Psychology Behind Cold Reading: Why are Psychics Always Right?

How do psychics seem to know everything about us? Photo courtesy of newsusa on Flickr.
How do psychics seem to know everything about us? Photo courtesy of newsusa on Flickr.

Have you ever been to a psychic? If not, I’m sure you can point to a friend who has. Furthermore, I’m sure you have a friend who is an extreme believer in the power of psychics. Whether it’s foreseeing our future, telling us how a deceased loved one is handling the afterlife, or detailing the mistakes we’ve made in the past, psychics usually tell us things we want to hear (and believe are correct).

Some of you who follow me closely on Twitter may have noticed I tweeted out an article on cold reading recently. The entire article is a fascinating look at the art of psychic cold reading, and furthermore, how all the psychics seem to know you so well.

So how do these psychics appear to be so familiar with the ins and outs of your life? The fact is, they have a trick. A very interesting, powerful trick.

A few years back, there was a radio personality named Betty who was the featured psychic on a national radio network. This is still a common practice today, but Betty was one of the more famous (and better) psychics.

Courtesy of Dennis Dutton’s amazing article, check out the exchange she had with one of the callers:

Caller: “Good evening, Betty.”

Host: “Good evening, Maureen.”

Caller: “Do you hear anything from my Mum?”

Host: “Yes, I can, [Betty gushes.] because I have the most smiling lady here beside me! You know, Maureen, she used to put her hands together in glee, didn’t she?”

Caller: “Yes.” [A note of hesitation.]

Host: “And she almost jumped up and down!”

Caller: “That’s right” [With more confidence.]

Host: “That’s what she’s doing at the moment! [Betty’s voice reaches a peak of excitement, and then becomes more serious.] Now, just as I was saying that, she was giving me a feeling — in the abdomen, not in the stomache — and it’s all tight. It feels emaciated but blown up. And she’s having trouble breathing — it must have been that way at the end”

Caller: “That’s right. Yes, yes, I was overseas when she died at home.”

Host: “Gosh, there is a crowd of people around her!”

Caller: “Is there? [Maureen is astonished.] Is Mum’s sister with her?”

Host: “Yes, exactly.” [Betty replies with casual confidence.]

Caller: “And my father?” [Maureen almost shouts with excitement.]

Host: “Yes, he’s there too.”

Caller: “And is my brother there?”

Host: “Yes, your brother is there too. And look [Betty’s voice is almost embarrassed.], I know this sounds funny, but there are five grandparents here!

Caller: “Oh…[Maureen hesitates.] Oh! That could be my Mum’s English friend!

Host: “And going back to that time, can we talk about a donkey cart?”

Caller: “Oh, yes!”

Host: “And the times that were associated with it — you can really feel the pleasure of that time.”

Caller: “That’s right.” [Maureen is emphatic.]

Host: “Now look — I”m being shown a row of houses, and they’re apartment houses.”

Caller: “Yes…” [Maureen hesitates.]

Host: “And there are about four of them…”

[Silence from Maureen, indicating puzzlement.]

Host: “Now bear with me here — and I’ve got a sort of red brick.”

[Longer silence]

Host: “Now, Maureen, this isn’t where you lived!” [Betty speaks firmly.]

Caller: “No…no, it’s not.” [Of course it isn”t; but an awkward miss is being cleverly converted to a hit.]

Host: “But it’s where…ah…[Betty is groping.]…ah…a dear friend lived! Can you understand that?”

Caller: “Yes.” [Maureen speaks without conviction: she is trying to figure who the friend might be.]

Host: “Also, I’m being handed a little posy of flowers. They’re almost like forget-me-nots, but I’m not sure that they are — and she’s handing those to you.”

Caller: “My mother is?”

Host: “Yes, it is your mother.”

Caller: “Oh, how nice!”

Host: “And you know, Maureen, there’s an anniversary coming up soon — a time of memory. It was somebody’s birthday.”

Caller: “Oh, yes…”

Host: “And that one sends their love to you too.”

Caller: “And my brother [Maureen’s voice takes on a melancholy tone.], is he happy?”

Host: “He’s happy now, he’s telling me, and he’s stressing the word now. He says, “She’ll know — you don”t have to ask me more — she’ll know.”

Caller: “Oh, I know…I know.” [Maureen sighs.]

Host: “I’m having trouble keeping up with all of them here — they’re all crowding in — and they’re all happy.”

Caller: “Here’s one — a prickly one. Is my mother-in-law about?”

Host: “Yes, she is.”

Caller: “Is she happy?”

Host: “Yes, she is. She was a little bit of a discontented lady, she tells me.

Caller: “Yes! [Amazed.] That’s right!”

Host: “But she says, “Well, you’ve got to learn contentment, and there’s no reason we can’t have contentment here, because we have everything we need.”

Caller: “Isn”t that marvelous!” ….

Ready to hear the tricks the host used to get inside Maureen’s head?

Here’s the big one: notice how the show host (Betty) slowly works all the answers out of the caller (Maureen). There are slight guesses involved, but Betty–being generally knowledgeable about people– can pull from stereotypes and generalizations to make educated statements that Maureen views as psychic. For example, Betty can tell the caller was over 55 years old by her voice and her accent is Irish. This may not seem like much, but knowing that houses in Ireland 50 years ago were typically brick, families in Ireland during this time period were larger, and a common cause of death is lung/heart/breathing issues, helps Betty pinpoint a great deal about Maureen’s life.

Now, let’s check out a second example. One of the less obvious stereotypes is the “donkey cart” mentioned by Betty. Notice the wording Betty uses: the donkey cart. Not the donkey cart that belonged to Maureen, not the donkey cart that belonged to Marueen’s friend, just a donkey cart in general. Betty asks Maureen about it, and then lets Maureen fill it in herself which donkey cart it is. But how did Betty know Maureen was familiar with a donkey cart? Well, 40+ years ago, donkey carts were very common in Ireland, so it was a strong educated guess on Mareen’s part.

Essentially, Betty, our wonderful host, will give very ambiguous statements, and leave it to the caller to fill in the blanks themselves.

This is not just common in the world of psychics. Cold reading spans a great deal of areas. Think of a business person, looking to understand the wants and needs of his customers or stakeholders. Understanding stereotypes about a user, asking them open-ended questions, and getting them to fill in the blanks themselves can be a valuable asset.

QoD: Have you ever talked to a psychic? What was your impression?

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