Tricks of the Psychic Trade
How psychics talk (and manipulate)
Karen Stollznow, Ph.D.
Psychic mediums perform one-on-one sessions for sitters. Stage mediums typically offer personal readings, but they also perform short psychic readings to an audience. Unless the stage medium performs a hot reading, otherwise known as cheating, the main tool is cold reading. This involves observation, psychology and elicitation to provide the appearance of psychic powers. Let’s look at the typical formula used by stage mediums, and explore some commonly used linguistic and psychological techniques.
Naming is a fundamental part of any psychic medium reading. The medium mentions a common name, in order to find willing subjects for readings. Additional names or initials may be added, to narrow down the contenders to a single subject. I recently witnessed a different technique used by up-and-coming medium Rebecca Rosen at her Denver show. She began her performance by reading a list of names of spirits that had “lined up all day to leave messages for the audience.” This way, the audience was already drawing connections to the names and preparing for a reading. Her list included:
Joe, Robert or Bob, Dan, Jerry, Nick, Chris, Ben, Jesse, Corey, Katherine, Jim, Betty, David, Bill, Dale, Kevin, Julie, Carol, Seymour, Tyler, Taylor, Sherri, Rose, Abe, Ozzy, Joan, Doris, Dorothy, Shirley, Helen, Bernie, Pete, Don, Tom, Ed, John, Al, Scott and Pauline. (1)
This catalog of common names would resonate with any English-speaking audience. But as Ian Rowland, author of the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading once said to me, in a large audience “The hard part would be to be find a name that wouldn’t work.” To safeguard against this slim possibility, Rosen also resorted to the generic “Mom”, “Dad”, “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” Merely hearing familiar names personalizes the performance for those who don’t receive an individual reading.
I call the listing of names the “Magic Mirror Effect,” after the former children’s television show Romper Room. At the end of each episode the host pretended that she could see the viewers through her “Magic Mirror.” She would recite a list of random names, to give the impression that her farewell is personalized. After a few episodes, even kids realize that the host can’t actually “see” them. This stage act works on adults too, if our vulnerability and grief permit us to believe.
Once a subject has been chosen, the medium attempts to validate the reading by supplying detail. Firstly, they guess the cause of death. Some mediums claim to be medical intuitives or empathetic; that is, able to feel the physical pain and symptoms of a living or deceased subject’s illness, enabling diagnosis, or identification of the cause of death. But no one is ever diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease; mediums cite statistically common illnesses and causes of death. Cancer and heart disease are perennial favorites, but most mediums have their failsafe diagnoses and cures. For example, Sylvia Browne is known for diagnosing everyone with a thyroid disorder and recommending everyone take a lecithin supplement.
This is followed by more validation in the form of a psychic reading of the deceased, and usually the subject too. Mediums give horoscope-like personality readings that use Barnum statements. These involve generalizations about character that can apply to many people. For example,
You can be a very considerate person, very quick to provide for others, but there are times, if you are honest, when you recognize a selfish streak in yourself. I would say that on the whole you can be rather quiet, self-effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life of the party if the mood strikes you. (2)
Then they list a number of objects and occurrences that could be meaningful to most people: Rebecca Rosen mentioned a ring with a reset stone, a necklace with a broken clasp, a broken zipper, a rainbow, a broken phone, and carrying spare change. These are non-specific items that give the illusion of specificity.
Mediums often claim the spirits communicate via sights, sounds, and even smells. This frames the spirit world in a way the living can understand, as an extension of the natural world. John Edward claims most of his messages are visual; the spirits point to parts of their bodies to reveal their cause of death, or show him something to communicate to the subject. Edward then uses a common trick, posing who-what-where-why questions as statements to elicit information from the subject. For example, “He’s showing me a book. What does this mean?”
These strategies tailor the reading to fit the subject, meanwhile making the subject do the work by making the connections. This is a process known as subjective validation, when the subject finds personal meaning in the reading. As Ian Rowland says,” In the course of a successful reading, the psychic may provide most of the words, but it is the client that provides most of the meaning and all of the significance.” (3) Audiences are receptive to these tricks because they are there to believe.
The medium may make specific claims that cannot be disproven at that time. On the Montel Williams Show, Sylvia Browne made the bold claim that an audience member was the love child of an affair, “Your father is not your father.” The woman was shocked at first, but soon started to relate to the claim; admitting that she never felt like she “belonged in the family.” (4)
I saw Sylvia perform live in Salt Lake City. She gives a lecture to her audience and then does some select individual readings, choosing her subjects via a raffle ticket system. Sylvia (and her spirit guide Francine) only answers one question per person. Doubtlessly, she had heard them all before, and she has a stock reply for every question and situation.
She provided earthly advice, “I’m in a bad living situation,” complained a woman. “Move!” Sylvia commanded simply. She made vague, ‘explicit’ non-verifiable predictions, “Will I find another lady?” “Yes. Within the next two years. Her name is Meredith.” She dispensed pat diagnoses for common, non-specific health complaints, “I have a strange health issue,” a woman reported. “I know,” replied Sylvia, “Get your thyroid checked.” Some readings exploited popular sympathy, “There isn’t one 9/11 soul who didn’t make it.” But stock readings were her staple, “Your father’s here with me now. He’s proud of you.” If someone queried her reading, she’d reply indignantly, “That’s what I said!” This ‘clarification’, and the audience’s laughter, would confuse and embarrass the dissident into silence. (5)
It is a game of hits and misses, although the “hits” aren’t indicative of accuracy, they are merely perceived as correct. It is common for mediums to deny the misses by turning them into hits, even if they have to blame the subject. Rebecca Rosen had a stable of “outs” for her misses. She would dismiss the subject’s denial and reprimand them into making it fit; “Look into it”, “Make the connection”, “You have to own it”, and “You have to honor what’s coming through.” If Rosen hit a dead end she wouldn’t acknowledge she was wrong, she would move on, the message was clearly for someone else. There were lots of spirits trying to get through, and she would “read who needs to be read.”
Or the medium blames the dead for his or her mistakes. During James van Praagh’s appearance on Larry King Live he was asked to explain why he’d said a person had been deceased for ten years when they had died only a year before.
What happens is more than likely, because you’re dealing with frequencies of energy the spirit might not know how to communicate,” Van Praagh answered. “There’s a skill to it. They might send thought to my mind very quickly, I might not be fast enough to pick up the exact translation of what they’re saying. So that’s how that works. I’ll hear like Mary and it’ll be Marie or Nikki and it’ll be something else.6
After nailing down a name, guessing a cause of death and validating the reading for the subject, the medium closes the reading. Most finish with a simple yet personal stock message, such as, “He loves you”, “She watches and protects you from the spirit world”, or, “She is happy on the other side”. These farewells act as confirmation bias for spiritual beliefs, and comfort the subject. But in no way does any “comfort” excuse the deception of psychic mediumship. Then the psychic medium moves on to another subject in the audience and repeats the process.