A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How come TV psychics seem so convincing?

November 18, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

How do the self-proclaimed psychics that you see on TV these days seem so convincing when they talk to people's deceased relatives? I understand the art of "cold reading," but some so-called "hits" seem too specific to be lucky guesses. Also, why hasn't a disgruntled ex-employee of these shows ever exposed these frauds? Surely they could make a buck.

A good question, and one that has been discussed with great insight on the Straight Dope Message Board.

What's impressive about psychics is the number of times people go to a reading, or watch one of those "hotline to heaven" shows, and say, "He told us things he couldn't possibly have known." Psychics and their fans say it's evidence of genuine psychic ability. But keep a couple things in mind:

(1) To date there's no scientific proof of the existence of "real" psychics. A stage or TV performance or a personal reading doesn't prove anything. Yes, a psychic can come up with amazingly accurate "hits." But people who are NOT psychics and make no pretense of having psychic powers can do readings and get equally good results.

As an example, Ian Rowland (whom we consulted for this report) is an entertainer who claims no psychic ability. He has given TV demonstrations posing as a tarot reader, an astrologer, a clairvoyant, and a spirit medium (someone who talks to the dead.) He scored just as many hits as the "genuine" psychics even though he openly admits he isn't psychic. He got his impressive results using a technique called cold reading. More on this later.

(2) Demonstrations of psychic ability aren't considered evidence unless they're done under scientifically-controlled conditions – which is a fancy way of saying no fudging, trickery, or cheating is permitted. Psychic readings done in someone's living room, a carnival booth, or a TV studio aren't scientifically controlled. The search for evidence of psychic powers has been going on around the world for over a century – the American Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1885. All that research and effort has failed to produce a single psychic who can demonstrate genuine psychic ability.

So how do entertainers, carnival fortune tellers, tarot readers, and others get those amazing results? Let's correct a few overly facile explanations.

  • It has nothing to do with the gullibility or stupidity of the subject (the person being read). Even intelligent, perceptive people can be taken in if they don't know how cold readings work, just as they can be fooled by a stage magician's sleight of hand. Psychics do rely on the subject's co-operation, often unwitting.  
  • Some people dismiss readings as nothing but vague generalizations. Sure, psychics can be vague at times. But often they give very specific information – or at least they seem to.  
  • You may have heard that stage psychics read body language and make shrewd, Sherlock Holmes-style deductions about the person being read. Again, that's only a small part of the story. Most deductions are fairly obvious, like noticing a wedding ring or lack thereof.

So how do stage psychics do it? They rely on three main techniques:

(a) Hot readings, where the psychic has secretly obtained advance information about the person being read.

(b) Cold readings, where the psychic has no advance information, but instead shrewdly elicits facts during the reading and plays them back to the subject, to the latter's amazement. This is the most common technique used by entertainers, and we'll spend the most time on it.

(c) TV editing.

OK, let's dig in.

Hot readings

In a hot reading, the psychic has surreptitiously gained information about the subject in advance. There are many ways of doing this, ranging from simple eavesdropping to sophisticated espionage techniques.

The spokespeople for the TV psychics strongly deny using such techniques. Skeptical Inquirer magazine sent people to one well-known TV psychic's show and had them talk about phony deceased relatives while waiting in line. If the psychic had mentioned any of those names or people, it would have been clear evidence of secret intelligence gathering – but he didn't. So we have no evidence that TV psychics use hot reading techniques, and I suspect for most it's a minor part of their arsenal.

Cold readings

Sophisticated intelligence gathering is seldom necessary. Cold reading, the technique used by entertainers who claim no psychic powers, can explain most performances.

Cold reading is kind of interactive psychological game, where you fish for information and give the impression of knowing more than you do. The term "cold" means that the psychic has no advance knowledge.

In this Report, we can only cover the basics of cold reading. With the author's permission, we've taken most of our information from Ian Rowland's book, listed below in the resources section.

The Set-Up. The psychic usually sets up his readings so that everyone has to play by his rules. For example, the psychic announces that he can't always be precise, and he invites the client (the person to whom he is giving the reading) to help him "interpret" what comes up. That sounds plausible, but it's just a way of saying, "I'm going to leave plenty of room for interpretation, to increase my chances of getting a hit."

Often the psychic encourages the subject to have a positive, cooperative attitude, and suggests this will help the success of the reading. The goal is to stop people from asking awkward questions or being too analytical about what's going on. The psychic is also subtly encouraging the client to offer information during the course of the reading, and many people do so, often without realizing it.

Rapid patter and an expressive verbal style, a la Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, are also helpful.

Elements of the Reading. Okay, so with the subject warmed up and conditioned to play by the psychic's rules, what next? The psychic pretends to give one or two bits of potentially significant information. In reality, he doesn't have any information; he's just taking a few stabs and hoping to get lucky.

For example, he might say, "I'm seeing the end of August, maybe the twenty-sixth of August or a date close to that, which I think is significant for you, and a man – let me think – a man related to you, who wears glasses." That sounds very specific, but think how much scope such a statement leaves for interpretation! Almost any date from August 20 to August 31 will do. It could be a birthday, death date, anniversary, vacation, social function, or important decision. It could be significant personally, socially, or professionally, every year or just one particular year. The man could be a husband, partner, brother, relative, friend, colleague, doctor or plumber (the word "related to" is pretty ambiguous, isn't it?). He could be alive or dead, well-known or a distant acquaintance. In short, there are countless ways that the subject might interpret this comment as a hit.

The psychic knows some psychology: People will remember the bits that seem to connect, and forget those that don't. For example, the subject may respond tentatively: "Well, my father's birthday was early August, and he wore glasses . . ." The psychic will focus there and the subject will remember it as a hit, even though "late August" was wrong.

That's just one example. Rowland describes 38 different ways to offer initial statements that seem meaningful, but in fact are just guesses. The initial statements can be related to character or personality, or can pertain to facts and events. Here are a few more examples, using Rowland's terminology.

  • "Barnum statements" sound specific but really apply to most people, most of the time. For example: "Though you might not always admit it, you have a deep-rooted need for other people's approval, especially when you know you have done something well. You tend to be a bit more honest than many people you meet." Does this sound like you? You probably think it's pretty close. Most people would say the same.  
  • "Rainbow" statements describe personality traits so as to cover all the bases, like this: "You have a very generous and giving nature, and can be very unselfish, although if you're honest about it, there have been times when you've acted in perhaps quite a selfish way."  
  • "Trivia statistics" are statements that are actually more likely to hit than they at first appear. The psychic might say, "I've got the spirit of an elderly lady here, and she's mentioning a box full of old photographs or souvenirs." That sounds specific, but in fact most people have something like this in their homes.  
  • "Fuzzy statements" like the "late August" example already given may sound specific but in fact are wild-ass guesses with plenty of room for interpretation.

These techniques work well during a one-on-one readings but are even more effective before an audience in a theater or TV studio. The psychic might say, "I'm seeing an elderly man, some sort of uniform, possibly military." Even with a small audience, it would be rare if no one could find a connection to "some sort of uniform."

Cold reading isn't just clever guesswork. Psychics can look like they're giving information when in fact they're subtly fishing for it. For example, the psychic says, "I see a car, a blue car," and then prompts for feedback by saying, "now why would that be?" or "is this making sense to you?" It sounds as if the psychic is giving information, but in reality he's trying to extract it. Again, most people could find some connection with a "blue car" at some point in their lives.

Another clever tactic is what Rowland calls the "vanishing negative." For example, the psychic says, "You don't work with children, do you?" The question has been expressed as a negative, so if the subject replies, "Yes, I do," the psychic says, "Yes, I thought so." If the subject replies, ""No, I don't," the psychic says, "Yes, I thought not." It's a hit either way!

In normal conversation, a flat statement can be seen as right or wrong. But in cold readings, the psychic can twist things so that he's always right. Or, at worst, he can find an escape hatch.  

Suppose the psychic says, "You have a connection with the name Charles or Charlie?" The subject himself may be called Charles, or know someone by that name. If not, the psychic encourages the subject to think harder. Any connection will do – social or professional, friend or relative, near or far, past or present so it's very likely that the subject will think of a Charles eventually. Or perhaps a sound-alike name like Charlene or Chad. But if not, the psychic can just say, "Well, watch out for that name. Because I think it's going to be significant in the near future." And the psychic has gotten neatly off the hook.

Another example of an escape hatch: The psychic can claim he's right, but the subject doesn't know it! This ruse is often used by so-called "pet psychics." How can the client possibly know what the dog is really thinking?

Using such techniques, the skilled cold-reader can get impressive results. Rowland, for instance, did a cold reading on TV that was deemed "99.5% accurate" – full details are in his book.

TV editing

Cold readings work just fine in live settings. But when the psychic is performing on TV, a whole new realm of manipulation is available. The show you see on your TV is the result of a long process of taping and editing. The production team's task isn't to present a sober scientific account but to produce an entertaining show. Wrong guesses and blind alleys are boring and can be skillfully edited out. Readings that don't go well can disappear in the editing room. Uncooperative people don't appear on the aired program.

In the Skeptical Inquirer article, James Underdown cites some examples. He smuggled a tape recorder into live sessions by a couple of stage psychics and compared the edited versions with the reality. Reality lost.

Underdown says, "Virtually everything you see on TV has been precisely edited for both time and content. . . . The aired tape does not represent how the readings went in the studio. The aired versions show a much more successful account of the reading."

The power of editing is enormous. If the psychic makes twenty guesses and gets three hits, we wouldn't be very impressed. But edit out the 17 wrong guesses and show only the three correct ones, and the viewing audience's estimation of the psychic's ability is likely to rise substantially.

Comments can be edited out of sequence, so that a response to an innocuous statement can appear to be a positive response to a wild guess.

Most people are fairly savvy about "movie magic" but fail to realize that similar editing techniques can be (and are) applied to TV shows. It's made to feel live, but it's not.

In sum, the readings of TV psychics don't look so impressive once you understand the techniques involved. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy the performance, just as you can enjoy a good magician's sleight-of-hand. But you'd do well to maintain your skepticism – and keep one hand on your wallet.

RESOURCES:

We want to give full credit to Ian Rowland's book, The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading (3rd edition, 2002, published in the UK). The book provides, in about 240 pages, "a comprehensive guide to the most persuasive psychological manipulation technique in the world and its application to psychic readings."

The book can be purchased at Ian Rowland's website at www.ianrowland.com.

See Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 27, no. 5 (September-October 2003), pp. 41-44, for a brilliant article by James Underdown, looking specifically at TV psychics John Edward and John Van Praagh

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