Alleged psychics who claim to have supernatural powers to communicate with the “spirit realm” have been around for centuries, from the priestesses of the Oracle in Delphi to Sylvia Browne (who has been debunked several times on this blog, such as here, here, here and here). Alleged psychics may seem very convincing at first, but that is a cognitive illusion created by the fact that these supposed psychics use psychological tools and techniques to attempt to create such beliefs in the brain of their unsuspecting victims.
This article goes into detail and examines the nature of some of these tricks. Although no division is going to be perfect, they can be divided into three categories (with some overlap): basic techniques that almost all psychics use, techniques used to increase the probability of getting a hit and techniques used to salvage a miss. When combined, they constitute a powerful method for deception, especially if the victim is in an emotionally vulnerable state or if he or she already has an inclination to believe.
There are certain techniques that are used by almost all alleged psychics that the deserved to be called basic techniques. This involves cold reading (making guesses and getting information from the victim), warm reading (making barnum statements that apply to almost everyone), hot reading (gotten information from researching the victim) and time-shifting (asking a question and claiming that the information was gotten from the spirit world when the victim tells the alleged psychic the information).
Cold reading is perhaps one of the most common and well-known tactic used by alleged psychics. It is a technique designed to get the victim to give the alleged psychic the information, and then the alleged psychic takes credit for it and makes it appear that he or she got that information from the deceased loved one. The alleged psychic typically employ estimates and guesses that have a high prior probability of being true about the person, often informed by body language, manner of speech, outward appearance and so on. If a guess is confirmed, the alleged psychic pushes forward in that direction, hoping that confirmation bias will make the victim remember the hits and forget the misses.
There is a related technique referred to as warm reading. Some skeptics consider it a type of cold reading, whereas others conceptualize it as an independent technique. Warm reading occurs when the alleged psychic uses statements that apply to almost anyone (barnum statements) instead of using cold reading to get the victim to give them information. Examples include guessing for a common case of death (such as heart condition or cancer). If this technique is combined with inflating probabilistic resources, the supposed psychic has a very high probability of scoring a hit.
Hot reading occurs when the alleged psychic has actually gotten information about the victim beforehand, either from a Google search or probing other people close the victim (such as relatives, friends, TV producers and so on). Then, when they present that information to their victims, it seems like a miraculous discovery and evidence that the alleged psychic can really talk to the dead. In reality, they have just gathered that information from living or electronic sources without you knowing it. With the popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, this is becoming an increasingly powerful technique.
Time-shifting is a technique that begins with the alleged psychic asking a question. If the victim gives an informative response, the alleged psychic replies that the dead loved one just told him or her that. To credulous victims, it may appear that the deceased loved one provided the information before the question was asked. In reality, it was the victim that gave that information to the supposed psychic and the supposed psychic tried to make it look like he or she was actually communicating with the dead.
Techniques to Ensure a Hit
The techniques in this category attempt to increase the probability of getting hits. This is done by various means, such as making a statement without specifying what dead relative and hoping that it will fit for at least one or making a statement in front of a crowd so that at least someone will relate (inflating probabilistic resources), increasing the number of statements made hoping that some are true (shotgunning), making statements that are contradictory or cover a range of possibilities (covering all the bases), ensure that all responses by the victim can be twisted into a hit by asking questions containing negations (vanishing negative) and making unverifiable/unfalsifiable claims that can never become misses (escape hatch).
Inflating probabilistic resources:
This technique can be used both when performing a private reading and when doing a reading on e. g. a TV audience. Both are based on the fact that the more possible connections that can make between what the alleged psychic claims and reality, the greater probability that the claimed psychic will score a hit. During a private reading, the psychic might make vague claims about the victim’s dead relatives (e. g. who had the cat?). Since any given person might have quite a few dead relatives, there is a greater probability to score a hit than if the psychic had asked “did your mother have a cat?”. During psychic readings on a studio audience, an alleged psychic will throw out a bait to the entire audience, such as asking “who had the dad with the clock?” or similar. The alleged psychic is almost guaranteed a hit, because there is bound to be someone who can relate to it. In this case, the inflation does not occur by making claims that could refer to any dead relative. Instead, the inflation occurs because there are so many people in the studio audience. Using these techniques, the probability of getting a hit is increased.
The defining characteristic of the shotgunning technique involves throwing out a lot of claims, particularly names, and hoping that the victim can relate to at least one of them. The alleged psychic relies on the confirmation bias of the victim to ensure that he or she will remember the hits and forgetting the misses. This is based on the same general ideas as inflating the probabilistic resources, although here it is about increasing the number of allowed guesses instead of increasing the probability that a given guess is interpreted as a hit.
Covering all bases:
Another way to increase the probability of a hit is to make statements that are very broad. There are generally two types of questions asked when using the covering all bases technique: contradictory questions or questions that span a range. Contradictory claims are questions that first state one thing, then state the almost complete opposite. A classic example is “you enjoy spending time with friends, but you sometimes prefer to spend time alone to relax”. A person who enjoys spending time with friends will count it as a hit and a person who enjoys spending time alone will also count it as a hit. This is due to selective attention for confirmatory statements. These contradictory statements are often pretty vague and would apply to almost anyone (thereby combining the covering all bases technique with warm reading). Statements that span a range attempts to cover as much ground as possible and thereby make it appear as if it was a hit. This technique is more subtle than shotgunning, but can still make the victim believe that the alleged psychic scored a hit. An example of a statement that spans a range could be “the car your parents had when you were growing up was quite expensive, or it looks kind of expensive because it was well-kept, it was an average car that your parents took good care of”. What exactly does the alleged psychic claim about the value of the car? As it turns out, a wide range of things, all the way from “quite expensive” to “average”.
The vanishing negative technique starts with the alleged psychic asking interrogative questions containing a negation e. g. “you do not like to play tennis?”. If the victim says “yes, I did”, the psychic responds “I knew it, your [name of diseased relative] just told me that” and the victim counts it as a hit. If the victim had said “no, I hate playing tennis!”, then alleged psychic can respond exactly the same, stating that he or she got the information about the dislike for tennis from the deceased relative. This is a technique that eliminates the possibility of misses. Whatever what the truth actually was regarding the victim’s interest in playing tennis, the alleged psychic ensures that he or she will get a hit.
Whereas the vanishing negative techniques ensures a hit by rerouting all the possible paths towards a hit, the escape hatch technique prevents a miss by putting up roadblocks on any possible path towards a miss. This is done by making sure that the claim made by the alleged psychic are unfalsifiable, such as claims about the beliefs and thoughts of a pets.
Techniques to Salvage a Miss
Despite the fact that alleged psychics often attempt to skew the odds in favor of getting a hit through various means (or manipulating the victim into thinking that it was a hit), it is sometimes possible for psychics to be so wrong that the causal observer (or even the victim) might notice. To rectify this situation, the alleged psychic has several psychological tools and techniques to salvage a miss. This can involve very simple techniques, such as starting to talk about something else (changing the subject) or inflating the possible targets for a given statement (casting the net wider). Other approaches are more complex, such as trying to make a previous miss appear as a hit by vaguely relating it to something else (retrofitting) or biting the bullet and accepting that a miss occurred, but provide elaborate excuses (post hoc rationalizations).
Changing the subject:
This is perhaps the easiest tactic used by alleged psychics. If a particular line of inquiry does not seem to be going anywhere, the alleged psychic quickly changes the topic and hope that he or she does better on that (betting that confirmation bias will make the victim forget the miss).
Spreading the net wider:
Spreading the net wider is another technique that is used to attempt to salvage a miss. If the alleged psychic has made a precise claim about something (the following example taken from the skeptic Miklos Jako’s examination of alleged psychic James Van Praagh), like “whose birthday is in July?” and the victim cannot come up with a connection, the alleged psychic broadens the scope and asks “what happened in July?” The alleged psychic throw his or her darts and failed to hit the dartboard, so he or she attempts to inflate the size of the dartboard after the fact.
Retrofitting is a technique that alleged psychics use to explain a failure earlier in the reading. A situation arises that appears to vaguely relate to a previous statement made by the alleged psychic, and he or she attempts to connect the dots. The alleged psychic might have asked if the mother smoked and gotten it wrong. If any situation that vaguely relates to smoking (smoke, fire, burning, firefighter, matches etc.), the supposed psychic can retrofit that information and attempt to convert a miss to a hit (“maybe that was the reason I saw smoke earlier”).
Post hoc rationalizations:
Sometimes, the alleged psychic does so badly that not even a clever deception can salvage the miss. This forces the supposed psychic to bite the bullet and admit that he or she was wrong. Does this discourage the alleged psychic from the belief that he or she has supernatural powers? Almost never. Instead, the psychic makes up elaborate excuses to rationalize failure. These often involve appeals to pseudoscientific beliefs, such as claiming that the victim’s “energy” was wrong or unclean and that it only works if you believe (presumably the “negative energy” of a skeptic disrupts the abilities of the alleged psychic). Other explanations range from “I do not claim to be 100% accurate” (the problem is that alleged psychics are nowhere near that accurate) and “I need to work face-to-face with clients” (how else is cold reading gonna work?) to “I hoped I was wrong” (as illustrated in another post called Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne Proven Wrong Yet Again).
Remember that alleged psychics probably do not communicate with the “spirit world”. Instead, they are using well-known psychological techniques and they have been doing that for centuries. Do not let yourself be fooled by alleged psychics who profit on deception and the financial exploitation (often several hundred dollars) of human grief. Anyone, even the highly educated and intelligent, can be taken in my what appears to be the supernatural powers of the alleged psychic.
For more information about the problems with alleged psychics, check out the following resources:
- Additional posts on this blog about alleged psychics.
- The entry on alleged psychics in the Skeptic’s Dictionary
- An article from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry called Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure.
- Miklos Jako’s awesome take-down of Van Praagh in Talking to the Dead: James Van Praagh Tested.
- Michael Shermer, the founding editor of Skeptic Magazine, has a good article in Scientific American called Psychic Drift.
Do not hesitate to share the knowledge of these deceptive tactics with people you know and love who are at risk for being bamboozled by an alleged psychic. It can also be helpful to discuss these issues with family and friends in an attempt to immunize them against alleged psychics.