Alleee and Franc's

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So, you wanna be a psychic ?
part 1

So, you wanna be a psychic and give psychic readings, just like John Edward ? Pretty simple. All you have to learn is cold and hot reading techniques, an understanding of probability, a slick tongue to fall on your feet gracefully, and you'll be on your way to scam lots of people.

Cold reading, the most important tool in your arsenal, is basically the study of a person's appearance and movement. Depending on the kind of scam you want to run, this may be more or less useful. All you usually need to observe are :
* the age of the person - The older the person, the more likely you can get hits on deaths and children. The younger the person, the more you should orient on personal problems and parents.
* mode of dress - The more well-dressed the person, the more likely that his problems are not monetary.
* body language - You can observe a person's reactions during the reading. A person who nods or changes posture suddently is in agreement with your reading.

Here is a good application of cold reading techniques, which also illustrates how one initial hit can develop into a wonderful reading :

They sat me down in the studio and brought in the woman named Della. She seemed to me to be around 30 years old, so I deduced that it was her father that died, with a secondary guess being a sister or brother. The producers said they would tell me exactly what they told Van Praagh, so I said, "wait, don't tell me anything, I think I know who died." They looked around at each other, so I blurted out "your father died when you were a little girl." BINGO! Her father died in 1971.

But then she inadvertantly gave me an additional clue, which I utilized, when she confirmed "yes, my father was killed." See the clue?

Of course you do, you're skeptics. So I then immediately moved away from cancer, heart attack, etc., and into the car crash/explosion/murder category. BINGO!
Because one of my students at Occidental College had a father die when she was a little girl, and when the 20/20 crew was there filming me she talked about it in detail (see an earlier post of mine on this internet hotline and in my essay in the next issue Skeptic), I used a bunch of her statements, like how she really felt bad her dad never saw her graduate from High School, her dad never saw her play sports and meet her friends, etc. I also did the photograph in the bedroom routine ("I see a photograph with you and your dad in your bedroom"). BINGO, BINGO, BINGO.

from "New Respect for James Van Praagh", by Michael Shermer, published in Skeptic Mag Online.

Hot reading is more devious, and relies on getting information in a more dishonest manner :
* reading up : if your guest is a celebrity, it is a relatively simple matter to simply look up information and then feed it to the victim with gusto.
* chatting with guests : done beforehand and re-fed the information later, you look like you got hits, while you and the guest know fully well they aren't.
* microphones or confederates : if you're too lazy to do it yourself, or your audience is too big, you can always plant microphones or have confederates get information for you. This was the method (with previously-filled-out "prayer cards") used by Peter Popoff, the faith healer, when he was caught by James Randi in a famous debunking. Popoff was using a transmittor in his ear to get the information fed to him :

The team recorded hours of conversations in which Elizabeth Popoff radioed to her husband personal details that she and other aides gathered from the audience in conversations before the service and from prayer request cards filled out there. Elizabeth Popoff and several aides would scout the audience looking for "hot" ones. They would ask them, "Is Jesus going to heal you? And what's your name, and where do you live? Have you had this condition long?" They would write all this information down on cards, which later on Elizabeth would recite during the service via her concealed transmitter. She carried the power source in a large handbag, and the transmitter and microphone were hidden under her blouse.

Randi, however, needed incontrovertible evidence that this was the way the information was conveyed. Randi enlisted the help of many volunteers in several cities to adopt false names and diseases and act like "hot" ones. That plan worked beautifully. Randi's stooges were approached and questioned by Elizabeth Popoff. During the show, Popoff called out the false names and diseases in exactly the order that Elizabeth Popoff had approached them. She didn't even bother to shuffle the cards!

From "God's Frequency is 39.17 MHz : The Investigation of Peter Popoff", by Al Seckel, published in Science and the Paranormal, 1987

But your method need not be so high-tech. Here is James Randi again, this time doing a reading himself :

I stopped abruptly and pointed to a lady in the third-row aisle seat. "I'm led to say to you that I get a middle name of 'Rose' for you, madame!" I cried. Her gasp verified that I was right." And that name is more than significant to you." She leaned forward. "I see a clock, a very old clock, and on the dial three pink roses?" She started to speak, and I silenced her by raising my hand. "But this is a strange clock. It can't tell the time!" By now, the poor woman was about to pass out in excitement. "Why is it useless? I see two arrows, or darts…They're metal, and they're broken…Ah! I see! These are the hands of that clock, and they've come off the clock face, and are lying together behind the glass cover of the clock dial! Is that right?" The woman was standing, mouth open, nodding vigorously. She was awe-struck, and the applause was vigorous indeed. How was it done? A lucky guess? No. Planning.

T.K. Lawson, my buddy, had been working with that charity. He was the one got me the gig (a contracted appearance). And he also went through several neighborhoods selling tickets to likely donors. He had sold tickets CC-20 and CC-22 to this lady, and she'd invited him into her living-room while she made out a check to pay for the tickets. He observed that the "rose" theme was everywhere, and an embroidered "sampler" was framed by the door, with the woman's full name on it. That clock was by the fireplace. T.K. noted these facts, and reported them to me.

From the article "The Art of 'Cold Reading'", by James Randi.

Using probabilities is a simple question of knowing the most probable options given either a cold reading element, or an already-established line. An example is the Shermer reading seen before : knowing she was in her thirties (cold reading), he went for "father", and knowing he was killed (established line, supplemental material), he naturally moved to violent options.

The causes and speed of a death can be zeroed in pretty quickly : cancer, chest, head, sudden or abrupt. The use of mementos of the deceased is also another obvious point that is used - ring or jewelry, picture of the deceased are usually present.

Because of Bell's Curve and the way we classify things, there are usually a limited number of ways that cover a large probability, in most cases of life. A family member is usually a grandparent, parent, sibling or child. A dwelling is an apartment or house, in most cases. A person sought will most of the times be a fond memory, and he can either be friend, family or lover (in the case of family members, unless you are in Tennessee, that's easy to pinpoint). Important objects are usually books, letters, jewelry, or similar gifts. Hair can be brown, black, blonde, red. And so on.

Of course, the most used bait for psychics is letters of the alphabet. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, but the letters t,s,c,m,f,p (and vowels) are at the beginning of approximately three-quarters of all words. Furthermore, while there are 3.2 million first names, one-third of the population has one of only 300 of them (and two-thirds of the population are contained in only 400) (Intelligent Search Technology). Given the number of significant people in our lives, it is not surprising that tricks can be found to maximize probabilities. Even then, lots of misses can occur, so don't rely too much on it.

This manipulation of probability is at the basis of many pseudo-sciences, including astrology, which we will get into later.

General points to follow during a reading :

1. Bait - especially if with a group, one must establish a person to give a reading to. Using a letter is a good way to zero in, and at the same time gives the appearance of a hit.
example : Is there someone related to an M ? I'm seeing a M-A-R name. Martha, Margaret...
This example is doubly good because if M-A-R turns out to be correct, the hit is more impressive, otherwise the M angle still worked.
2. Slick tongue - your capacity to make the reading flow is very important to maintain appearances. It's better to have 10 hits and 40 failures than 2 hits and 6 failures, if only because of the power of selective thinking (people tend to remember big hits and ignore big misses as a general rule).
2a. Shotgunning - psychics like John Edward can go at a blinding speed of about one bait a second. This is called shotgunning. Keep cold reading and capitalize on success. Don't let failures tarry too long : throw lots of baits, lines and questions.
example : I see a heart problem with a father-figure in your family, a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a cousin... I'm definitively seeing chest pain here for a father-figure in your family.
2b. Back on your feet - have ready-made expressions for set situations, such as repeated failures.
example : When John Edward experiences repeated failures, he says "the energy is pulling back" and stops that reading.
3. Sympathetic audience - it is very important to always perform in front of a partisan audience. This brings you more supplemental answers to your questions and hits, more applause and cooperation, and more body language.
4. Questions - formulate statements in the form of a question if possible. That way, if the answer is no, hey, you were just asking a question. If the answer is yes, a hit !
example : I am "getting" alcohol. Is there anyone in your family with alcohol problems ?
5. Leave yourself outs - better to plan for failures, whenever of one statement or of an entire reading. You may want to develop your own theories on how your powers work, so that you may furnish answers for failures (also see Back on your feet above). Also, open-ended statements or statements relying on hidden knowledge are prefereable.
example : I sense some infidelity here… (from reading example below)
This line is good because even if the person is not cheating, then one can claim that this applies to the person's spouse.

For more of such tips, see the Skeptic Report article "11 Techniques to Talk to the Dead".

The words "bait" and "line" is not coincidential. A reading is much like fishing - throwing lines in the hopes of bagging a good fish. The structure of a reading can look something like this :
bait (usually used w/ group) -> cold reading, probable hits -> build up and throw new lines

Let me illustrate this with two short examples taken from the article "Dial a Psychic", by Reginald Finley (with most comments deleted for readability). My comments are in brackets.

Psychic: "I don't know why, but I see someone in your life."
Caller: "Really, what do you see?"
Psychic: "I see someone whose name starts with an "M" in your life." [bait]
Caller: "Wow, uhhh, where did that come from?" [cold reading opportunity - bait is correct]
Psychic: "I don't know, I'm certain that someone whose name starts with an "M" will be an important factor in your life." [reinforcing the bait, with vague expression "important factor" improving probability]
Caller: "That's amazing! I'm dating a woman named Martha." [HIT]

Caller: "Are my boyfriend and I going to stay together?" [supplemental answer - provided a line all by herself]
Psychic: "I sense troubling waters up ahead. I hear arguments…." (pause…..) [building on her answer]
Caller: "Well, yeah (surprised) we've been arguing a lot lately." [HIT]
Psychic: "I see some children here." [building on previous information - family arguments are mostly related to either children, love life or money]
Caller: "Yeah, we have a daughter." [HIT]
Psychic: "I sense some infidelity here……"(long pause) [Using another possibility as bait, with an "out" : if there is none on her side, then it might be on his side, and there would be no way for her to know]
Caller: "(chuckling) "Really…" (pause again)…..(quivering) "Hmmmm…." [cold reading opportunity - bait is correct]
REGINALD'S COMMENT : A long pause generally denotes personal reflection. She obviously was wondering whether I knew if it was her or not. If she were guilt free she would have quickly responded with: "Who is he cheating on me with?" "Do I know her?" However, she didn't, so I saw the hole and went for it.
Psychic: (concerned) "You've cheated on him haven't you?" [reinforcing the bait with additional information]
Caller: "Oh, my god!!!! How did you know that?" [HIT]

Note that even if the victims would say there are 4 hits in total, no meaningful hit was done here. But that doesn't matter. What matters is the illusion of the hit, which is enough to be a hit in itself.

In the next part of this article, we will look at real John Edward readings and elaborate on the structure and ethereal nature of these readings. Also, we'll do a little dabbling in probability and astrology. Stay frosty !

Continue to part 2

review written by Franc, 07/2002.

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