit card it’s a simple matter for a researcher to use the name on the card to look up a Facebook profile.
Zenon says it’s known in the trade as pre-show work and it’s been practiced for decades. Before the internet, assistants might trawl through the obituaries in the local newspaper or look for freshly dug graves in the cemetery to gather information with which the psychic can dazzle her or his gullible audience.
Mind Reading Is Impossible
Most people consult psychics over money, career, love, and health. It really is a waste of time and money.
Because they are predisposed to believe, people who go to see mentalists, mind-readers, fortune tellers, and the like refuse to acknowledge that the whole business is a sham.
The fact is no scientific proof exists that psychics can read minds or contact the dead. Every time they are asked to put their claims to the test in a controlled environment they fail.
Skeptic and psychic debunker James Randi wrote that “We tested Sylvia Browne in 1989, on live TV, and she failed miserably. On that occasion, she was not allowed to speak to anyone in advance, or to be asked or told anything in advance. The audience was told to only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ when asked a DIRECT question, and Sylvia bombed out big-time. She blamed it all on bad vibrations . . . ”
Randi had a long-standing offer of “a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” No one successfully claimed the cash.
- In October 2012, “psychic reader” Lisa Barretta told Fox News “When someone comes to me, I actually am going into their energy field picking up irregularities. Like something seems a little amiss here, something emotional here. I feel dips in their energy, and I go in and start to get my information that way.”
- According to a Gallup poll, 21 percent of Americans believe “That people can communicate mentally with someone who has died.”
- Rose Marks of Fort Lauderdale, Florida was highly skilled in the psychic trick of removing a curse or ending bad luck. One of her victims was the best-selling novelist Jude Deveraux who was convinced by Marks to turn over millions of dollars. Once the hex had been dealt with the money would be returned, Ms. Marks promised. Of course, you know that outcome, but, happily, Rose Marks is serving 10 years in a federal prison in West Virginia.
- “The Enemies of Reason.” Richard Dawkins, Channel 4, August 2007.
- “Fulfillment at Any Age.” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Psychology Today, August 10, 2010.
- “What a Load of Crystal Balls.” Paul Zenon, Daily Mail, September 22, 2012.
- “The Art of ‘Cold Reading.’ ” James Randi Educational Foundation, undated.
- “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.” James Randi Educational Foundation, June 9, 2011.
- “Confessions of a Psychic.” Fox News, October 12, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2019:
Interest comment Silas777, but citations from reliable sources would go a long way to backing up your assertion.
I repeat that James "Randi has a long-standing offer of 'a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.' No one has yet claimed the cash."
Silas777 on December 16, 2019:
Psychic powers are real. No, it’s actually been proven. Through studying dreams and the experiences of different people, psychologists have discovered that the Unconscious can predict future events, though they have not figured out how. If that’s not enough for you, the government did a project to see if they could give C.I.A members psychic abilities.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 10, 2018:
I think the article speaks for itself.
Brian on December 09, 2018:
How do you know esp is fake
Alex Melnik on February 26, 2018:
DISAGREED! I don't really know why you would say this... maybe religious belief... but no! 100% disagreed! I have read minds, though creepy, but I have and I know it for a fact. Now if we DO only use 10% of our brains, then the other 90% could be helping.
Maurice Glaude from Mobile on November 18, 2017:
I'm assuming you're only speaking of the fakes and those only after money. I have to admit though if I hadn't had so many experiences myself growing up I probably wouldn't believe any of it either. I struggled with understanding and didn't tell anyone until at least my late 20's. The bible helped some and if speaking to the dead was okay for Jesus, it is certainly fine for me. The gift comes from the same source: God.
Suzie from Carson City on August 12, 2017:
Well, well, Rupert...Indeed it would be simply wonderful to be able to communicate with our loved ones who have passed. I would love nothing better than to have a nice long chat with several people I dearly miss!
However, some expert acting skills, the gift of being part mystery, part magic and picking up on signals, facial expressions & other body language, with good guessing skills, is all we can actually hope for.
It's common for the average individual to get emotionally caught up in the moment.....but when they're being fleeced of their money for what amounts to Hocus Pocus, I have a serious problem with this.
Great article Rupert. I enjoy this topic. Peace, Paula
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 12, 2017:
Translation of Linda's comment - "For me it is nonsense."
She doesn't specify whether she means mind reading or the article.
Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on July 25, 2017:
The only way to know what someone else is thinking is for them to communicate it to you in some reality-based way like writing, speaking, signing, art, body language, facial expressions, and so on. And dead people are actually dead, not holding conversations.
Stella Kaye from UK on July 25, 2017:
Interesting article. You are quite correct. Of course mind reading is just fake... it's showmanship. A mind reader is also a good actor - nothing more. However, some might argue they do play an important role in comforting the gullible who can't deal with the prospect that dead loved ones are no longer contactable, or those who need the promise of a better future. Some people don't deal with reality very well and thus so called mind readers and psychics can easily prey on such vulnerable folk.
threekeys on July 24, 2017:
Rupert, first up I would like to say I find Derren Brown mystifying and intriguing.
With that said, the topic you have written about? To me your are correct and not correct. It is a huge topic. A meaty topic. I need to research it fully and adequately myself. But mind reading can and does happen. Technology can 'hack" your brain. Technology can harass you in the most invasive (intimate way, we humans would say) way. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as us humans being aware of such occurrences, but start by looking up Russell Targ as a starting point. I believe we definetley do need physical legislation in place to protect people from psychism and remote viewing. People who are remote viewers together with having this same technology to work with, are now in community systems either in a informal way and/or in a formal way. Such a person is given exclusive power over youto act infomalyl or formally as a Judge and Jury over you without a fair trial.