How do they do that?

This article appeared in New Humanist September 2003  

How do they do that?

In 1991 Granada Television broadcast a series of six episodes called James Randi, Psychic Investigator . It changed my life. True I was always sceptical but I had no idea that there were actually organisations of sceptics throughout the world.

Randi with his combination of showmanship and acute intellect captured my imagination. The thing I most wanted to know about psychics was “how do they do it”?

My first step was to study the art of conjuring. Randi follows in the tradition of other great magicians such as Houdini and Maskelyne both famed for their exposures of fake mediums so it seemed the logical thing to do.

I found that conjuring techniques enabled ‘unpsychic’ people like myself to duplicate some well known psychic feats such as bending cutlery or reading minds with comparative ease. In fact using trickery instead of ‘mindpower’ produces such a similar effect that I personally can’t tell the difference.

Now I could impress friends and strangers alike with my new found skills. The problem was that, like me, they wanted to know, “how do you do that”?As I’m sure you’re aware the consequences of revealing a magician’s secrets are dire. Suffice it to say the equipment used is normally reserved for the neutering of cats. However a moment’s thoughtful reflection will reveal the basic methodology of most tricks: How does the magician appear to bend spoons? By doing it when you’re not looking that’s how. “That’s not going to be easy”, I hear you cry. Exactly! That’s what takes the time and practice. How about telepathically reproducing a drawing sealed earlier in this nice brown envelope? Answer: Somehow the magician gets to see what you’ve drawn. “Impossible!” No it’s not — but it is very devious.How many psychics actually do this type of thing? “Not very many”, is the answer. There isn’t any need because there’s another trick. A trick requiring no smoke, no mirrors and no sleight of hand. This is cold reading. The term ‘cold reading’ was once only used by sceptics and magicians but recently it has become much more widely known, although not necessarily that well understood. It is the most commonly used method behind such mysteries as mediumship, palmistry, astrology and a host of other varieties of ‘psychic’ reading. It refers to the ability to read someone the psychic has never met before.In essence the method involves a combination of throwing out amorphous statements that are re–interpreted by the sitter as having some deeper personal meaning, and asking questions to which they then obligingly provide answers. A couple of examples to illustrate:Psychic: “There’s a legal matter around you that is causing a bit of worry at the moment.”
You: “Golly yes there is. How could you have possibly known about that?”
Your stunned response could be as a result of any of the following:• You are seeing a solicitor about moving house, making a will or going through a divorce.
• You were stopped for speeding and given a fine.
• You’re about to take a law exam.
• You’ve complained about something to your local trading standards office.
• You robbed the local post office and have a bag of cash under your bed.You get the idea. But even if legal matters are completely wide of the mark it’s easily covered by re-questioning your spirit guide who explains that what they actually meant was someone who you know is concerned about a legal matter and you should ask around as you might be able to help.As for asking questions this can be either quite blatant as in,“Who’s Harry?”
“Who drives a blue car?”
“Why am I getting something to do with hairdressing?”Or it could be more subtle such as using pauses to put psychological pressure on the sitter to respond. “He says you’re worried about work…………”Now even if I went through all the techniques used in cold reading I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that this system can be used to explain everything a psychic does when giving a reading. There are numerous other ruses that can be employed and if a piece of information should fortuitously come the psychic’s way then this is not the stuff of miracles; it is the less discussed ‘hot reading’.For example I once did a series of readings for a journalist and after obtaining my subjects’ addresses I telephoned the local library to ask who was listed on the electoral roll at that house. Better still we now have the Internet as a resource. Websites such a ‘Friends Reunited’ can provide a wealth of information if you are prepared to do some digging. At a more local level why not keep a database of newspaper cuttings listing ‘Births, Marriages and Deaths’?Of course if I was a local psychic I’m sure my best source of information would be the sitters themselves. Once they have told me all about their friends (in complete confidence naturally) then should their friends pay me a visit, miracles await. They will then tell their friends just how good I am….

These and similar subterfuges are the real secrets. A magician might deceive you but at least you know it’s a trick. With a ‘psychic’ it’s still a trick but sadly most people don’t even realise it.

Copyright 2003 © Tony Youens

non flash menu: [home page] [Latest Commentary] [skeptic resource] [articles] [lecture] [bio] [books] [contact] [sitemap] [links]