Do "psychics" who perform cold readings believe in their own "powers"?
October 9, 2017 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I met a woman who calls herself a medium at an artist's retreat. She spontaneously (and without compensation) performed readings on several people at this retreat, using cold reading techniques. I'm curious if such individuals believe that they themselves have psychic powers, or if they're always/usually aware that they're perpetuating a falsehood.

I'm not interested in debating the existence of "real" psychics. I'm a skeptic and don't believe they exist. Further, this individual claimed to specifically be channeling and seeing ghosts in the room, which I especially don't believe to exist. She seemed to massage her answers using a combination of cold reading techniques and hot reading--adding bits from conversations she'd overheard during the retreat--to add accuracy, although some of the people in attendance admitted in private that many of the details she discussed about deceased family members were inaccurate. She both had a flair for detail and was a natural performer; she also seemed very empathetic and good at reading body language in order to tell people things they found comforting. The situation where this happened was weirdly emotional. We'd gotten together to tell spooky ghost stories for fun, and instead people ended up crying and talking about dead relatives. It was very strange.

This woman is a professional medium, so she does charge normally for her 'services.' She talked quite a bit about her spiritual beliefs, and definitely sounded genuine about them, and it left me curious as to whether cold reading performers usually believe that they themselves are psychic/really seeing ghosts/are "clairvoyant and clairaudient" (as she said), or whether they are usually knowingly using deceptive techniques. Are mediums skeptic themselves, or are they believers? I would love any answers from those who have associated with "psychics", or any sources for books or other accounts about this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Science & Nature (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
it's a gig, a show, they "believe" because they are "in character". sounds like she was good. There is no doubt when you meet a "real" clairvoyant, they can read your mind, for real.
posted by patnok at 6:51 PM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

My personal experience with "mediums" who are not charging money is that yes, they do believe in what they are saying/seeing. Usually they are trying to comfort/help people. Empathy is really undervalued and unrecognised in western society and I have no doubt that very empathetic people may not recognise they are using a skill and not receiving "messages" from outside themselves (you'll notice many mediums are also women, who traditionally have not be encouraged to recognise skills that are coded as female and not value-added in patriarchal society). Once money enters the picture in my opinion all bets are off.
posted by saucysault at 6:54 PM on October 9, 2017 [36 favorites]

I used to read tarot and deeply believed at the time that I was genuinely acting as a doorway for the truths a person needed to hear. (FWIW, I didn't charge and just read for friends, acquaintances and a few times at parties.) I was extremely good at it, because, I assume, I was/am very good at cold reading people, and I would be calm and quiet, concentrating hard and very focused on them and their every reaction. Like, when I read for people I'd never met, they would often be really startled by what I was telling them.

Funny thing -- as I grew older and my metaphysical beliefs changed, I no longer believe I'm communicating divine truth when I read Tarot, and I've utterly lost the knack of it. But I will say that the people I knew then in the pagan community (and one guy who was very into the last of the spiritualists and mediums) genuinely believed in what they were doing and saying, and genuinely believed in the power of Tarot, runestones, etc. Some of them charged, some didn't.
posted by kalimac at 7:04 PM on October 9, 2017 [29 favorites]

I never acted as a medium, but earlier in my life I saw auras around people sometimes, as well as "ghosts". On one hand, intellectually I never believed it ... but I still saw those things. Eventually I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and proper meds cleared up the -- for lack of a better term -- problem.
posted by worldswalker at 7:32 PM on October 9, 2017 [38 favorites]

I have met at least a few that did, but they were people with somewhat tenuous grips on reality in general. It's not that much different from the true believers in churches that practice faith healing or glossolalia. There's certainly charlatans involved but there are true believers with a faith in the supernatural.
posted by Candleman at 7:45 PM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was married to someone who occasionally did amateur tarot readings and I saw a large Venn overlap between that and arcane dietary advice....basically loads of BS that was cobbled together to inflate their importance within a social circle.

My partner gave every indication of believing the advice and was very pissed off if the device wasn't valued sufficiently.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:49 PM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

In my extended family there are several people who do this kind of thing and as far as I know genuinely believe(d) in it. That's why it always surprises me when this question comes up - it seems self evident to me (a total nonbeliever) that many practitioners of this stuff believe in it.

Even if you think people who believe in various arcane powers are suckers - plenty of those genuine believers wind up thinking "wow I believe in this so much that I want to learn to practice it." And they don't start looking into it and find a bunch of people and resources saying "actually this is all fake." They find guides treating it like it's real, they become experts, and then there's just enough reality baked into the mysticism that sometimes it's actually effective - maybe just through pure placebo, maybe through stitched-in psychology, etc.

Think of it like any other disproven healing tradition or pseudoscience- alchemy, plague cures, whatever. The people who practiced those things weren't all just pretending.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:07 PM on October 9, 2017 [10 favorites]

Did tarot readings as well in a previous life (lol). I started by wondering if there was anything to all the woo and ended up convinced it was all cold reading. I still do tarot readings once in a while, but more as a dynamic form of active talk therapy than any kind of magic.

Most of the other psychics I met believed in all the woo, or at least their "psychic" powers formed such a cornerstone of self-worth that they would never admit it was all a Clever Hans muscle reading act. To me, the fact that you can basically perform "weak telepathy" by muscle reading and mental modeling of another person is itself mind-blowing.
posted by benzenedream at 8:09 PM on October 9, 2017 [12 favorites]

I have no direct knowledge of the answer to this question, and I don't want to try to intuit the answer. But I'll just point you to a couple sources:

Big Secrets by William Poundstone. See chapter 23, about how "the amazing Kreskin" divined personal information about people. (It isn't available in Amazon's preview.)

The Barnum effect, a/k/a the Forer effect. This is "a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them but that are, in fact, vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some paranormal beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling…"

"Forer's demonstration" of that effect is a set of statements about a person, which people are asked to rate for accuracy. People rate it better than a 4 on a scale of 0 to 5. When I read it, I think: "Wow, that's an uncannily accurate description of me!" But if the Forer effect is valid, I'm having that reaction not because the person who wrote it had any special knowledge of what I'm like as a person, but because I'm predisposed to see myself — as I vividly experience myself — in a vaguely worded description provided by someone who has no way of knowing anything about me.
posted by John Cohen at 8:20 PM on October 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

This is an interesting question - on the one hand Tarot reading is sort of a two hander game where the participants agree to pretend together. On the other, that kind of pretending is a kind of reality itself.

See the recent FPP on David Bowie making an imaginary mask of dream stuff.
Assuming you take that story at face value, Bowie made a purely imaginary thing that had a real positive effect on the child he was talking to. Part of that effect was undoubtedly believing it could work, and transmitting that belief. Effective fortune telling has a similar necessary aspect of transmitted belief, and even if you're faking it you'd eventually come to believe in the effectiveness and accuracy of what you're doing.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:21 PM on October 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have two friends who do reiki and yes they absolutely believe they are shooting energy out of their hands at people. We've had to agree to never talk about it again to save the friendships. I think it's kind of like how I thought I had psychic powers as a little kid because I could predict grown ups behavior without them telling me! People think they might be psychic, then they get positive feedback and decide they definitely are so they do it more, than they get more positive feedback etc. If they are doing readings for their peers I think they must believe in it. I am more skeptical of people who only do readings for those outside their peer or friend group, like phone psychics or the ubiquitous palm readers in Mexico who I am quite sure know they are not really psychic. I know people of Hispanic descent who still go to their local palm reader/ psychic before making major decisions, they don't even really believe in it but I think they get good advice usually anyway.
posted by fshgrl at 8:38 PM on October 9, 2017 [11 favorites]

Fshgrl, I feel the same - I have friends who consult “psychics” and have had extremely positive and helpful experiences. For them I think it is accessible therapy.

As to the original question: yes, absolutely, sane people do believe they are spiritually connected, even if thy are just skilled people-readers. As rich people everywhere have proven, it’s easier to believe you are special than to believe you have the right combination of skill and luck.
posted by samthemander at 8:47 PM on October 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

I have a close friend who "channels" an "entity" for an exclusive group for no money. She's been doing it for decades now. She knows my opinion. She is a professed skeptic. We don't talk about it any more.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:00 PM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Grew up in an area unfortunately plagued by hippies: Can confirm that most, if not nearly all, do sadly believe the various ridiculous types of mumbo jumbo they partake in, 100%.

Funny related story: I was chatting to a cab drivier a couple of years ago who was from India and was telling me with 100% belief that there are places in India showing historical use of nuclear weapons from thousands of years ago when Shiva was fighting (Source: youtube), and how his religious master could levitate, turn invisible, read minds and move objects with his mind.

I got out of the cab thinking "wow, we are living in the same country, and this dude's reality literally has magic in it and is so totally different from mine it's like a parallel universe." And then I thought about the community I grew up in and some of my facebook friends still there... and thought "hmm, maybe not so different."
posted by smoke at 9:25 PM on October 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Billions of people believe in God, how is it so difficult to believe that lots of people also believe in ghosts or mediums? People believe all sorts of stuff for which there is no real evidence.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:26 PM on October 9, 2017 [32 favorites]

I once read a book on cold-reading techniques written by a magician/mentalist. It's been a while, but I believe the author used the phrases "open-eyed" and "closed-eyed" to describe the two types of "psychics": those who are aware that they're doing cold reading, and those who really believe in their supernatural powers.
posted by mpark at 11:06 PM on October 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

I don't know what "mediums" believe about themselves, but something else immediately strikes me here, as an artist who's done a lot of residencies/retreats. Naturally they can turn into containers for unexpected intimacy and intensity in all kinds of ways. For that reason among others, there should be an expectation of privacy that you're not giving the folks who were involved in what you're describing here. Please consider either asking mods to anonymize this question or unlinking your real-name / real-history twitter account...
posted by kalapierson at 12:50 AM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've known people who learned to do readings because they wanted to learn to cold read people, and did not believe they were psychic. Some of them did do it for free. Cold reading is itself a skill and some people decide they want to learn it.

There are also people who believe. It depends on the individual.

You can't generalize and say that people doing these things either do or don't believe, it's going to depend on the person.

Personally I don't think it's violating people's privacy to reveal that they had relatives who died and were sad about those relatives -- that's a pretty normal human experience that the majority of humanity has in common.
posted by yohko at 1:11 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Some do, some don't. If they've studied and practiced cold reading techniques, they can't in their heart of hearts believe that they're psychic, however I did read a story about an ex-medium who did truly believe she was psychic and was communing with spirits but then later came to believe she was just a natural at cold reading - she'd never studied it or intentionally tried to deceive anyone, it was just something that she'd always been able to do but then as she learned about cold reading she realised that's what she was doing
posted by missmagenta at 2:16 AM on October 10, 2017

I'm going to go with "no" for someone who employs classic techniques. I used to have the same question about TV evangelists, and when I saw the documentary Marjoe it became clear that (though they might be believers) they are showpeople first. Check it out for some candid insight into the mindset. The whole thing is available on YouTube.
posted by Miko at 4:49 AM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Some do, some don't. If they've studied and practiced cold reading techniques, they can't in their heart of hearts believe that they're psychic, however I did read a story about an ex-medium who did truly believe she was psychic and was communing with spirits but then later came to believe she was just a natural at cold reading - she'd never studied it or intentionally tried to deceive anyone, it was just something that she'd always been able to do but then as she learned about cold reading she realised that's what she was doing

This is where the question gets interesting for me--this woman was performing cold readings exactly as they're described by the skeptical community--for example, once she asked if one of the artist's dead mother had had a watch, or something tortoise shell on her wrist, and when the women didn't respond to that line of questioning, she moved on to other subjects, waited for a few minutes until the woman gave her another hint ("My mother loved books, she read to me every day") and asked a question that would be true of many people--"Do you keep a picture of her on a shelf next to books?"--to get a "hit." She also mentioned having a mentor. If she's a believer, it seems to me that it would mean she has been taught what are essentially cold reading techniques, but using an entirely different vocabulary and attributing those successes or failures to different sources.

Billions of people believe in God, how is it so difficult to believe that lots of people also believe in ghosts or mediums? People believe all sorts of stuff for which there is no real evidence.

I'm not asking about the audience; I'm asking about the mediums themselves, who don't only claim to believe in ghosts, but claim to believe they can literally see and speak to them.

Thanks for the answers so far. If anyone has first-hand experiences at being taught these techniques or working professionally at cold readings, I would love to hear them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:05 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who sees ghosts and believes in magick and reiki and does tarot readings and she is one of the smartest and well-read people I've ever met. These are things she absolutely believes in. And she's married to a skeptic! Her religion to me is more plausible than the "Easter and Christmas" church-goers that seem to otherwise be the norm in the US. Some Wiccans and Pagans I've met are better read on religion and spiritual stuff than most.

FWIW I am a Humanist, which I feel is more respectful of other religions than many atheists, but still mostly ambivalent about spiritual stuff, with my own caveats.
posted by jillithd at 6:46 AM on October 10, 2017

I'm surprised at all the "they believe it" answers. I'm sure there are plenty who do, but there are also plenty (and my guess would be more) who don't. I knew a woman in NYC who made a good chunk of her income doing this crap, and she absolutely didn't believe it; she was essentially a three-card monte operator using psychic bullshit instead of cards, and I extricated myself from the friendship in large part because of that.
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's middle of Halloween Season up here in Salem so that means the many, many witch shops have imported readers from all over to meet demand. Yesterday, I counted at least a dozen in a single shop.

There is definitely a split between True Believers and Performers. A lot of the seasonal help is here as a side-hustle, but then again this is a chance for some of them to practice their beliefs/abilities in a way they don't get to do during their 9-5 jobs. As for the permanent staff, they are split as well. The shops that tend to work the term 'Church' in and tend to be more focused on a particular flavor of faith are usually Believers (which is good and bad as at least one of the shops here's beliefs involve neo-volkisch racism), while the ones that offer a variety of options go for more a Performer approach.

The two camps are aware of each other and usually at peace with each other. We've had a few flare-ups (see volkisch Norse above), but both camps realize that it is best in the long run for the customer/patron to believe that they believe and feel they got some value for money.

I've done a few of the psychic services and they are usually pretty good at sussing out your level of belief and familiarity with the subject matter so that can change things. I had a really good past life reading awhile back that was the right mix of insightful and entertaining (if somewhat embarrassing), and I largely attribute that to me being upfront that I don't expect most people are reincarnated kings and so on.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:13 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If anyone has first-hand experiences at being taught these techniques or working professionally at cold readings, I would love to hear them.

You might consider looking into interrogation science. Although it's not precisely the same subject, if you're interested in "cold reading" techniques then I suspect you'd find the field interesting and relevant. One of the primary texts is Criminal Interrogation and Confessions by Inbau, Reid, Buckley, and Jayne. A lighter read is Spy the Lie by Houston, Floyd, and Carnicero. And while I'm not as enamored with micro expressions as are some folks in the field, Paul Ekman's Emotions Revealed is a fascinating book.
posted by cribcage at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I do Tarot for fun with my friends and I do not, objectively, believe in psychic powers, ESP, or anything like that. But let me tell you, when you really get going with someone, it feels spooky, like something is happening that's beyond your control. I never make up straight lies designed to trick people. The way I think of it is I'm trying to get it right - to get as quickly as I can to something meaningful, and that rarely comes from me, in a calculating way, thinking "Oh, I think Sally probably wants to talk about her dad, let me tell her that's what this card represents and see how she responds."

Instead, the cards are designed to lead you from the general to the specific, but there are lots of different directions you can go in. "A male, maybe a father figure -- your father -- a problem with your father -- possibly a secret -- a secret you're keeping from your father." For me, at least, knowing what direction to go in happens in a large part subconsciously -- from reading microexpressions, body language, tone of voice, etc.--it's intuitive rather than explicit. So while I don't attribute it to psychic powers, there is a kind of magic to it that feels akin to the moment when your creative powers start to flow, and afterwards you're like, whoa, where did that come from? Because it doesn't feel like it comes from you, even though it did.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:10 AM on October 10, 2017 [12 favorites]

I used to read tarot for money. I was very, VERY good at it.

Did I believe I was a conduit for otherworldly powers? No. I don't believe in ghosts or ESP or psychic abilities. I do, however, believe in the power of belief. The placebo effect is real, and has wider implications than just getting viable results from sugar pills.

As to why I was so good at readings. . .I'm deeply empathetic, in the sense that I pick up on minute expressions and body language that others may miss, thanks to a volatile upbringing. I also studied neurolinguistic programming (for unrelated reasons, but I absolutely used those techniques). But above all else, I am a good storyteller, and a sufficient student of human nature to understand predictable patterns.

I did drop into a state which I think some people might consider a feeling of being a channel or a conduit or whatever, but really it was just intense concentration and complete focus on the other person. It does feel super weird, though. It's not a thing that most people do in day-to-day life.
posted by ananci at 10:50 AM on October 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

You might be interested in researching the few people who took the now-ended James Randi Challenge as well as the Independent Investigation Group. I find that the people who do these challenges genuinely believe in their powers, I don't believe that sociopaths or charlatans would put themselves up against an authority that they did not feel they could control.
posted by muddgirl at 10:59 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

My former co-worker was a college registrar whom I respected for her intelligence and emotional maturity. One day, out of the blue, she confided that she was able to see auras around the heads of those who suffered from mental illness (including her own brother). Fascinated, but wondering why she would tell me this, I asked her if she saw an aura around my head. Fortunately, she said no.
posted by Aha moment at 4:51 AM on October 11, 2017

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