Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Cold Reading

So a few years ago Victoria found an old receipt in a box. She calls to me, on the other side of the room, and says, “Hey Michael, guess what the date is on this receipt.”
Without so much as a second of hesitation I responded, “2000”.
She was stunned, “How’d you do that?”
“I’m psychic.” And I raised my eyebrows.

Now if that’s all the description I’d given of the event it might seem a little mysterious. But I assure you there was nothing mysterious about it at all. Victoria had actually told me the year a few minutes earlier and she didn’t even realize it. Making it seem really spooky when I repeated it back to her.

This is process that so-called psychic use all the time. It’s called cold reading. They take information from their “mark” a turn the information back on them. When done well it appears that the person claiming to have paranormal powers has actually provided information to you that they couldn’t have known otherwise. Typically they ask a series of questions. Based on their mark’s responses they will fine tune the questions until they can then make a very high probability guess. The real art is to make the mark forget the string of questions, especially all the wrong answers, and focus entirely on the final high probability guess.

Sometimes the psychic will base their first question on a non-verbal detail. If the mark is anywhere outside normal appearance (taller, shorter, thinner, fatter than average) they might start with something obvious like “Were you teased a lot as a teenager?” Then, no matter how you answer, they will build on that to fine tune their final “prediction”. They ask vague questions, expect their mark to narrow them down and forget all the wrong answers. My point here is that they really aren’t telling them anything at all. The mark is providing the answers, not the so-called psychic.

I had a recent experience with a very bad cold-reader. He told several personal stories and expected me to relate to his stories and add details so he could build upon them for his final “prediction”. He would make vague statements and expect me to clarify so he could build on them. In a sense I just turned the tables on him. When he would try to get me to fill in details I would just ask him follow up questions to his story. In the end I think he got rather frustrated with me. I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I just recognized his strategies and did my best not to fall for them.

The sad part is that I honestly don’t think that the guy I was talking to even knew what he was doing. I don’t think he was consciously trying to deceive me. But he was trying to get me to reveal information so he could claim that it was something that he sensed, or suspected all along.

Now back to my receipt story, Here’s the story again with supporting detail and in the full context:
A few years ago we did some remodeling to the house. We stashed a bunch of stuff in shoe boxes to sort through and clean out later. A year or so had passed an Victoria and I were decluttering. We were sitting on the floor each going through shoe boxes of papers. I happened to have a shoebox with mostly stuff from the 90s in it. I remember noticing how so much of the clutter in my box was from the same couple of years. Victoria found some old bank account information form when we opened an account for Noah. She told me about it and laughed at some of the information on the paperwork. Noah was born in 2000 and we opened the account the year he was born because he had an income. Victoria was doing market research on diapers and the checks came payable to Noah.

So half an hour later I was still sorting my papers from the 90s and I assumed that she was still on the same box too. So when she asked me to guess the date I just said, “2000”. It was vague, I didn’t give a month or a day, and I had a pretty good chance of being right. And even if I had been wrong she’d have never thought about it again.

“It’s kind of sad that just paying attention to the little details in people’s lives gets mistaken for a paranormal power.”
Paraphrasing Penn Gillett from a podcast interview with Adam Savage

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