When I was in grade school, I early became fascinated by magic—the sort of thing you see from such well-known practitioners as Houdini or David Copperfield. Although I was never very good at doing magic, my incompetence never stopped me from inflicting tricks on my friends and family. I even occasionally tried to perform magic for talent shows at school. My problem—unsurprisingly in a child—was that I simply didn’t practice enough to really get good at it. Magic never became an obsession for me.
However, it did alert me to how easy it is to fool people. I have a book by a relatively well-known stage magician of the last century named Howard Thurston who briefly touches on mind reading tricks: what today is more commonly called “cold reading.” These mind-reading tricks are what both modern and ancient psychics, astrologers, and faith healers made use of to help them relieve people of their money.
Cold reading can convince people who don’t know better that the “psychic” knows much more about the person than they actually do. Even without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can learn a lot about an individual simply by analyzing his or her body language, clothing, hairstyle, and speech patterns. Cold readers then verbalize guesses about that person and watch for signals as to whether a guess was right or not. The cold reader then emphasizes and reinforces the right guesses while moving quickly past any mistakes.
First off, the cold reader will attempt to gain the cooperation of the subject or the audience. It helps the cold reader if the individual wants to believe. Those who want to believe will be eager to reinterpret even the vaguest of statements in ways that will help the cold reader look like he or she has made specific predictions.
Next, the cold reader will ask a bunch of questions of the audience or an individual that will help him or her learn stuff by the reactions, whether they are verbal or just the look in someone’s eye. The cold reader can then pursue promising lines of inquiry, while abandoning those that aren’t working.
Cold readers use at least three main techniques in performing their tricks. At the beginning, the cold reader will most likely be simply “shotgunning.” That means, the cold reader will offer up a large amount of general information. This is usually done in front of a crowd and will consist of the sort of statements that are likely to be correct, or nearly correct, for a good percentage of any average group. Based on the reactions that the psychic gets, he or she will then narrow the scope of his interrogation by acknowledging particular individuals or concepts and refining his or her original statements based on the reactions that he or she has obtained. In any large group, the cold reader knows for certain that there will be people who have lost an older relative, or known someone with a common name like “John” or “Susan.”
So, for instance, a faith healer might begin by announcing that he feels that someone in the congregation has a “bad back” or “a problem with their intestines” or a “heart issue” or that someone has “financial problems.” Then the cold reader can announce that he sees God working to ease that suffering. Such a psychic may, if focusing on an individual, explain that “I see a stomach condition” affecting a “father-figure” in your family, followed by a shotgunned list of relational terms for the father-figure: “father, uncle, grandfather, big brother” and so on.
A psychic will generally follow shotgunning with “Barnum statements,” so named after the circus owner, P.T. Barnum. These statements will sound personal, but are actually open-ended and applicable to just about anyone. They also depend upon the fact that people are often very eager to fill in details and to make connections between what the psychic says and their own lives. They will work hard at finding some way of linking what has been stated by the cold reader to themselves. Most horoscopes, in fact, depend on Barnum statements for their effect.
Examples of Barnum statements might be, “I can feel that there is deep insecurity in you, especially when you face new situations or are with people you don’t know.” Or, “There have been some problems recently between you and one of your friends or relatives.” Or, if the subject is above a certain age, “I sense that your father died because of a problem in his chest or abdomen.” The odds for the “psychic” that any of these statements will hit pay dirt are virtually a hundred percent.
Finally, there is what is known as the “rainbow ruse.” This is a statement that identifies both a specific personality trait and the opposite of that trait. Thus, with such a phrase, the cold reader covers all the bases. The victim will imagine that the psychic has made an accurate statement, no matter what. Again, this is the sort of thing that is common in horoscopes. So, the psychic will tell a person, “You know, most of the time you’re a very cheerful person, but at some time in the past you were very unhappy.” Or, “You are noted for being easy going and gentle, but when someone abuses your trust, you seethe with anger.”
Personality traits are hard to quantify, and most people have experienced both sides of any given emotion. Therefore, a skilled cold reader needs only to choose several personality traits, link the opposites by means of vague, slippery terms related to temporality or mood, and suddenly the audience will imagine that the psychic knows all.
Bottom line: anyone can be “psychic.” You only need to learn the method, practice a bit, and then find some gullible people. As Barnum is quoted as saying, “no one ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”