From Abracadabra to Zombies
How did he know that? Actually, he didn't.
The Great Psychic Con
27 Feb 2011. "There's no way he could have known my grandmother's name?" "How do you explain his predicting the lights would go off at the shop?" "How did he know my uncle's name?" "There's no way he could have known my father died of a heart attack." "How could he possibly know that my brother collects cuckoo clocks?"
These and millions more like them represent the kinds of statements we get from people who say they're skeptical, but who've been to a psychic and have come away as believers in the paranormal. Many times I've been asked to try to explain the "paranormal" experiences of people who tell me they're skeptics, but who can't think of any other explanation for something than that it was paranormal. I call it the "Explain That!" game. I've posted responses to some of these requests, but I can't say I've been able to persuade any of the believers to consider alternative explanations, even though they ask me to provide them with one. [Some of my explanations for various psychic readings are here, here, here, and here.]
How do psychics know so much about me? I've heard or read many times variants of that question asked by people who are intelligent and educated, but naive. For example, a local sports writer visited a psychic to get a story about her predictions for the local high school athletic teams. He ended up writing two stories. I didn't read the second one, but the first revealed how amazed he was at how much she knew about him and how accurate she was. It made him think, he wrote, that maybe there's something to this psychic business. There is, but it's not what he thinks. In my letter to the editor of the local paper where the sports writer plies his trade I said:
Bruce Gallaudet is an experienced journalist, but he seems to know nothing about cold reading and subjective validation, the two tarot cards up the sleeve of a working psychic. He's dazzled within 60 seconds and befuddled when she tells the old man that she's sorry he had to cancel a trip. Did she ask about your knee injury? Or about the outdated calendar you keep at home, along with the box of newspaper clippings? Did she mention your business venture setback (but you'll do well in new endeavors) or the health problems a loved one is having?
Stick to local sports, Bruce. You were in way over your head with Ms. Mertino, the Davis Psychic.
The fact is, psychics may know certain things about you in the same way that many people know many things about others by knowing their age, sex, occupation, education, where they live, how they dress, what kind of jewelry they're wearing, or their religion. Does anyone have perfect knowledge of others based on what are sometimes called warm reading techniques? Of course not. We're dealing with probabilities, not absolute certainties here, but it doesn't matter. The psychic is not obligated to stop the reading when she makes a mistake. If she misinterprets your wearing black as a sign of grieving for someone who has died, she doesn't have to say "oops, wrong again." No, she just slithers on to the next question or statement, ignoring her "miss" and counting on you to ignore it as well. Eventually, she'll hit something that resonates with you, that you can validate. The key to a psychic reading is not the psychic's ability to tap into a world you are not directly privy to. The key to a psychic reading is your willingness to find meaning or significance in some of the statements she makes or questions she asks. If mentioning the death of a loved one evokes no response from you, the psychic will move on to another statement, another question.
It is also possible that the psychic you are dealing with is a very sleazy professional fraud who investigates her clients before she does the reading. Doing a hot reading, however, is not likely if you are a drop-in. Although, even drop-ins can be conned by distracting the client and looking through her purse or wallet. Some psychics who work fairs, for example, have a colleague who walks by those in line trying to pick up information about various clients who are in conversations. The colleague passes on the info to the "psychic" via a wireless device. Most people who visit psychics on a whim are probably not going to be a victim of someone using hot reading, however. Why? Because it's really unnecessary. Cold reading works just as well. (For a special case of using hot readings by sharing information in order to con wealthy clients who go from psychic to psychic, see Lamar M. Keene. The Psychic Mafia. Prometheus, 1997).
I recently received an email from someone who has been a believer in the paranormal since his experience with a psychic 25 years ago. He writes: "I have applied my skeptical, scientific mind to these and a few other 'impossible to explain' things that occurred in that session. But these two 'instances' stand out as unexplainable except by using some paranormal explanation." He told me he has a tape recording of the session. I suppose this was to let me know that he is not misremembering anything. Many people who visit psychics or think they've experienced something paranormal may be tricked by their memory, which adds details after the fact that make the event seem more mysterious than it really was. In this case, we are to assume there is no trick of memory involved. "Any comments or observations would be appreciated," wrote my correspondent. We'll see.
Before looking at the two bits of the reading that stood out as paranormal to my correspondent, let me pass on a bit of background information that the client (as the psychic's mark is referred to in polite conversation) provided. In 1985, his sister offered him a session with a medium for his birthday. She and some of her friends picked the psychic and told him not to volunteer information in the session, but to simply answer questions with a 'yes' or 'no.' Nowhere in the email did the client indicate that he was aware that his sister or her friends could have provided some information about him to the psychic. No matter. Let's assume they didn't cheat in any way.
The psychic started off by "reciting The Lord's Prayer in a meditative posture." Well, it's always a nice touch to give the impression that you are in tune with some ancient practice or have some spirit or divinity on speed dial.
"The session began with his asking who were Jack and Sam and then Ben and Rose." It's possible the psychic just picked these names out of thin air. It's also possible that in the current generation (or the generation before) in that area and time of the reading these were very popular names. Or they may have been very popular names among people of a certain ethnic group that the psychic identified the client with. (Why the generation before instead of just the current generation? Because many people who go to a psychic want to know about or hear from dead people, especially dead parents.) It's possible that his sister or one of her friends mentioned these names to the psychic. It is also possible that the Lord of the Lord's prayer communicated these names to the psychic or ordered the spirits of the client's dead relatives to speak to the psychic. These latter possibilities seem remote to me, but they're not impossible even if they are extremely implausible.
Asking about names is a common cold reading device. If the client can't relate anyone in his life to any of the names, the psychic moves on to another ploy. But if the names are carefully chosen (because of their familiarity or commonness), the client will usually be able to link a name to somebody he's known at one time in his life. Notice that the psychic didn't say "I've got your uncle Sam and uncle Jack on the line. They've got some great news for you." I had an uncle Jack, too. He was dead in 1985 and maybe the Lord told him that someday this fellow would be writing to me about him and this would be a good opportunity for him to say hi to me. Hi, uncle Jack. I sure miss you.
The psychic isn't likely to say "your grandmother Rose and grandfather Ben" are here and have something to say to you." No, the psychic will say "who's Ben? who's Rose?" or "I've got your grandmother and grandfather here. They're still happy together in the afterlife as they were in life." And if you respond, but they fought all the time when they were alive, the psychic will say something like "yes, but they were happy and they want you to know they're not fighting anymore." Anyway, the client writes:
The session began with his asking who were Jack and Sam and then Ben and Rose. These names, the only ones he mentioned, happened to be those of two uncles (of 10) and the names of my paternal grandmother and grandfather. During the session he 'paraphrased' things they were 'saying' to me. Most were just conversation. BUT, one was totally amazing and inexplicable. He asked a series of questions: "You and your wife have a place of business?" Yes, we did at the time. He said that my grandparents were telling me that on the upper level of this place of business, there was some sort of electrical problem that could be dangerous and were concerned that we address it. I, by the way, did not work at the restaurant, but commuted to my job in NYC. I called [my wife] when I returned to work from my 'lunch-hour.' She told me the lights began to flicker and went out. She had to call in an electrician who found a short up above the dropped ceiling and fixed it. Coincidence? I have no way to explain this except some sort of paranormal phenomenon.
Wow. Lucky he went to the psychic. Or was it? Note that the information the spirits of the grandparents provided didn't do any good. The wife had already had the electrical problem fixed by the time her husband called her to tell here of the amazing news his grandparents had for him. I'm mocking, of course, but ask yourself: if you had the chance to communicate with your deceased grandparents and the most significant thing they could tell you was to be on the lookout for some sort of electrical problem that could be dangerous, wouldn't you be disappointed? I think I'd wonder what the heck happened to my grandmother if the most interesting thing she had to say from beyond the grave was that I might have an electrical problem in my life someday. Wouldn't you be wondering also why your grandparents told you it was dangerous when it was just a short that made the lights flicker? And what if there hadn't been an electrical problem that day in that restaurant, but there was one somewhere else a few years later? Being the kind of client you are, you say "aha! that's what granny and pops were trying to tell me." And you won't wonder why they didn't tell you that the problem would happen years down the line. You'll have a good feeling again of being connected to people you loved. And if there was never any electrical problem for the rest of your life? So what, there was something else the psychic said that was even more astounding.
Later in this same session, he kind of doubled over as though in pain and asked what my father-in-law died from. I replied a burst aortic aneurysm. He made a comment as though to my dead father-in-law, whom I'd never met, that he should 'keep that away', obviously referring to the pain. He then said my father-in-law was kind of joking with me saying that my wife, his daughter, did not believe me when I said, jokingly to her (6-12 months earlier) that 'sometimes I feel close to your father.' I said these words and now, 'his spirit' was ostensibly quoting what I'd said.
It is common for a psychic to feign pains to indicate that a spirit is not only telling him how he died but is letting the psychic share a bit of the pain for some strange reason. However, in this case it doesn't seem to mean anything. Doubling over is such a generic move that it could cover a wide array of death blows, including, I suppose, an aortic aneurysm. The psychic was probably hoping for something in the stomach area, but it doesn't seem very important why he was making the gesture. Many psychics will say things like "he died quickly" and if you say "no, he had cancer and it took him several months to die" the psychic will say "yes, I see that. He suffered for a long time and then in an instant he was gone."
The important thing here, according to the client, is that the psychic quoted something the client said months ago. Or did he? The psychic said "your wife didn't believe you when you said that sometimes you feel close to her father." What are the odds that he was just making stuff up and hit a bulls eye? I don't know and I don't think the client knows, either. Think about it. I'm making stuff up on the fly and I tell you that your wife didn't believe you when you said you sometimes feel close to her father. Your wife probably doesn't believe a lot of things you say. And it doesn't seem that extraordinary to me that a husband might say to his wife that sometimes he feels close to her father. In any case, if this is a case of spirit communication, it seems the spirit is providing pointless information instead of providing useful information. The psychics, of course, say that even pointless information is useful because the whole point of the communication is to prove that we survive death.
I have to say that the psychic threw this client a bone and it was a tasty one. To me the question is not "how did the psychic know this" but "why would my wife's dead father, whom I've never met, tell the psychic this instead of all the other things he must know about my wife that I'd love to hear about?" Of course, it's possible that the dead father-in-law's spirit was ordered by the Lord to tell the psychic something that would provide evidence of the afterlife. I'd say the chances of that being true are very remote. It's more likely that the psychic just got lucky and threw out a statement that the client could validate. If that statement hadn't resonated with the client, the psychic would just move on, throw out another statement or ask another question, and slither on down the path, knowing the power of subjective validation and how soon enough the fish will find the bait to his liking.
The main problem with these retrospective explanations of allegedly psychic events is that I wasn't there and don't have all the information. I could make a better assessment of the probability of the statement from the father-in-law if I knew how many other times the psychic used that line in a reading. Was this the first time he'd ever tried that one or is it one of his go-to statements with certain kinds of clients. I have no idea. How many other clients are asked about Ben and Rose or Jack and Sam? Why would my uncles or grandmother talk to this stranger and not directly to me? Am I to believe that the spirits of my loved ones are at the beck and call of strangers who hang up a shingle that says "Psychic Readings"? I have an easier time believing that he's making stuff up as he goes along and I'm either able to find meaning in what he says or asks or I'm not. But it's me who's providing the meaning. I have to tell him who these people are and I have to tell him what my father-in-law died of, yet he knows that I told my wife I feel close to her father? It doesn't add up to me.
Skeptics who are asked to come up with an explanation for apparently paranormal events have to speculate based on incomplete evidence. I suggest that that is what the psychics' clients must also do. The psychics have an advantage over the skeptics, however, because many clients desperately want to believe in the afterlife and have little understanding of cold reading and subjective validation. The combination of hope and ignorance has led many otherwise intelligent people to fall for the great psychic con.
27 Mar 2014. I recently read your article "How did he know that? Actually, he didn't. The Great Psychic Con." I can relate to a lot of the article myself. My ex-wife and I both befriended a gal who claimed she was a psychic. She also claimed to have a background in psychology, giving her even more power over the suckers she "helps."
The readings she did for the ex and me (I was skeptical but played along just to see) came long after we got to know her and she got to know us. Funny how she was able to bring up names and events as if using her abilities when in actuality my ex-wife gave away a lot of information beforehand.
In the end, this psychic led to the destruction of my home and marriage. We had problems to begin with but always got through it. She even had my ex-wife convinced to put her in her will so the psychic and her partner would inherit the house and everything. But this wasn't to be as my ex wised up (all too late) to their con and booted them out of her life.
In the end we both moved on and started new lives. As for the psychic, I am sure she has found someone else to con. I find it sad and sick that people do this to others. So many lives destroyed and people hanging on the words of psychics who are doing nothing but playing mind games for their own benefit and pleasure.
Thank you for Skeptic Dictionary. A wonderful site and enjoy reading it daily.
27 Feb 2011. I was just reading your entry in "Skeptimedia" called, "How did he know that? Actually, he didn't. The Great Psychic Con." I totally agree with your interpretation of how the psychic came up with the names for the reading described there, but I had a couple ideas on some of the rest.
At one point, the psychic supposedly said, "You and your wife have a place of business?" Yes, we did at the time. He said that my grandparents were telling me that on the upper level of this place of business, there was some sort of electrical problem that could be dangerous and were concerned that we address it. What I immediately thought of when I read this was that, back when this reading is said to have taken place (25 years ago), any psychic who wanted to do 30 minutes of prep for an upcoming scheduled reading could easily pop over to the library and look up the client, get a list of their residence and properties, including estimated value and sales history.
It would be a simple matter to discover that this client had a place of business, what type of building it was, when it was built, and its ownership history. Real estate agents and investors did this all the time, and these days it doesn't even take the trip to the library. So, if I was this psychic and I saw that John Doe had a business in an older multi-story commercial building, and that the building's current appraisal did not indicate that significant upgrades had been performed, I might very well guess that there would be some electrical fault that could be found if I got the client to search for it. As it is, the psychic wasn't even correct. The fault was NOT on an upper level, it was on the client's level, though above a false ceiling.
Of course, it could be even simpler. Perhaps the psychic sent a spy to the client's restaurant that morning to get a few things to bring up at the reading, and the spy was there when the lights flickered.
I don't think it is necessary that the psychic researched in the manner I suggest, but he certainly could have with very little trouble. My other observation is in regard to the supposed hit regarding the client's father-in-law. "He then said my father-in-law was kind of joking with me saying that my wife, his daughter, did not believe me when I said, jokingly to her (6-12 months earlier) that 'sometimes I feel close to your father.' I said these words and now, 'his spirit' was ostensibly quoting what I'd said." It has been well established that women often marry men who share many characteristics with their fathers. It is not a stretch to think those similarities might make a husband identify with his wife's father, even if they never met. After all, they have at least her in common. This seems like a guess that would be so often productive that a smart psychic would say it to every married client they saw. Just some thoughts. Keep up the great work!
reply: You did some pretty good work yourself, Jeff. Thanks.
1 March 2011
In about 1967 I was fishing with my father at Fork Lake. While removing a hook from the mouth of a five pound Great Northern Pike his wedding ring dropped into the stomach of the fish. At the same time the fish gave a mighty convulsion and dropped into the water. Three weeks later we were fishing at Rock Lake, about three hundred miles away and 2,000 feet higher. There is no waterways connecting the two lakes. As we were fishing I got a strange feeling and told my dad, "Cast over there, I think you'll find something you want". He did and immediately hooked a five pound Great Northern Pike. When we cleaned the fish we found that the stomach contained three minnows and a rusty lure. There was absolutely no sign of my father's wedding ring and we never saw it again.
So how do you explain that? Eh? Where's your skepticism now?