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Playing It By "Seer"
For my column for this week's deadline, I researched the hooey that is "psychics," palm readers, and TV mediums. Here's a smart article I just stumbled on, Cold Reading: The Tricks of the Psychics, by William Goldberg, MSW, BCD, that explains, pretty concisely, how this stuff works.

Psychics know that almost all of the questions people have will fit under one of three headings. Usually, people are concerned about affairs of the heart, problems with health, or issues around money. Therefore, the psychic might explain that he or she senses three areas that either now are giving the customer, that have in the past given the customer concern, or that will give the customer concerns in the future. There isn't time to discuss all three, so the customer is asked which one to focus on. The customer's answer, combined with an assessment of his or her age, ethnicity, socio-economic status (as ascertained by dress, car, jewelry, etc.) and a common sense knowledge of typical life crises people encounter (i.e. birth, puberty, career choice, work, marriage, children, middle age, declining years, death), narrows the field of inquiry. This knowledge, combined with a scrutiny of the customer's involuntary (and sometimes voluntary) reactions to the psychic's pronouncements can be used to quickly lead the pair in the direction the customer wants to go. If initial, highly general statements are off the mark, the customer's facial expression, breathing pattern, eye movements, etc. will let the reader know. A good reader picks up on the cues and is able to adjust the reading to fit the cues. In a short period of time, the reader is seemingly able to "discover" what's on the customer's mind. At this point, the customer, especially if he or she is inclined to fall for the psychic's hype, charisma and mystical surroundings, will often let his or her guard down and reveal the burning question or questions.

Ray Hyman, a psychologist who has written about this topic, points out that all forms of communication are incomplete, and that the recipient of every form of communication becomes a creative problem-solver, looking for meaning in the communication. Hyman explains that, "the task is not unlike that of trying to make sense of a work of art, a poem, or, for that matter, a sentence. The work of art, the poem, or the sentence serves as a blueprint or plan from which we can construct a meaningful experience by bringing to bear our own past experiences and memories." The psychic's customer fills in the blanks, ignores contradictory messages and emphasizes statements that are meaningful while discarding or de-emphasizing statements that don't fit. The process is completed when the customer, in time, forgets all the contradictory "misses" and remembers only the "hits."

In their book, The Psychology of the Psychic, David Marks and Richard Kanunann discuss an all purpose cold reading developed by psychologist Bertram Forer. Students were told that this reading was developed especially for them after the administration of a personality test they had taken. Ninety-five percent of the students rated this "reading" as either Excellent or Good. See whether there are more "hits" than "misses" here for you:

"You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times, you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept other's statements without satisfactory proof, but you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself lo others. At times, you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be unrealistic."

Accomplished psychics have memorized a number of stock readings which they then modify to fit the circumstances of the customer. The fact is that there are more qualities that we share with others than that differentiate us from others. Obviously, an elderly, upper-class man will get a very different stock reading than a teenage girl. Stock readings, combined with the unique, individual characteristics that the psychics are able to trick their customers into revealing make up a cold reading. Our human tendency to focus on the "hits," to forget or reinterpret the "misses," and to fill in the blanks, complete the experience. The next time someone tells you of a wondrous "truth" that a so-called psychic has revealed, ask about how that "truth" was revealed and whether there were a lot of half-truths and non-truths mixed in

Posted by aalkon at December 30, 2004 8:05 AM


my compliments on your article 'seer ' or whosever article it may be. Did'nt read the name. anyway. The insight into the truth about mediums and pschics is a positive hit. a very good read.

Posted by: james at December 30, 2004 4:47 PM

Thanks -- and I don't want to compete with the papers who run my column with this site, so the piece I wrote will be up here in about a month -- but if you search "Amy Alkon" and "palm reader" on google in about a week, you should find that column.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 30, 2004 4:55 PM

Psychics also like to take shots with lines like "I get the sense that you're the kind of person who doesn't like to wait." They can be sure that clients/suckers aren't going to bounce back with "Are you kidding? I love standing on line!"

Posted by: Lena is not what she seems at December 30, 2004 6:28 PM

Don't know if you're familiar with Penn & Teller's show "Bullshit!" on Showtime, but they've done episodes on this very topic, as well as on John Edwards, "the biggest douche in the universe", to quote South park.

Posted by: Alan at December 30, 2004 8:10 PM

I'm quite familiar with them, and recently heard Penn speak at a Cato Institute lunch on freedom of speech issues.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 30, 2004 8:36 PM

Did the Cato Institute take their name from the Green Hornet's sidekick (Bruce Lee)?

Posted by: Lena at December 30, 2004 8:59 PM

They'd probably have many more members if they did!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 30, 2004 10:04 PM

One of my husband's best friends is Michael Shermer (the Skeptic Soc. guy). He did a quick tutorial in cold reading and then went on TV--he was a huge hit! People were convinced he was truly psychic. But, alas, he decided not to pursue it and his gift lies idle.

Posted by: KateCoe at December 30, 2004 11:04 PM

I know all about Shermer (and subscribe to He shows how vague statements will make people believe anything. They fill in the blanks. But people don't want to know this. They'd rather live in the dark.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 31, 2004 12:23 AM