FORTUNE-TELLING - Paranormality - Richard Wiseman

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman (2011)


In which we meet the mysterious ‘Mr D’, visit the
non-existent town of Lake Wobegon, find out how to
convince strangers that we know all about them
and discover who we really are.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, it wouldn’t be fair to give Mr D’s real name. Born in the north of England in 1934, this remarkable man spent much of his life working as a professional psychic and developed a considerable reputation for highly accurate readings. When I was studying at Edinburgh University, Mr D contacted me and asked whether I would be interested in watching him give some readings. I immediately accepted the kind offer and invited Mr D to the University so that I could film him at work. A few weeks later the two of us met in the foyer of the Psychology Department. I showed him into my laboratory and explained that I had lined up several volunteers who were eager to take part in a psychic reading. Mr D quietly set up his table, took out his Tarot cards and crystal ball, and waited for his first guinea pig. A few moments later the door opened and in walked a 43-year-old barmaid named Lisa. I pressed the ‘record’ button on the video camera and retreated to the other side of a two-way mirror.

Mr D knew nothing about Lisa before the reading. He started by asking her to hold out her right hand, palm up. After carefully examining her palm with a horn-handled magnifying glass, Mr D started to describe her personality. Within seconds Lisa was nodding and smiling. He next asked her to shuffle a deck of Tarot cards and then place them in the centre of the table. Mr D turned over one card after another and spoke about each in turn. Within a few minutes he told Lisa that she had a brother and described his career in considerable detail. A few moments later Mr D said that he thought Lisa had recently broken up from a long-term relationship.

Lisa’s reading lasted around ten minutes. When she left the laboratory I interviewed her about what she thought about her time with Mr D. Lisa was extremely impressed, and explained how Mr D had been correct about her personality, recent relationship difficulties and brother’s career. When I asked Lisa to rate the accuracy of Mr D’s reading she gave it top marks.

Throughout the morning several other people came away equally convinced that Mr D possessed uncanny powers. After a spot of lunch, Mr D watched the recordings of his readings and explained more about his abilities. It proved a fascinating and eye-opening experience. In just a few hours Mr D not only provided a rare glimpse into the world of the professional psychic, but also revealed how almost anyone could learn to develop such powers. At the end of the day Mr D packed away his Tarot cards and said goodbye. Unfortunately, I never met Mr D again because he suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack a few years later. However, the day that I spent with him lives on in my mind, and we will return to the secret behind his seemingly magical gift of insight later in the chapter.


Laboratory footage of Mr D at work

Every year millions of people visit psychics and come away completely convinced that these individuals have the ability to see deep within their souls. Are they kidding themselves, the victims of elaborate scams, or is something genuinely spooky going on? To find out, a small number of researchers have put the alleged paranormal powers of psychics and mediums under the microscope, of whom the most notable investigator is magician and arch-sceptic, James Randi.

Séance on a Warm
Wednesday Afternoon

Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928.1 When he was 12 years old, he happened to catch a matinée performance by a well-known American magician named Harry Blackstone Sr. The bug bit deep, and Zwinge found out as much as he could about the secretive world of magic and eventually started to perform on a regular basis.

Like many magicians, Zwinge was a tad sceptical about matters paranormal. When he was 15 he went along to his local spiritualist church and was disgusted by what he witnessed. People in the congregation were encouraged to bring along sealed envelopes containing questions to their deceased loved ones. The ministers then secretly read the messages and created a fake reply from the ‘dead’. Zwinge attempted to expose the deception, but upset the ministers and ended up spending time at the local police station.

Unperturbed, he eventually grew a goatee, legally changed his name to James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, and embarked on a long and colourful career as a professional magician and escapologist. Over the years Randi has been involved in a series of headline-grabbing projects, including remaining in a sealed metal coffin for 104 minutes (breaking Houdini’s record by just over ten minutes), clocking up 22 appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, featuring in an episode of Happy Days, escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside-down over Niagara Falls, and appearing to behead rock legend Alice Cooper on a nightly basis.

In tandem with his magic career, Randi continued his crusade against paranormal chicanery. His investigations gained such momentum and notoriety that in 1996 he established the James Randi Educational Foundation. The website promotes itself as ‘an educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscientific and the supernatural’ and it also offers a bold challenge to would-be psychics or those professing to have paranormal powers. A million dollar challenge to be precise.

In the late 1960s Randi appeared on a radio chat show explaining why he thought that those claiming paranormal powers were either deluding themselves or deceiving others. One panellist, a parapsychologist, suggested that he put his money where his mouth was by offering a cash prize to anyone who could show that they had genuine psychic abilities. Randi took up the challenge and put up $1,000. Over the years Randi’s offer grew to $100,000 and then, in the late 1990s, a wealthy supporter of his Foundation increased the prize fund to one million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate the existence of paranormal abilities to the satisfaction of an independent panel (so far, no one has). But for over a decade this opportunity to become an instant millionaire has attracted a steady stream of applicants, including psychics who claim to be able to guess the order of shuffled decks of cards, dowsers who say they can use bent coat hangers and forked sticks to discover underground water, and even a woman who tried to use the power of her mind to make strangers urinate. That, too, was a failure …

In 2008 a British medium called Patricia Putt applied for Randi’s million-dollar challenge. Putt was convinced that she was able to garner information about the living by chatting with their deceased friends and relatives. Randi asked me and Chris French, a Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College in London, to test Putt’s abilities.2

Putt lives in Essex and is an experienced medium who has given both personal and group readings for several years. According to her website, much of this work has been carried out with the invaluable assistance of her Egyptian spirit guide ‘Ankhara’, whom she first encountered while participating in a regression hypnotherapy session. Putt’s website also describes many instances where she has apparently provided undeniable proof of the spirit world, as well as listing several television and radio programmes that have enlisted her services.

After much discussion, Putt, French and I agreed on the details of the test. It was to take place on one day and involve ten volunteers. Putt would not know any of these people in advance, and would attempt to contact a deceased friend or relative of each volunteer, and then use this spirit to determine information about the volunteer’s personality and life.

The big day arrived. Each of the volunteers was scheduled to arrive at French’s laboratory at different times throughout the day. To minimize the possibility of Putt picking up any information about the volunteers by the way they looked or dressed, French had them remove any watches and jewellery, don a full-length black cape, and put on a black balaclava.

Each volunteer was shown into the test room and asked to sit in a chair facing a wall. Putt then came in, sat at a desk on the opposite side of the room and attempted to make contact with the spirit world. Once she thought she had a direct line to the dead, Putt located a spirit that knew the person and then quietly wrote down information about the volunteer. My role in the test was to bring Putt in and out of the test room at appropriate times, stay with her as she attempted to contact the spirits, and to generally keep her company throughout the day. Putt and I spent much of the time between the sessions chatting. At one point I asked her if there was a downside to working as a professional psychic. Without a hint of irony she explained how annoying it was when people made an appointment to see her but then failed to show up.


A volunteer takes part in Patricia Putt’s test.

After Putt had completed all ten sessions the volunteers were asked to return to the test room. They were each given transcriptions of all of the readings that Putt had made that day and were asked to look through them and identify the reading that seemed to apply to them. If Putt really had the powers she claimed, the volunteers should have had an easy time. For example, let’s imagine that one of them had been brought up in the country, had spent a significant amount of time travelling in France, and had recently married an actor. If Putt really did have a direct line to the spirit world, then she might have mentioned a childhood surrounded by greenery, the strong whiff of brie, or the phrase, ‘darling, it was a triumph’. Once the person saw those comments they would instantly know that that reading was intended for them, and so would have no problem choosing it from the pack. In order for Putt to pass the test, five or more of the volunteers had to correctly identify their reading.

Each volunteer carefully examined Putt’s readings and identified the one that they found most accurate. We all then gathered in French’s office to see how Putt had scored. Volunteer One had chosen a reading that had been meant for Volunteer Seven. The reading selected by Volunteer Two was actually made when Volunteer Six was sitting in front of Putt. And so it went on. In fact, none of the volunteers correctly identified their reading. Putt was stunned by the result but has vowed to return with a new and improved claim.3


Interview with Prof. Chris French

You could argue that Putt failed because she agreed to work under an artificial set of conditions. After all, unless she gets a gig at an introverted amateur Batman look-a-like convention, she will rarely be asked to produce readings for people who are dressed in a black cape, wearing a black balaclava, and facing away from her. The problem is that other experiments conducted in more natural settings have yielded the same result.

In the early 1980s psychologists Hendrik Boerenkamp and Sybo Schouten from the University of Utrecht spent five years studying the alleged paranormal powers of 12 well-respected Dutch psychics.4

The researchers visited each psychic in their home several times each year (‘Is he expecting you?’), showed the psychic a photograph of someone that they had never met and asked them to provide information about that person. They also carried out exactly the same procedure with a group of randomly selected people who didn’t claim to be psychic. After recording and analysing over 10,000 statements, the researchers concluded that the allegedly paranormal powers of the psychics failed to outperform the random guesses made by the non-psychic control group, and that neither group produced impressive hit rates.

These types of failed studies are not the exception, they are the norm.5

For over a century researchers have tested the claims of mediums and psychics and found them wanting. Indeed, after reviewing this vast amount of work, Sybo Schouten concluded that the psychics’ performance was simply no better than chance. It seems that when it comes to psychics and mediums, Randi’s million-dollar prize is safe.

The conundrum is that surveys suggest that around one in six people believe they have received an accurate reading from an alleged psychic.6

To solve the mystery it is necessary to learn the secrets of the psychic readers. There are several ways of doing this. You could, for example, spend several weeks on a psychic development programme attempting to open your inner eye. Or you could enrol on a month-long course at a college for mediumship and try to tune into the dead. Alternatively, you could save yourself a great deal of time and effort by forgetting all about that. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, most mediums and psychics use a fascinating set of psychological techniques to give the impression that they have a magical insight into the past, present and future. These techniques are referred to as ‘cold reading’, and they reveal an important insight into the fundamental nature of our everyday interactions. To find out about them we are going to spend some more time with a familiar friend of ours.

Revealing the Mysterious Mr D

Before continuing our journey into the psychology of psychic readings I would like you to take the following two-part psychological test.

First, imagine that the illustration below represents an aerial view of a large sandpit. Next, imagine that someone has randomly chosen a place in the pit and buried some treasure there. You have just one opportunity to dig down and find the treasure. Without thinking about it too much, place an ‘X’ in the sandpit to indicate where you would dig.


Second, simply think of one geometric shape inside another. Many thanks. We will return to your answers later on.

At the start of the chapter I described how Mr D once visited Edinburgh University and demonstrated his amazing abilities. In reading after reading, complete strangers sat down opposite him and left convinced that he knew all about them. One of the most impressive readings was given to Lisa, who had no idea how Mr D had come up with accurate information about her personality, her brother’s career and her recent relationship difficulties.

As you might have guessed by now, Mr D did not possess genuine paranormal powers. In fact, he had spent much of his life using cold reading to fake psychic ability, and was happy to reveal the tricks of his trade. Mr D used six psychological techniques to appear to achieve the impossible.7

To understand the first of these we need to travel to the non-existent town of Lake Wobegon.

1. Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

In the mid-1980s American writer and humorist Garrison Keillor created a fictional town called Lake Wobegon. According to Keillor, Lake Wobegon is located in the centre of Minnesota but can’t be found on maps because of the incompetence of nineteenth-century surveyors. When describing the townsfolk, Keillor noted that ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’. Although written in jest, Keillor’s comment reflects a key psychological principle now referred to as the ‘Lake Wobegon effect’.

Much of the time you make rational decisions. However, under certain circumstances your brain trips you up, and you suddenly let go of logic. Psychologists discovered that a major cause of irrationality revolves around a curious phenomenon known as the ‘egocentric bias’. Nearly all of us have fragile egos and use various techniques to protect ourselves from the harsh reality of the outside world. We are highly skilled at convincing ourselves that we are responsible for the success in our lives, but equally good at blaming failures on other people. We fool ourselves into believing that we are unique, possess above average abilities and skills, and are likely to experience more than our fair share of good fortune in the future. The effects of egocentric thinking can be dramatic. In perhaps the best-known example, researchers asked each member of long-term couples to estimate the percentage of the housework they carried out. The combined total from almost every pair exceeded 100 per cent. Each had displayed an egocentric bias by focusing on their own work and downplaying their partner’s contribution.

For the most part, this egotism is good for you. It makes you feel positive about yourself, motivates you to get up in the morning, helps you deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and persuades you to carry on when the going gets tough. For example, research has shown that people are unrealistically optimistic about both their personality and abilities. 94 per cent of people think that they have an above average sense of humour, 80 per cent of drivers say that they are more skilled than the average driver (remarkably, this is even true of those that are in hospital because they have been involved in a road accident), and 75 per cent of business people see themselves as more ethical than the average businessman.8 It is the same when it comes to personality. Present people with any positive trait and they are quick to tick the ‘yes, that’s me’ box, leading to the vast majority of people irrationally believing themselves to be far more cooperative, considerate, responsible, friendly, reliable, resourceful, polite and dependable than the average person. These delusions are the price that we pay for the happiness, success and resilience that we enjoy in the rest of our lives.

A good cold reader exploits your egocentric thinking by telling you how wonderful you are. Mr D’s readings were full of flattery. After just a few moments glancing at Lisa’s palm, Mr D told her that she had a good imagination, possessed lots of creative flair and had an eye for detail. A few moments later Lisa learned that she could have been a psychic because she was very intuitive, had the unusual ability of giving her opinions about people without hurting their feelings, and was a very caring person. Each time she heard compliments like these, the Lake Wobegon effect kicked in, leaving Lisa with no explanation for Mr D’s allegedly accurate insights into her personality.

But cold readings are not just about visiting Lake Wobegon. They also involve the little-known ‘Dartmouth Indians versus the Princeton Tigers’ effect.

2. Seeing What You Want To See

In 1951 American University football team the Dartmouth Indians played the Princeton Tigers. It was an especially rough game, with Princeton’s quarterback suffering a broken nose and a Dartmouth player being stretchered off with a broken leg. However, newspapers from each of the two Universities presented very different descriptions of the game, with the Dartmouth journalists describing how the Princeton players had caused the problems, while the Princeton journalists were convinced that the Dartmouth team were to blame. Was this simply media bias? Intrigued, social psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril tracked down Dartmouth and Princeton students who had been at the game and interviewed them about what they had seen.9 Even though they had been watching exactly the same event, the two groups focused on different aspects of the action, resulting in vastly differing views about what had happened. For example, when asked whether the Dartmouth team started the rough play, 36 per cent of the Dartmouth students ticked the ‘yes’ box versus 86 per cent of the Princeton students. Likewise, just 8 per cent of the Dartmouth students thought that the Dartmouth team were unnecessarily rough, compared to 35 per cent of the Princeton students. Researchers have discovered that the same phenomenon (referred to as ‘selective memory’) occurs in many different contexts - when people with strong beliefs are presented with ambiguous information relevant to their views, they will see what they want to see.

This ‘Dartmouth Indians versus the Princeton Tigers’ effect also helps explain the success of Lisa’s reading. When Mr D first looked at her hand, he spoke about many aspects of Lisa’s personality, with lots of his statements predicting both one trait and the exact opposite. Lisa was told that she was both highly sensitive yet also very down-to-earth, and that although many people saw her as shy in reality she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. In the same way that the Dartmouth and Princeton students remembered the parts of the football game that matched their preconceptions, so Lisa focused on the aspects of Mr D’s statements that she believed applied to her and paid almost no attention to all of the incorrect information. Lisa heard what she wanted to hear, and came away convinced of Mr D’s mysterious powers.

Following hot on the heels of the ‘Lake Wobegon’ effect, and ‘Dartmouth Indians versus the Princeton Tigers’ effect, is the third key principle of cold reading, the ‘Doctor Fox’effect.

3. The Creation of Meaning

Look at the symbol below.


If the letter ‘A’ is placed on one side of the symbol, and the letter ‘C’ on the other, most people have no problem interpreting the symbol as a ‘B’.


However, if the number ‘12’ is placed above the symbol, and the number ‘14’ below, the mysterious symbol shape-shifts into a ‘13’.


Or you could be especially sneaky, and place the letters ‘A’ and ‘C’ to the left and right, and the numbers ‘12’ and ‘14’ above and below, and suddenly the symbol continually flips between being the letter ‘B’ and the number ‘13’.


All of this nicely illustrates a fundamental quirk of the human perceptual system. Given the right context, people are skilled at instantly and unconsciously seeing meaning in a meaningless shape. The same principle helps people see all sorts of images in inkblots, clouds and toasted waffles. Stare at these random shapes for long enough and suddenly objects, faces and figures will start to emerge.

The same process occurs during our everyday conversations. When you chat with someone, the two of you try your best to convey your thoughts to one another. Some of your comments might be somewhat vague and ambiguous, but the human brain is pretty good at inferring meaning from the context of the conversation, and so all is well. However, this vital process can go into overdrive, causing you to hear meaning where there is none.

In the 1970s Donald Naftulin and his colleagues from the University of Southern California demonstrated the power of this principle in dramatic fashion.10 Naftulin wrote a completely meaningless lecture on the relationship between mathematics and human behaviour, arranged for an actor to present the talk at an education conference, and then asked the audience of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers what they thought. Prior to the talk Naftulin had the actor carefully rehearse his lines and coached him on how to deal with the thirty-minute question and answer session by using ‘double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements’. At the conference Naftulin introduced the actor as ‘Dr Myron L. Fox’ and briefly reviewed his impressive, but entirely fictitious, curriculum vitae. For the next hour and a half the audience were bombarded with meaningless drivel and contradictory statements. At the end of the session Naftulin handed out a questionnaire and asked everyone for feedback.

In the same way that you saw a meaningless symbol a few moments ago but interpreted it as either the letter ‘B’ or number ‘13’, so the audience perceived great wisdom in Dr Fox’s nonsense. According to those in attendance, Dr Fox had given an ‘excellent presentation’, was ‘extremely articulate’, and had presented a ‘good analysis of the subject’. When asked to rate the talk, 85 per cent of the audience indicated that the incomprehensible Dr Fox had presented his material in a well-organized way, 70 per cent commended him on his use of examples, and almost 95 per cent found the talk stimulating.

Naftulin is not the only one to expose the human mind’s wonderful ability to make something from nothing. In the mid-1960s MIT artificial intelligence expert Joseph Weizenbaum created a computer program that aimed to reproduce the experience of going to a psychotherapist. Named ELIZA (after Eliza Doolittle, the working-class flower seller who was taught how to speak proper in Pygmalion), the resulting program was very straightforward. At the start of each session, ELIZA asked people to state their problem, and then used a small number of simple rules to respond to different types of sentence. For example, if someone typed a comment with the structure ‘I have just x’, ELIZA would always reply ‘You say you have just x?’ Whenever the person said the words ‘I think so’, ELIZA responded with ‘Do you say you think so for some special reason?’ If someone’s comment didn’t match one of these standard forms, ELIZA was programmed to come out with a stock phrase, such as ‘Tell me more.’ So, imagine that you came to consult with ELIZA about a recent career change. The session might run something like this:

ELIZA: Please state your problem.

You: I have just changed jobs.

ELIZA: You say you have just changed jobs?

You: Yes, I am not sure I have made the right decision.

ELIZA: You seem to be quite positive.

You: I think so.

ELIZA: Can you elaborate on that?

You: Well, it feels like the right thing to do.

ELIZA: I’m not sure I understand you fully.

You: I am the sort of person that trusts my gut feelings.

ELIZA: Your gut feelings?

You: Yes, you know, when you have a hunch.

ELIZA: You are sure.

You: I think so.

ELIZA: Do you say you think so for some special reason?

You: Well, I do worry I was better off in my old job.

ELIZA: Were you really?

You: In some ways, yes.

ELIZA: I see.

Despite presenting people with a series of these completely meaningless statements, ELIZA proved extremely popular and convinced many people that they were indeed chatting to a genuine and experienced psychotherapist.

Similarly, politicians are also well aware of this effect, and often present the public with vague, ambiguous and even contradictory phrases, safe in the knowledge that voters will hear what they want to hear. (‘We must be prepared to look back and have the courage to move forward, to acknowledge the rights of both workers and organizations alike, to support those in need without encouraging people to rely on the State’.) Even academics are not immune from the effect. In the mid-1990s physicist Alan Sokal from New York University thought that the same type of gobbledegook lay behind much postmodern cultural study, and decided to test his theory by submitting a completely meaningless article to an academic journal in the area.11 The submission, entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, consisted of irrelevant references, random quotations, and outright nonsense. For example, part of the article argued that quantum gravity had political implications and the piece concluded by noting: ‘As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and non-linear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.’ The editors of the journal failed to identify the hoax and published the article.

This simple idea helps account for the success of psychic readings. Many of the comments made by psychics and mediums are ambiguous, and therefore open to several interpretations. When, for example, the psychic mentions picking up on ‘a big change concerning property’, they might be referring to moving house, helping someone else move house, inheriting a house, finding a new place to rent, or even buying an overseas holiday home. Because there is no timescale on the comment this move might have happened in the recent past, be happening right now or be going to happen in the near future. Clients work hard to make sense of such comments. They think back over their lives and try to find something that matches. In doing so, they can convince themselves that the psychic is very accurate. This process is often set in motion from the very start of the reading, with many psychics making it quite clear that they will not be able to deliver precise information. Instead, they claim that the process is like looking through smoked glass, or only just being able to hear voices in the darkness. It is up to the client to help out by filling in the gaps. Just like Dr Fox and ELIZA, the psychic then produces meaningless drivel that their clients transform into pearls of wisdom. Researcher Geoffrey Dean describes this phenomenon as ‘The Procrustean Effect’, after the mythical Greek figure who stretched or severed the limbs of his guests to ensure that they fitted into his bed.12

Mr D’s readings were jammed full of such comments. Lisa was told that she was ‘connected with something of a caring nature’, that she was ‘going through some sort of change in the workplace’, that someone in her life was ‘being especially difficult’, and that she had recently received ‘a gift from a young child’. One of the most dramatic moments in the reading came when Mr D told her that her brother had enjoyed a great deal of career success, and was considering joining an organization that would help him achieve even more. Mr D had no idea what he was talking about. His comment could, for example, have referred to Lisa’s brother changing jobs, or becoming a member of a professional organization, gym, sports team, private club, or a trade union. However, Lisa’s brother had recently been asked to join the Masons and so she interpreted Mr D’s comments in that context. When we interviewed her afterwards, Lisa was especially impressed with this part of the reading, and misremembered Mr D’s comments as explicitly referring to her brother and a Masonic Lodge.

So of the six psychological techniques that cold reading capitalizes on we have explored the ‘Lake Wobegon’ effect, the ‘Dartmouth Indians versus the Princeton Tigers’ effect, and the ‘Doctor Fox’ effect. Let’s take a break before we look at the fourth key principle of cold reading …


Now it is time for you to master the psychological techniques used by professional psychics for your own wicked purposes. Before you start, decide what 'skill' you are going to appear to possess. It is best to choose something that appeals to the person that you are trying to impress. So if, for example, you think they are open to the idea of palmistry say that you can tell a great deal about them from the lines on their hand. If they are into astrology, explain that you can determine their past and future from their date of birth. Or, if they are sceptical about all matters paranormal, ask them to draw a picture of a house and use this as the basis for a 'psychological' reading.

Next, practise using the following three techniques:

1. Flattery

Start by telling them what they want to hear. Look at their palm, date of birth or drawing of a house, and explain that it reflects a very well-balanced personality. Try your best to keep a straight face as you appear to dig deeper, explaining that they appear to be terribly caring, responsible, friendly, creative, and polite. Also, don't forget to mention that they also seem to be highly intuitive, and so would be good at providing readings for others.

2. Double-headed statements

If you describe any trait and its exact opposite, people will only focus on the part of your description that makes sense to them. Work your way through the following five key personality dimensions using these double-headed sentences:

Openness: 'At times you can be imaginative and creative, but are more than capable of being practical and down-to-earth when necessary.'

Conscientiousness: 'You value a sense of routine in some aspects of your life, but at other times enjoy being spontaneous and unpredictable.'

Extroversion: 'You can be outgoing when you want to, but sometimes enjoy nothing better than a night in with a good book.'

Agreeableness: 'Your friends see you as trusting and friendly, but you do have a more competitive side that emerges from time to time.'

Neuroticism: 'Although you feel emotionally insecure and stressed, in general you are fairly relaxed and laid-back.'

3. Keep it vague

Although it is fine to drop in the odd specific statement ('Do you have a sister called Joanne, an irrational fear of porridge, and have you recently bought a yellow secondhand car ... I thought not'), in general it is better to keep your comments vague. To help account for this vagueness, tell people that you sometimes struggle to understand the thoughts and images that cross your mind, and therefore they have to help you figure out what is going on.

In terms of actual statements, try, 'I am getting the impression of a significant change, perhaps a journey of some sort or an upheaval in the workplace', 'You have recently received a gift of some sort - perhaps money or something that has sentimental value?', 'I have a feeling that you are worried about a member of your family or a close friend?' Similarly, feel free to come out with abstract statements, such as 'I can see a circle closing - does that make sense to you?', 'I can see a door shutting - no matter how hard you pull it won't open' or 'I can see cleaning -are you trying to remove something or someone from your life?'

Now, let’s resume our exploration of the principles of cold reading by going fishing.

4. Using the ‘F Words’

During everyday conversations most people try their best to communicate their thoughts and opinions. However, even if just one person is speaking and another person is listening, information is not only flowing from the speaker to the listener. Instead, the conversation will always be a two-way process, with the listener constantly providing feedback to the speaker. Perhaps they will let the speaker know that they understand, and perhaps agree with, what is being said by nodding, smiling or saying ‘yes’. Or maybe they will let the speaker know that they are confused, or don’t agree with a comment, by looking confused, shaking their head, or saying ‘you are a fool, please go away’. Either way, such feedback is vital to the success of our everyday conversations.

Psychics and mediums take this simple idea to the extreme. During a reading they will often make several comments, see which gets a reaction and elaborate on the selected option. Like a good politician or second-hand car salesman, they are not saying what is on their mind, but rather testing the water and then changing their message on the basis of the feedback they receive. This feedback can take many different forms. They may look at whether their client nods, smiles, leans forward in their seat, or suddenly become tense, and alter their comments accordingly (this is one of the reasons that palmists are keen to hold your hand during a reading). The technique is referred to as ‘fishing and forking’, and Mr D was a master practitioner.

People tend to consult psychics about a relatively small number of potential problems, such as their health, relationships, travel plans, career, or finances. As Mr D worked his way through the Tarot cards he mentioned each of the topics and surreptitiously observed Lisa’s reaction. She looked in good health and didn’t really respond when he mentioned her having a few aches and pains. Questions about her career didn’t produce much of a reaction. He then mentioned travelling but Lisa remained unmoved. Finally, he moved on to Lisa’s emotional life. The moment he mentioned companionship Lisa’s entire demeanour changed, and she suddenly looked very serious. Mr D immediately knew he was on to something and started to drill deeper. He looked at the lines on Lisa’s palm, remarked on an imaginary blip in the heart line, and said that he wasn’t certain whether it reflected a death in the family or a relationship that didn’t work out. Lisa was completely unresponsive when he mentioned the death, but nodded as soon as she heard about the broken relationship. Mr D secretly noted the response and moved on. About ten minutes later he picked up another Tarot card and confidently announced that it showed that she had recently broken up with her partner. Lisa was stunned.


In addition to using the techniques described in this chapter, some cold readers say that they often get an intuitive feeling about a client, and these hunches have an uncanny knack of being accurate. What could account for these strange sensations, and are you a good judge of character?

A few years ago, psychologists Anthony Little from the University of Stirling and David Perrett from the University of St Andrews carried out a fascinating study into the relationship between people's faces and their personality.13 The researchers had almost 200 people complete a personality questionnaire that measured each of the five dimensions described earlier in this chapter (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). They then took photographs of those men and women who had the highest and lowest scores in each of the dimensions and used a computer program to blend each group of faces into a single 'composite' male and female image. They ended up with four separate composite images: one representing female low scorers, one representing female high scorers and vice versa for the male high and low scorers. The principle behind this technique is simple. Imagine having photographic portraits of two people. Both have bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes, but one has a small nose while the other has a much larger nose. To create a composite of their two faces, researchers first scan both photographs into the computer, control for any differences in lighting, and then manipulate the images to ensure that key facial attributes - such as the corners of the mouth and eyes - are in roughly the same position. Next, one image is laid on top of the other, and an average of the two faces calculated. If both of the faces have bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes, the resulting composite would also have these features. If one face has a small nose and the other has a large nose, the final image would have a medium sized nose.

The research team then presented these male and female composites to another group of 40 people and asked them to rate each of the faces on the different personality dimensions. Remarkably, their ratings were often highly accurate. For example, the composite image that had been made from the highly outgoing people was judged as especially extroverted, the composite created from the highly conscientious people was seen as particularly reliable, and so on. In short, your personality is, to some extent, written all over your face.

I have used the female composites created during this research to put together a quick and fun test to help discover whether you are a good judge of character.14 To take part, simply answer the following five questions.

1. Which of these two composites looks the friendliest?


2. Which of these two composites looks the most reliable?


3. Which of these two composites looks the most outgoing?


4. Which of these two composites looks the most anxious?


5. Which of these two composites looks the most imaginative?


The correct answer to all of these questions is 'A'. How did you score? If you answered all of the questions correctly then it might be wise to trust your intuition about others. If you didn't, then you might be better off ignoring your hunches and finding out more about a person before making your mind up.

As we continue towards the fifth secret technique of psychics, I have a gut feeling that you are the sort of person that lets your heart rule your head, can sometimes be too impulsive for your own good, and have recently come into close contact with a goat. Rest assured you are not the only one.

5. The Illusion of Uniqueness

Towards the start of this chapter I asked you to carry out two simple psychological tests. One of them involved digging in a sandpit for buried treasure and the other involved thinking of one geometric shape inside another. Both of these give a vital insight into the fifth principle of cold reading.

I have asked many people to complete these two tasks. You might expect people to choose random locations in the sandpit. However, as shown in the plot opposite, the vast majority of them dig down in the same areas.

Similarly, when it comes to choosing two geometric shapes, most people tend to go with a circle inside a triangle, or vice versa.15 However, the same sort of egocentric thinking that causes you to believe that you have an above average sense of humour and are more skilled than the average driver, also causes you to think that you are a unique and special individual. Although you might like to think that you are very different from other people, the truth of the matter is that we are surprisingly similar and therefore remarkably predictable.


Psychics use this notion to give the impression that they have a paranormal insight into our personalities and past. Mr D explained that many psychics bolster their readings by using specific sounding statements that are likely to be true of many people. They might say that they have an impression of someone with a scar on their left knee (true for around a third of the population), own a copy of Handel’s Water Music (again, about a third), have someone called ‘Jack’ in the family (true for one-fifth of people), have a key despite not knowing what it opens, or have a pair of shoes in the wardrobe that they know they will never wear again.16 Mr D had developed several of his own over the years, including telling Lisa that he could see someone who was in need of medical care but were difficult to look after because they kept on throwing their pills down the sink, that someone in her family had once died without leaving a will, and that she had a stack of photographs in a drawer. Everyone assumes that they are unique, that these statements couldn’t possibly be true of others, and so ends up being overly impressed.

It is now time to explore the sixth and final principle of cold reading. But before we do, let me make one final prediction. I have the impression that you arrange your books on the basis of the colour of their covers, and recently spent three days in Lisbon. No? That’s not a problem.

6. Turning psychic lemons into lemonade

During his readings at Edinburgh University, none of Mr D’s participants openly stated that any of his comments were untrue. However, it does happen. Under these circumstances psychics have various ‘outs’ to help them avoid outright failure. Perhaps the most common involves broadening a statement that has been rejected as incorrect. For example, ‘I can sense someone called Jean’ might be transformed into ‘Well, if not Jean, perhaps Joan, or maybe even a Jack, but certainly a name starting with a J. Or something that sounds like a J. Like a K. Maybe Karen? Or Kate?’

There is also the strategy of giving someone else the problem by asking the person to think harder, or telling them that they may be able to work out the answer if they ask other members of their family after the reading. After that comes the old ‘I was talking metaphorically’ scam. Mr D told me that he had once been giving readings in a small seaside town. One of the readings was to a man named George. He looked at George’s weather-worn face and guessed that he had spent much of his life outside, and had a hunch he might have worked on ships. Mr D looked at a Tarot card and said that he could see George standing by the port waiting for a ship to arrive. George looked disappointed and shook his head. He had spent his entire life working on a farm and didn’t like the sea. It was a huge miss. In the blink of an eye Mr D explained that he was not talking literally but metaphorically. The ship was a new direction in George’s life and he was nervous about the change. George’s face lit up as he explained that yes, he had recently got married and was looking forward to sharing his life. Bingo. Psychic lemons transformed into lemonade in the blink of an eye.


Earlier on we encountered three techniques essential to any psychic reading; flattery, double-headed comments and vague statements. Now it is time to learn how to use the three other techniques essential for a successful and convincing reading.

4. Fish and fork

It is important to touch upon a wide range of topics and then change your patter on the basis of the reaction you obtain. If your comment results in a blank look, play down the statement and move on to another topic. If you are greeted by nods and smiles, elaborate. Many manuals on how to give psychic readings recommend working through several key topics, with one writer recommending using the mnemonic 'THE SCAM' to remind yourself to cover Travel, Health, Expectations about the future, Sex, Career, Ambitions, Money.17

5. Predict the likely

Use statements that are true for many people, such as 'I can see you achieving something at school, perhaps getting an award - you can still remember feeling proud as the teacher called out your name', 'as a child, you had a particularly embarrassing experience that you still think about from time to time even today', 'why can I see the colour blue or purple? Are you thinking of buying something that colour, or have you just bought it?', 'who is the elderly woman I can see, someone in a black dress complaining about her legs?', and 'something happened about two years ago didn't it, a major change of some sort?'

Also, many psychic manuals advise readers to focus on the type of issues that concern people at different stages in their lives.18 According to these writers, teenagers and those in their early twenties are often trying out different identities and exploring sexual relationships. Those in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties have usually developed a sense of stability and are more focused on their career, finances, and putting down roots. People in their mid-thirties to mid-forties are often worried about parental health and the stresses and strains of bringing up children. Those aged 45 onwards tend to be more concerned about their own health, whether their relationship is becoming stale, and the novelty of grandchildren.

6. Prepare your 'outs'

Remember that you cannot fail because if someone can't make sense of your statement you have two huge safety nets at your disposal. First of all, broaden your comment. Explain that perhaps the statement does not apply to the person directly, but rather someone in their family, a colleague at work or their friend. You can also broaden into the past and the future. Was this something that happened to them in childhood, or perhaps something that may take place in the near future? If that doesn't work, feel free to make the comment far more abstract explaining, for example, that when you see a 'holiday' you are actually referring to a major change of some sort, or when you speak about a 'hospital' you are really talking about someone coming into their life to care for them. If they are really struggling to make sense of a statement, make it sound as if they are the one that has failed by saying 'I'll leave that one with you'.

Finally, if all else fails, try using these giveaway signs to your advantage …

✵ Are the person's clothes slightly too small or big, or the surrounding buckle holes in their belt worn? If so, say that you have the impression that they have recently gained, or lost, some weight.

✵ Does their posture suggest time in the military, a background in dance, or perhaps someone who spends lots of time hunched up over their computer?

✵ Look at their skin and eyes. Dry-looking skin, and dull-looking eyes, are some of the most reliable signs of a long-term, or recent, health problem.

✵ Glance at their fingers and hands. Calloused hands suggest someone who is involved in manual work, while long nails on just one hand strongly suggest someone who plays guitar. Tar-stained fingers suggests a smoker, while a lighter coloured strip of skin on their ring finger will usually signal a recent break-up of a relationship.

✵ Shake hands with them. People with especially weak and limp handshakes tend to be more anxious than others.19 Also, an unusually cold hand could be a sign that they suffer from poor blood circulation or are on some form of medication.

✵ Are their shoes practical or fashionable? Does this suggest that they are involved in sport, or vain? Also, especially large shoes might suggest that they work in a circus.

So there we have it. Mr D had lifted the lid off of the psychic industry. Learning how to give a psychic reading is not a question of attending psychic training courses or the school for gifted mediums. Instead, it is a case of flattery, double-headed statements, ambiguous comments, fishing and forking, predicting the likely, and transforming failure into success. It would be nice to think that Mr D was the only one engaged in fakery. Nice, but wrong. In fact there is an entire underground industry devoted to cold reading. Books with titles such as Cashing in on the Psychic, Money-making Cold Reading, and Red Hot Cold Readings are widely available; as are interactive DVDs, training courses and conventions all devoted to fooling all of the people all of the time.

Does this mean that all psychics and mediums are fakes? No. In fact, many more mediums and psychics are using the techniques described above without realizing it. Lamar Keene referred to them as ‘shut-eyes’ - people who don’t have any paranormal ability but are, without being aware of it, fooling themselves and others.

Cold reading also explains why psychics have consistently failed scientific tests of their powers. By isolating them from their clients, psychics are unable to pick up information from the way those clients dress or behave. By presenting all of the volunteers involved in the test with all of the readings, they are prevented from attributing meaning to their own reading, and therefore can’t identify it from readings made for others. As a result, the type of highly successful hit rate that psychics enjoy on a daily basis comes crashing down and the truth emerges - their success depends on a fascinating application of psychology and not the existence of paranormal abilities. Now that you know the techniques, going to a psychic or watching one on a television should be a very different experience. In the same way that a music lover appreciates the nuances of Mozart or Beethoven, so you will be listening out for the psychics fishing, broadening statements and forcing their clients to do their work for them.

Enjoy the concert.