Trusting first impressions isn’t always a good idea. Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear and mediums who claim to be talking to the dead are probably just lying. In fact, when looking at the scientific evidence it is unlikely that any sort of genuine medium exists.
The psychic industry is worth billions and mediums can be very convincing. Below I’m going to list some common methods mediums use to con people so you can avoid frauds.
Cold reading is the main technique that your garden variety medium will use. Wikipedia defines it as:
[A] set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists (readers) to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does.
Cold reading doesn’t require any prior knowledge of a person and is therefore very useful for mediums. Performer and author Derren Brown describes it as “fascinating, powerful and hugely manipulative.”
This is a topic so large I couldn’t hope to cover it all in one blog post or even ten. One of the best books on the subject is the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland. I’ll draw a lot from his book for this post.
Rowland writes that within Cold Reading there are four major themes mediums draw on. These are: love, money, career, and health. He also offers 38 elements that can go into a cold reading. These include elements about: character, events and facts, extracting information, and the future. Below I’ll go through seven of the 38 elements.
Seven Cold Reading Elements
1) Using greener grass statements that prey on our thoughts of “what if.” For example: “I sense that from time to time you find yourself contemplating your more domestic instincts, and wondering if they could perhaps be allowed more room to flourish.”
2) Using some fine flattery that dresses up a compliment with forays into excessive verbosity. For example: “The feeling I’m getting is that you are the sort of person who is often more caring than many people. You slip up sometimes, and you’re not perfect. However, on the whole, looking at the big picture, you care about the people around you and want what is best for them.” This is just a round about way of saying “you’re a caring person.”
3) Making good chance guesses such as “I sense some connection with the number 2, do you happen to live in a house with a 2 in the number?” Bear in mind that on a street with 100 houses this would apply to 19 of them. If the psychic is wrong they can always expand the search by saying “oh perhaps it is the house next door or across the street then” which brings us to 47 of the houses.
4) Using the rainbow ruse. This is when you make a statement about someone which contains “a personality trait and its opposite.” An example is “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there are times when you can feel quite upset.”
5) Using Barnum statements. These are statements that most people would say apply to them. An example would be “You are sometimes awkward around people you don’t know very well.” When mediums make Barnum statements they are a little like those ‘relatable’ twitter accounts which post (or steal) relatable jokes and content. The difference is that mediums pretend that what they’re saying isn’t relatable and only applies to you. If you agree with a Barnum statement mediums can use that as the spring board to further ‘insights.’
6) Using veiled questions such as saying adding a slight rising tone at the end of a statement such as “I see a connection with industry and finance.” On face value, this is a statement but with the rising tone, it can also sound like a question which a client may confirm or deny. Using incidental questions by ending sentences with ““… now why would that be?” or “… is this making sense to you?” is also a strategy medium’s employ.
7) When making predictions about the future there are several tricks mediums use. For example telling a client what they want to hear or using what Ian Rowland calls “Pollyanna pearls”. He defines Pollyanna pearls as statements that “focus on one area of the client’s life, and say that things that may have been difficult lately will improve soon.”
This list is very far from exhaustive but it gives a flavour of the techniques used.
Mediums will also sometimes use shotgunning which involves a rapid fire of statements. For example “I sense a father figure – it might not be your father per se – who has had some trouble with pulmonary issues or something to do with his stomach area, he ended up in hospital for something” This statement contains so many pieces of potentially accurate information that it could apply to a wide range of people. It is important to note that shotgunning isn’t necessary for mediums. There are far better techniques.
Mediums also use our memories against us by summarising readings. In the summaries, mediums can avoid all their misses and add power to their hits. This can be very effective if done right.
A further thing to note is that mediums will nearly always try to avoid quantifiable characteristics when performing a reading. Mediums trap themselves the moment they say things like:”you’re always late for work” instead of “sometimes you struggle with time management.” If they leave their statements undefined they can later wiggle out of any mistakes by re-interpreting the words they used, saying they meant something metaphorically or suggesting they were talking subjectively, etc..
Hot reading is cold readings cousin and it is even more useful despite seeing less use. Hot reading is the use of information about the mediums client that the client is not aware the medium has. The more famous the client the easier this is.
Mediums can gain information by “trawling the Internet or government records, overhearing conversations, or even lifting your wallet for a quick peek,” (Sleight of Mind, 2011). They can also collaborate with other mediums or get their assistants to go through your stuff while you’re in another room and then feed them the information.
Taking advantage of the wealth of demographic data available can elevate a chance guess to an (almost) statistically certain likelihood.
Saying things like there was a problem in a deceased person’s “chest area” or that they had “breathing difficulty” already covers a lot of ground. Problems in the chest area are the cause for most non-accidental deaths. Pulmonary and heart disease are top 5 killers in both the US and UK. Mentioning these problems almost guarantees a hit.
Additionally, as this booklet points out, even if a person “died of ingrowing toenail the psychic can point out that ultimately their heart stopped beating – hence the chest.”
Mediums also commonly say they can sense the first letter in a name. Names starting with M, R (including Bob from Robert), S or J (or G as it’s so close) are common and therefore mediums will often throw out these letters knowing just about everyone will know a deceased person whose name began with these letters. Knowing which car colours are popular may also offer some useful fodder for a medium.
To illustrate this point when I was nine my parents took me to an event marking Halloween. One of the people present was a palm reader (who uses many of the same techniques as a medium). I left the reading convinced in psychic abilities; the woman knew I loved animals, stories and toys. Knowing your demographic can make you look like a miracle worker!
The combination of all these techniques along with a healthy dose of confirmation bias in clients can make for a very effective medium.
Bonus: Some of the things mediums say are so common that they have led to psychic medium bingo sheets. Check one out here.
Note: This is the second post in a series of post debunking ‘Hollywood Medium’ Tyler Henry. Here is the first post. If you’re curious as to why we fall for these techniques then stick around for my next post.