I was once
offered a free psychic reading by someone who described herself
as a ‘mystic’. We had met during a television debate
and afterwards one of her satisfied customers told me of her
amazing talent and assured me that a single visit would be enough
to convince me of her abilities.
the offer, I made an appointment and visited the psychic at her
home in Nottingham. I was ushered into a small room that was suitably
festooned with mystical artifacts and adorned with books on tarot
cards and astrology. During the reading my psychic used such ancient
arts as numerology, astrology, palmistry, tarot cards and rune stones
and even found hidden meaning in the colour of my tie. I remember
that, amongst other things, she told me I was an only child and
that I had four children the eldest of which was a boy. Both these
statements are certainly true.
can see how this might make an impact on many of her clients: the
build up was superb and the ambience just right. But I was, and
still remain, utterly unimpressed. The reason for my indifference
was that I had studied many such psychic readings and understood
how and why they worked.
absence of critical thinking
Psychic readings come in a variety of different flavours
and each psychic uses slightly different techniques to achieve
their effect. Apart from those I have already mentioned above,
the list includes spiritualism, tea leaf reading, graphology, psychometry
and a host of other methods of divination and character analysis,
each with it’s own impressive sounding name (although, mercifully,
‘extispicy’, the reading of entrails, seems to have
fallen into disuse). There are two common fallacies that play an
essential part in the uncritical acceptance of psychic readings.
post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).
This fallacy occurs when people assume that if event A preceded
event B, then A caused B. An example would be believing that, as
one passed one's driving test soon after buying a good luck charm,
the charm must have caused one to pass the test. Many superstitions
are based on the post hoc fallacy. And psychics make use of it too.
People assume that, if one had an unhappy childhood, and if one's
psychic claims that one had an unhappy childhood, then this must
be because the psychic is somehow causally sensitive to one's past
history: the psychic has occult powers. But of course, a one-off
observation of one thing happening after another is not nearly enough
to justify the belief that the one thing is causally related to
the other. I scratch my nose. Immediately after, someone in China
sneezes. Did my nose-scratching cause the sneeze? Of course not.
addition, when people assess the effectiveness of such esoteric
arts, many simply look at the results without considering what,
if any, mechanism might explain how the results were achieved. Thus
astrology, for example, is still highly regarded without anyone
being able to come up with an even half-credible explanation of
how it is supposed to work. You are told that you are going through
a difficult time because Saturn is aligned with Mars in the third
house; you are indeed going through a difficult period: ergo, astrology
works! The question of how it is supposed to work is never raised.
there is the appeal to ignorance (ad ignorantium). The burden of
proof clearly lies with those who think that psychic powers exist
rather than on those who believe they don’t. Yet people often
assume that, in the absence of any proof that psychic powers don’t
exist, it is as at least as rational to believe that they exist
as it is to believe they don’t. Again, this is fallacious
is also a tendency automatically to attribute a supernatural explanation
when a more mundane one does not immediately present itself.
Psychics thus often try to claim victory by default. Those of
us who are sceptical of psychic powers are familiar with the
how do you explain that, then?’ Sometimes it’s possible
to give an answer and sometimes not; but when we can’t, psychics
often smugly assume their case is proven. This has happened to
me in a number of interviews. For example:
Zarina, explain to us how do you communicate with the dead?’
I communicate with those who have passed on through my spirit
guide Chief Running Wolf.’
Tony, how do you explain it?
Zarina has said is that she communicates with the dead (those who
have passed on) by communicating with the dead (Chief Running Wolf)
but any attempt by the sceptic to point out that no evidence has
been offered will look evasive
Fortunately, in the case of psychic readings, an explanation
is possible, but it is difficult to present the explanation as a
main mechanism involved is usually referred to as ‘cold reading’.
This term refers to the way in which a reader can tell you a great
deal about you without having any prior knowledge i.e. ‘cold’.
There are other terms that stick with this temperature metaphor,
such as a ‘hot’ reading, which means having prior access
to information which is then fed back to you, and a ‘warm’ reading,
which generally refers to information inadvertently given out during
the course of the reading.
important skill in cold reading is the ability to get information
without obviously fishing for it. An advantage here is that no
one expects the reader, whatever the method, to be able to come
up with laser-like precision. Communication with the dead is,
after all, not like using a telephone. For example, the psychic
may fondle your watch (psychometry) and attempt to tune in to
its vibrations. It’s not easy, so they begin cautiously, ‘I’m
getting something about a man... called Michael.... "Mick",
or is it "Mike"? I feel a kindly presence... very caring...
could be difficult at times but generally has his heart in the right
place.’ During the pauses the psychic will look briefly at
you for some kind on confirmation that they are on the right track.
It will be by no means clear if they are asking or telling you.
But if you are not very forthcoming, they have no need to worry;
they can simply ask ‘Is this making sense for you?’
Curiously, you might not actually perceive this as a question designed
to elicit information. After all, you may think, the psychic has
already given the name ‘Michael’; they are asking this
question just to see if the information they have given is correct.
this situation, you might say either that you have or have never
heard of anyone called ‘Michael’: it really doesn’t
matter. If right, the psychic can build on the information. Conversely,
if they are wrong, and to be honest this is fairly unlikely given
the popularity of the name, then ‘Michael’ is obviously
not someone very close to you. So the psychic can either move on
to something else or try and push a little further. For example,
‘I don’t think this a family member I’m getting
but it’s certainly someone you knew quite well’. This
simple sentence has the effect of opening up relationships both
past and present, either at work or in virtually any social setting.
They also have the option of making the switch to a future event,
‘I sense this person is going to play a very important role
in your life within the next few months. It may well be you haven’t
met them yet but if not it will be quite soon.’
key to most successful readings is simple: the psychic offers up
slightly ambiguous information and you, the client, then try
to fit this into some aspect of your life. The psychic’s
further responses are then dependent on your feedback. Unless
you are a sceptic, like me, you will tend to be helpful. After
all, the psychic is making great efforts on your behalf.
suppose you are desperately trying not to give anything away. You
offer no information and ask no questions. Well, there is still
going to be some information leakage. With a one-to-one reading,
the psychic is going to be aware of your gender and approximate
age. They can probably make some assessment of your social status
and level of intelligence. We all go through various stages of
life, the stages that Gail Sheehy describes very well in her
[Gail Sheey, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (New York:
Bantam,1977)]. So knowing someone’s age can be of enormous
are two examples from my own experience. I once gave a tarot reading
to a female in her mid-twenties. Using ‘Passages’,
I memorised over fifty different age-appropriate statements and
simply went through each one in turn, missing out those I felt
were not applicable. Afterwards, a journalist asked my subject
for her impression and she said she was amazed at the accuracy
of the reading. Curiously, when she was later informed that my
psychic ability was zero, she felt that this could not be the
case and that I had some latent ability of which I was unaware.
a second occasion, I posed as an astrologer for a television company.
I was only given the subject’s gender and date and place of
birth but from this I guessed which years in the subject’s
life were probably significant. The result was surprisingly accurate.
is impressive to be able to identify the specific problems and
difficulties in someone’s life when there are so many things that could
be happening. Well, in truth, it’s not that difficult. Problems
can be classified under a very small number of broad headings.
Once the psychic hits the right note it is simply a question of
homing in and adding the necessary detail. Unless your life is
uniquely problem free I am willing to bet you have problems, though
not necessarily major ones, in at least one of the following areas
Here are a few sentences that a psychic might use to find out which
applies to you.
seems to be some kind of difficulty with a family member... ,<pause> or
perhaps someone close to you at work...?’
career needs a bit of a shot in the arm doesn’t it? Maybe
you should think about making a few changes.’
can see some concerns over money..... But try not to let this
worry you too much the signs are that providing you plan carefully
things should turn out right in the end. It just takes time.’
can see a health issue that’s... well, shall I say, worrying
possible, the psychic would wait for you to voluntarily confirm
or deny the above, but if you prove a bit tight-lipped (shame on
you) then they may ask you (either verbally or else by using body
language showing that a response is required). Either way, the psychic
can make the necessary adaptations. Look at the above sentences
and ask yourself how you might feel if,
You’ve just discovered your partner has been having an
b) You have just decided to enroll on a management course.
c) You’ve just lost your life savings on the Stock Exchange.
d) Your brother is about to have open-heart surgery.
You would surely be impressed, but would each statement also have
some resonance if,
- You had
a slight disagreement yesterday with someone in your family
or maybe at work.
been thinking about looking for a new job or just decided
you need to re-organize your work.
been left £100,000 by a rich uncle and are not sure
how best to invest it.
- Your daughter
has been off school because of flu or you have a toothache.
The point is that phrases used by psychics can be interpreted in
many different ways, and as long as you can find some meaning
the physic has scored another hit.
course, you might catch on if this pattern was repeated throughout
the whole reading, but, like life, readings benefit from variety.
Character profiles are one useful way the psychic can show just
how tuned in to you they really are, e.g.
have grown at lot, psychologically speaking, in just the last
are a good judge of character. You’re the sort of person
who probably can tell when someone is lying.’
are surprisingly poor at assessing their own character so any type
of character statement should work, providing it’s not
are useful and a fairly safe bet as you are in no position to say
whether they are going to come true or not. Better still, why not
make a prediction that is self-fulfilling? e.g.
I don’t want you to worry but can I suggest that you drive
more carefully over the next three weeks? This is by no means
serious but I get the feeling of some kind of accident. No one
will get hurt, but it might turn out to be an enormous inconvenience.
But look, providing you take things a bit easy then I think you
can avoid it.’
from all these ploys, the psychic has other things working in his
or her favour. For instance, we all have a tendency to remember
claims that are correct and forget those that aren’t. Our
memories also are less precise than we like to think. Did the medium
really tell you your dead father’s name was William? Or did
being told "William", or perhaps he was known as "Bill" to
his friends? He wants to come through to you. Do you know a William...
father was called William.’
that’s who it is then ‘cause he’s saying to
me "Tell him it’s Dad."’
I have heard exactly this sort of conversation - and it was accepted
by the sitter!
returning to my reading with the mystic, perhaps you can begin to
see the reason for my lack of amazement. Before agreeing to the
meeting I had insisted on certain conditions.
- I would
record the whole session.
- I would
not answer any questions or provide her with information.
- I would
not tell her what she got right or wrong until after
the reading was over.
I should point out that even though these guidelines were fully
agreed to, she still asked me questions throughout the reading.
I did answer some, but only after pointing out that it was I who
was providing the information. Regarding the correct statements
she made about my being an only child and the number and gender
of my own children, these correct statements were considerably outnumbered
by the incorrect ones.
numerology, she said, ‘You have a "1" in your date
of birth so you could have been an only child.’ No response
from me so she continued, ‘Or if you did have brothers and
sisters you were probably very solitary’. So now she has told
me firstly that I could have been an only child and secondly that
I might have had brothers and/or sisters. I wonder if that’s
true of anyone you know?
similar story occurs with the second ‘accurate’ statement.
Using palmistry this time, she pointed out four lines below my little
finger. ‘I can see four children. This longer line, the first
one, represents a boy child and the three smaller ones girls.’
Again, no reaction from me so she continued, ‘But that’s
only your potential. You may not have had all of those.’
reminded her of this after the reading was over, confirming that
I did have a boy and three girls. She looked suitably pleased
with herself. However, I pointed out that although I had led
a fairly sheltered life, my ‘potential’ was considerably
more than four. The psychic was utterly unfazed.
2002 © Tony Youens