Calling out Cold Reading

John Edward, the psychic who reached fame a decade ago with his TV program “Crossing Over” recently put on a show in Manchester, New Hampshire. His stated intention was to  bring comfort and hope to the bereaved at $125 per head.

Not everyone at the theatre was there to have their wallet lightened by a scam artist. In the foyer of the theatre were some members of the Granite State Skeptics handing out cold reading bingo cards.

Cold Reading Bingo

These cards show some of the words and phrases that are used by psychics, and were intended to encourage people to be apply some critical thought to the performance. After the show, they handed out pamphlets with more information on how to fake psychic abilities.

None of this will slow Edward down. He has been preying on the bereaved for many years with his shows and books despite having been exposed 10 years ago. Back in 2001,  Joe  Nickell wrote an article in the Skeptical Inquirer describing his investigation into Edward.

It should not be surprising that Edward is skilled at cold reading, an old fortunetelling technique. His mother was a “psychic junkie” who threw fortunetelling “house parties,” one of the alleged clairvoyants advising the then-fifteen-year-old that he had “wonderful psychic abilities.” He began doing card readings for friends and family, then progressed to psychic fairs where he soon learned that names and other “validating information” sometimes applied to the dead rather than the living. Eventually he changed his billing from “psychic” to “psychic medium” (Edward 1999). The revised approach set him on the road to stardom.

Another technique that Edward sometimes employes is “hot reading

on Dateline Edward was actually caught in an attempt to pass off previously gained knowledge as spirit revelation. During the session he said of the spirits, “They’re telling me to acknowledge Anthony,” and when the cameraman signaled that was his name, Edward seemed surprised, asking “That’s you? Really?” He further queried: “Had you not seen Dad before he passed? Had you either been away or been distanced?” Later, playing the taped segment for me, Dateline reporter John Hockenberry challenged me with Edward’s apparent hit: “He got Anthony. That’s pretty good.” I agreed but added, “We’ve seen mediums who mill about before sessions and greet people and chat with them and pick up things.” Indeed, it turned out that that is just what Edward had done. Hours before the group reading, Tony had been the cameraman on another Edward shoot (recording him at his hobby, ballroom dancing). Significantly, the two men had chatted and Edward had obtained useful bits of information that he afterward pretended had come from the spirits.

Nickell gives other examples of Edward being caught conducting such readings. Some who initially performed these tricks to entertain, came up against the ethical issues in manipulating the emotions of the vulnerable. Nickell quotes the most well known of these, Harry Houdini.

At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.

A more modern example of the can be seen in the crisis of morality suffered by the character Patrick Jane on the television series “The Mentalist“. If you want have a bit of talent as a performer and you want to prove to others that psychic ‘abilities’ can easily be learned, there are lots of resources on the web. Wikihow has an entry.

  1. Choose a subject. The “subject” is the person on whom you will perform the cold reading.
  2. Observe your subject. Even if you have only a little time to get to know your subject, you can still learn a lot by “profiling” your subject.
  3. Make a mental list of assumptions about the person. As you observe the subject, think about certain things that you could reasonably guess about them.
  4. Prepare the subject. When you meet the person, look in their eyes and tell them, if you haven’t already, that you can communicate with the spirit world.
  5. Go fishing. If you’re a professional, you may have studied statistical information about people, you may be trained to read body language, you may even have accomplices that help you, but let’s face it: you still know hardly anything about the person sitting in front of you. If you just start making guesses, you’ll almost certainly be wrong, but if you ask questions, you’ll get the right answers from the subject himself.
  6. Build on the answers to your questions. Most of the time, the subject will volunteer more information than is necessary.
  7. Use Barnum statements. Barnum statements, named after the circus showman P.T. Barnum, are statements that will apply to just about anybody but which will give the impression that you know something about the subject.
  8. Make the subject’s answers your own. Much of what a cold reader does is simply repeating back what the subject has said. Do this in such a way so that it appears you already knew the answer.
  9. Delve deeper. Once you’re on a fruitful line of questioning (or “reading”), keep going.
  10. Use pregnant pauses. One method of fishing around for information is to pause long enough for a reaction from your subject.
  11. Cover your errors. Since you are in fact just asking questions and repeating information back in a different way, you shouldn’t really make mistakes as you would if you were guessing things.
  12. Make a positive analysis of the situation. Once you’ve helped the subject to open up and you have some idea of what you’re talking about (or at least the subject believes you know what you’re talking about), you can bring the reading to a satisfying end by relaying a message from the deceased friend or relative, or by simply giving some prognostication based on your ability to see the future.

For an example of someone who learned the techniques of cold readings, Tarot readings, psalmistry, and astrology in 24 hours read Michael Shermer’s article Psychic for a Day: How I Learned Tarot Cards, Palm Reading,Astrology, and Mediumship in 24 Hours.

Just remember to check your morality at the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Edward, the psychic who reached fame a decade ago with his TV program “Crossing Over” recently put on a show in Manchester, New Hampshire. His stated intention was to  bring comfort and hope to the bereaved at $125 per head.

Not everyone at the theatre was there to have their wallet lightened by a scam artist. In the foyer of the theatre were some members of the Granite State Skeptics handing out cold reading bingo cards.

Cold Reading Bingo

These cards show some of the words and phrases that are used by psychics, and were intended to encourage people to be apply some critical thought to the performance. After the show, they handed out pamphlets with more information on how to fake psychic abilities.

None of this will slow Edward down. He has been preying on the bereaved for many years with his shows and books. Ten years ago, in the Skeptical Inquirer, Joe  Nickell wrote an article describing his investigation into Edward.

It should not be surprising that Edward is skilled at cold reading, an old fortunetelling technique. His mother was a “psychic junkie” who threw fortunetelling “house parties,” one of the alleged clairvoyants advising the then-fifteen-year-old that he had “wonderful psychic abilities.” He began doing card readings for friends and family, then progressed to psychic fairs where he soon learned that names and other “validating information” sometimes applied to the dead rather than the living. Eventually he changed his billing from “psychic” to “psychic medium” (Edward 1999). The revised approach set him on the road to stardom.

Another technique that Edward sometimes employes is “hot reading

on Dateline Edward was actually caught in an attempt to pass off previously gained knowledge as spirit revelation. During the session he said of the spirits, “They’re telling me to acknowledge Anthony,” and when the cameraman signaled that was his name, Edward seemed surprised, asking “That’s you? Really?” He further queried: “Had you not seen Dad before he passed? Had you either been away or been distanced?” Later, playing the taped segment for me, Dateline reporter John Hockenberry challenged me with Edward’s apparent hit: “He got Anthony. That’s pretty good.” I agreed but added, “We’ve seen mediums who mill about before sessions and greet people and chat with them and pick up things.” Indeed, it turned out that that is just what Edward had done. Hours before the group reading, Tony had been the cameraman on another Edward shoot (recording him at his hobby, ballroom dancing). Significantly, the two men had chatted and Edward had obtained useful bits of information that he afterward pretended had come from the spirits.

Nickell gives other examples of Edward being caught conducting such readings. Some who initially performed these tricks to entertain, came up against the ethical issues in manipulating the emotions of the vulnerable. Nickell quotes the most well known of these, Harry Houdini.

At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.

A more modern example of the can be seen in the crisis of morality suffered by the character Patrick Jane on the television series “The Mentalist“.

 

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