How do people who work as psychics actually do it?
August 30, 2011 9:08 PM   Subscribe

How do people who do 'psychic readings' actually do it?

I was at a fair the other day with my boyfriend and we had a tarot reading that was eerily accurate. It was a booth set up at a fair and the only info we had to give her before she put out the cards was our full names. Some of what she said during the reading was specific to us, and spot-on---for instance, he is going through a court case with his ex and she mentioned an 'interference' that would not be resolved for about a year, and she also mentioned signs of a health issue in his past, which was true. She also gave us a timeline for when certain changes would happen e.g. new jobs, moving in together etc. and these were all on par with stuff we have talked about already ourselves (for instance, one of us is presently looking for a new job and she mentioned this specifically). We both came away from it feeling like it eas eerie that she seemed to have such a good read on our life.

Now, obviously, I am going on the assumption that this woman does not have actual magical powers here :) So, with that said, I am curious about just how people who do this sort of thing actually DO it. Is she just somehow picking up on signs that are there but most people can't detect them, the same way some people have a great sense of smell and others do not, or how the dog can sometimes tell if there is going to be a thunderstorm? Or....what?

Although we only did this for carnival fun, I have to admit, some of what she said did definitely give us some food for thought and we do not regret the experience. Just wondering how it all works, exactly.
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Looks like I'm the first to say: cold reading.
posted by jsturgill at 9:11 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's called cold reading. I've done it; I give Tarot card readings sometimes for fun (never for money, and I always tell people I'm not psychic). You start off with vague statements and the mark^H^H^H^H client reacts with subtle body language to guide you in the right direction. It's like a psychobehavioral game of "Hotter/Colder" writ on a minuscule scale.

You might not remember the vague statements, but they were there. The reader does a lot with his or her own body language in order to ensure that you remember the hits and dismiss the misses.
posted by KathrynT at 9:14 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

he is going through a court case with his ex and she mentioned an 'interference' that would not be resolved for about a year,

Huge amounts of this are confirmation bias. You will read into it what most applies to you. "Interference" could be anything - job issues, divorce, fighting with your mother, death of a friend, anything. You have a legal issue ergo you interpreted it as a legal issue.

and she also mentioned signs of a health issue in his past,

Everyone over the age of 18 has a "health issue in their past." If it isn't appendicitis it's depression or chickenpox or a heart murmur or whatever.

She also gave us a timeline for when certain changes would happen e.g. new jobs, moving in together etc.

If you are under 30, you will change jobs an average of 3x in the next 10 years. You will also follow a statistical mean for cohabitation, marriage and children. All of these very average guesses are a good place to start with a cold reading.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:16 PM on August 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

Michael Crichton wrote an interesting book called "Travels", in which he basically says some psychics do it through fraud (cold readings or worse) and others do it through almost inexplicable but strangely accurate means. Basically you either believe it or you don't...and believing in psychics sort of defies 'regular' explanations.
posted by bquarters at 9:34 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, to give you an idea of how this works: let's say I'm giving out Tarot readings somewhere. Ideally, the person I'm working with will have at least one drink in them and be actively looking to be entertained, that makes it work better. So I'm sitting there with my cards, and someone comes up. My observations have to start right away.

Does the person slide into the chair laughing, saying "Tell my fortune!" Or does he stand there for a while looking at me and hesitantly approach, saying "Are you, you know, for real?" Or does she march up and glare and say "I suppose you think you've got all the answers, don't you?"

I give my spiel about how I'm not psychic, how Tarot cards don't tell the future, how it's a Jungian lens to help you think about what's most important to you, yadda yadda. The client shuffles the cards, and I watch their hands. Are they nervous about this? Are they distracted? What about their hands, actually? Engagement ring? Wedding ring? Nails bitten to the quick?

We deal out the spread. (I use a Celtic Cross layout.) The first card that comes up is the Three of Swords. I quirk an eyebrow and say with a knowing smile, "So, how's your love life?" Maybe the client grins super big, maybe she blanches, maybe he furrows his brow. If I got a super big grin, I say "Yeah, despite the fact that it's basically a heart with swords through it, the 3 of swords represents any kind of loss or betrayal. Troubles at work?" But if I got a blanch or a brow furrow, I'll say "As you can see, the 3 of swords demonstrates difficulties in love. What's going on? Recent breakup, or are things just rocky and weird?"

Of course, "things just rocky and weird" can mean either troubles within a relationship, or troubles starting a relationship. Usually the client will give some meaningful information here -- "Well, not broken up YET" or "Oh, god, weird doesn't even begin to describe it" or a grim "That's what I'm here to find out." Then you look them hard in the eye and say "But trust is gone, yes?" This can me that the client no longer trusts their partner, or that their partner no longer trusts them; either way, the client will usually register this as a "hit," and will do SOMETHING (a sad look? An angry look?) to indicate which way the trust loss goes.

Let's say our client looks sad. Still looking them in the eye, I might say "Do you think it was worth it?" This will inevitably provoke an answer, either "No, it wasn't worth it, how could I have been so stupid?" or "I hope it was worth it, because that stupid woman broke my heart right in two." And now I know something critical about what's motivating our guy.

OK, so hypothetically, the next card (the cross card) is the Emperor. "This card represents opposing or blocking influences," I say. "The emperor is a strong man, a powerful man, a proud man, but sometimes a rigid man." All this time, I'm looking my client in the eye. Does he deflate? Does he look defensive? Does he give me a knowing chuckle? Does he look confused? If he looks confused, I'll say "It can also represent those qualities, rather than a specific person; it looks like SOMEONE in this situation has a lot of foolish pride." In any iffy relationship, someone will have something that can be described as foolish pride, and the client will usually give some indication, like "That son-of-a-bitch Brett!" or "Well, I guess that's probably me," or something like that.

And so on! It's remarkably effective unless someone is vigorously stonewalling you, and sometimes even then. It is definitely hard work; anyone who makes their living doing this earns every penny. But there are no magic powers at work at all.
posted by KathrynT at 9:45 PM on August 30, 2011 [57 favorites]

Some of what she said during the reading was specific to us, and spot-on---for instance, he is going through a court case with his ex and she mentioned an 'interference' that would not be resolved for about a year, and she also mentioned signs of a health issue in his past, which was true.

"Specific"? No. On the contrary, this all sounds extremely vague. "Interference" isn't specific to you; that could apply to anyone. Once you connect it to the litigation, it seems like a perfect match, but there are so many things that could have referred to. For instance, it could have meant you were in a long-distance relationship. But you were looking for ways the descriptions did fit you, not trying to think of how many other situations the descriptions could have also applied to.

I hate to break it to you, but you don't actually know how long the litigation will go on for. After all, you're not a psychic. "A year" is a pretty good rough guess for how long people expect something major to be going on in their lives; apparently it sounded right to you.

Due to the Forer effect, you naturally saw yourselves in the vague descriptions. Your account of how much the psychic got right is a perfect illustration of how the scam works. You hear these vague things that she made up based on no actual knowledge of the two of you (except as DarlingBri points out, superficial indicators like how old you looked), and you think they're "spot on"!

You were also giving her feedback (verbal or nonverbal) on what she was getting right or wrong, and she could use this to shape her next predictions.

I'll bet she said some things that didn't fit but you ignored them or she made up a mystical explanation of why her intuitive powers were a little off.

Some of your own descriptions of what she said are so vague I can't analyze them, but if she phrased them in terms of "one of you," that alone doubled her chances of being "right." (I'm putting "right" in scare quotes because the concept of genuine correctness starts to lose its meaning once you enter the world of the psychic.) For instance, saying, "He's looking for a job" is one thing, but saying, "One of you is looking for a job" is more likely to be correct. If she said, "Someone close to you is looking for a job," she could be almost certain to be "right."

By the way, "looking for a new job" isn't specific. It could describe someone who's unemployed or underemployed, or someone who has an OK full-time job but would like to think of themselves as being on the lookout for a better job. Any of these people would go along with the "looking for a new job" description.

If you're interested in further reading on this, get the book Big Secrets and read the chapter on Kreskin.
posted by John Cohen at 9:47 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to do this. Ideally, you are good at reading people and it is partly like that game you play where something is in a room and people tell you when you're getting warmer until you find it--you see how people respond to what you're saying and shift the reading in the directions that are "warmer" as indicated by body language or actual statements like "how did you know!"

This is in addition to other cold reading tactics like being general, etc.

It's easier to do this when there are two people there--they give more away about what you're saying and tend to communicate with each other rather expressively.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:57 PM on August 30, 2011

It's easier to do this when there are two people there--they give more away about what you're saying and tend to communicate with each other rather expressively.

QFT. If you have three ladies together at a bachelorette party you can basically tell them their entire life story down to what song was playing on the radio when they lost their virginity. Or rather, they'll tell it to you, and you just tell it back to them.
posted by KathrynT at 10:23 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two people also reinforce the whole 'OMG she was so right!' thing afterward. You got a few 'hits', they got a few 'hits', you put them both together, 'remember' a couple of other things, and suddenly she was able to tell you your innermost thoughts and secrets.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:41 PM on August 30, 2011

Exactly what KathrynT said.

If you make notes as you're having your reading done, then look back at them later, you'll realise how many of the comments were slightly (or completely) off. It's really easy to only remember the bits that made sense to you and forget all the filler.
posted by peppermintfreddo at 10:47 PM on August 30, 2011

It's also good to give the 'psychic' prompts. Nothing confrontational, just seeking clarification:

'I'm sorry, what do you mean by 'interference'?'
'Could you be a little more specific the health issue?'
'Do you have any details about the job change?'

This forces the fishing expidition out into the open as they start giving you long lists, looking for another hit:

'It could be a relative, or a delay, or something to do with money...'
'I'm sensing something in the upper half of your body...the ch...the, higher, the throat...'
'[vague statement about how you're yearning for a change and to grow as a person]'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:56 PM on August 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's not just fairground psychics who do this. People who are 'good at listening' or 'good conversationalists' are usually good cold readers, whether they know it or not. They naturally use a mixture of 'the rainbow ruse' and a bit of flattery and whoever they're talking to thinks they can see right into their soul. Stuff like "I think you give a lot of love in your life, but you don't always feel it's returned" or "I think you had a real talent for something when you were young but you never really had a chance to make the most of it" or "On the surface you look like you've got everything under control, but I think there's times when you feel like it could all go crazy" apply to everyone but always hit the mark in a personal way. People in their twenties are worried about their love live, people in their thirties are worried about their jobs, people in their forties are worried about their children. Such amateur psychics may be after the contents of your pants, rather than your pockets, but the same principles apply.
posted by joannemullen at 4:04 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

To test this theory I once went to a "psychic" and interacted with them using a completely made up backstory. For over an hour I talked with the "psychic" using my fictitious backstory coupled with random erroneous facts I made up on the fly when asked for further detail. The end result: a very detailed reading which fit in very well with the life of the person I was pretending to be, but bore no relevance whatsoever to my own.
posted by dougrayrankin at 4:33 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

For a moment let's suppose that there really is a mechanism by which some people can psychically read others. What would we be able to say or predict about such a mechanism?

First of all we would notice that it can apparently look both back and forwards in time. It would be a little bit like if a doctor was to take a DNA sample,combine it with a medical history and then predict that we are going to get a particular cancer. Except that both the forward looking prediction and the rear looking implied history might be given with a level of certainty that the doctor would avoid. It may be that we would actually need two different mechanisms: one to look into the past and another to see into the future.

The second thing we would notice about the mechanism is that it is elusive. If we ask a psychic she will tell us about guiding voices and cards that appear in particular configurations and about auras of psychic energy that drive everything. She will tell you that she can see all of this because she is especially gifted at picking up the clues. But if we try to see or measure any of this objectively we will find nothing. That might be because we are being hoodwinked - or it might be because we don't have the right sort of instruments necessary to do the measurements. Because we are scientists, and committed to the idea of Occam's Razor, we will tend to conclude that there is actually nothing there. We might specifically point out that all the information necessary to make both specific and general remarks about a person's past and future can be gleaned by careful observation and questioning rather than by anything more exotic. But we might take a moment to consider that there is quite a lot that we still don't know about the physics of the universe and the behaviour of the brain. We might consider how much of what we take for granted today would have been regarded as magic by our immediate ancestors.

So be as sceptical as you like - but don't entirely discount the possibility that there might be something remarkable going on. Also: enjoy the "food for thought" - if the psychic has made some interesting predictions for you then, to an extent, it does not matter whether these were made by an intelligent guess or by reading you in some strange way. I would pay at least as much attention to the predictions of an incisive psychic as I would to a careers councillor, for example.
posted by rongorongo at 5:49 AM on August 31, 2011

Psychic/intuitive here and just sent you a mefi-mail. I have claircognizance which is basically I just know stuff. Not general stuff but intimate "I've never told anyone" stuff that comes out in a reading for my clients. I don't know HOW I know but I do.

Prefer to have less information (really, I'm happy if they give me a name and let me go from there) because I feel what I get doesn't get jumbled up with anything that might not be theirs.

My mom was highly intuitive and I grew up trusting what she got because I could see that what she said was going on was, in fact, hella going on. She was right so often it was eerie.

My goal when talking to a client and bringing through information is to assist them in their growth and evolution. I seek to empower them to trust their own guidance and work from that place. I don't predict the future at all but I can help them see things more clearly.

MeMail me if you want to chat more about it. And yes, there are a lot of fakes and frauds out there as in any profession.
posted by Mysticalchick at 6:20 AM on August 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Complete skeptic here, who at one point years ago had everyone I knew convinced that I could read the Tarot and accurately tell their future while - I am not making this up - reading the card interpretations from a book directly in front of them.

The biggest help was that they wanted it to be true, so anything that I said that was even slightly in the vague vicinity of being almost like something they had experienced was seized on as accurate. Especially when I started, I kinda wanted to believe it was true, too, but as I did more and more readings, I came to realize it was all me.

Another help is that they'd sit there and tell me stuff while I was reading the cards. For example, I had one friend I could confidently expect to open up and spill everything in her work life for the past couple of weeks by saying "This card indicates conflict." She'd say "Oh I know who that is!" and regale me with stories of her nemesis at work, which always contained info I could work back in. I COULD NOT BELIEVE how she, and others I read for, wouldn't realize that they'd just told me everything I needed to hear to personalize the card meanings.

Once, as an experiment when she asked me how to read them, I told her the truth, that she told me everything I needed to know and I could then relate the cards that showed up to it. She took that to mean that the cards were proven right because of her stories, rather than I made it up. See point #1 about wanting it to be true.

Sometimes shots in the dark worked out. My best hit, which cemented my rep when it was revealed, was a reading I gave at a party for the husband of one of my classmates. He'd asked about his work situation, and I was having a hard time trying to work the card arrangement into something coherent about work. I point out a card and said it resembled a male figure of authority that was a concern for him, like a boss, and when that didn't work, hazarded "Or fatherhood." He got a funny look on his face, then leaned forward and whispered in my ear: "Don't tell anyone, but my wife thinks she's pregnant!" Bingo! Once I knew that, I could assume that (a) he'd think I was spot-on no matter what else I said, because he'd remember that one hit, and (b) he was probably worried about supporting his wife and child and dealing with his shifting role from husband to husband-and-father and I could use that angle for the rest of the reading. (Which was very positive and reassuring. And they announced the pregnancy a couple of months later.)

And if all else failed, general statements worked. A friend was going through a divorce, and asked me for a reading at a party and I basically told her, through the cards, that things sucked right now, would be getting better before too long, would probably suck again, but within a year would finally settle down and be good. One year later, she told me my reading had been perfect. Well, of course it was! That's how most life changes work out.

Knowing about my friends' lives wasn't as much of a help as you'd imagine. The stuff above was much better. However, it also served as a way to give advice to my friends that they'd listen to, because for some reason "This is a job opportunity you should pursue" had more impact coming from The Cards than it did from a friend. Especially if you added "It may not work out, but it'll place you in the path of future opportunities" because that covered you both ways.

I quit a couple of years later, about the time a coworker going through a nasty, nasty divorce heard I read cards and kept asking me for a reading. It was a situation I reeeeally didn't want to get involved in and it spurred me to think about the ethics of it, and I decided I didn't want to do it any more.
posted by telophase at 11:22 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jr. skeptic / amateur tarot card reader here. Just because there is no such thing as mystic psychic powers doesn't mean that card readings are without merits. The reason why complex divinatory systems like tarot or runes or i-ching or what have you stick around is because they provide an organized way of throwing randomness at you that you can ascribe meaning too. In tarot you start broad and work your way to specific as things stick and, because each card can have a variety of meanings, even in a small spread something will stick.

Even absent any magic powers or even a sliver of cold reading ability a tarot card reader can make some eerily accurate claims. Throw in some cold reading and that's just icing on the cake.

For example, I once convinced someone I was psychic by giving them a reading with regular playing cards. Despite the fact that playing cards don't have the tarot major arcana, and the fact that I didn't remember any actual tarot spreads, and the fact that i hardly remember what any of the cards mean outside of the general low number, high number, face card trends, and the fact that my cold reading ability is best described as borderline aspergers I was still able to give a convincing reading.

People find patterns and connections in randomness, that's just how the brain works. That doesn't mean that tarot is without value though. A tarot reading has more in common with going to a therapist than you might think (although it certainly isn't an adequate substitute for one!). By picking out the patterns in the cards you are forced to examine the issues that trouble you.
posted by cirrostratus at 11:43 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

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