In his rip-roaring read, Paranormality; Why We See What Isn’t There, Professor Richard Wiseman exposes all sorts of snake oil techniques, from ghost hunting to fortune telling to conversing with the dead, dating back over the centuries. Unlike the swashbuckling swordplay of science journalist Ben Goldacre, Wiseman presents his findings in the most affable possible way and with plenty of chortles. He has published 50 academic papers on the subject and is a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
Wiseman explains the principles behind the art of ‘cold reading’ – the technique a psychic will employ to shock and amaze.
1) Flattery Attribute wonderful characteristics to the customer and give them great depth. Suggest they may be psychic themselves. (This one’s been tried on me, see here)
2) Double-headed statements Here’s on example from Wiseman of a playing-it-safe double-header, which will be guaranteed to strike a chord one end or the other. “At times you an be imaginative and creative, but are more than capable of being practical and down-to-earth when necessary.”
3) Keep it vague Talk of upheaval and significant events will draw the customer to fill in the blanks and infuse the words with meaning. Wiseman also suggests being abstract: “I can see a circle closing. Does that mean anything to you?” 1989 manual King of the Cold Readers suggests using the mnemonic THE SCAM to stick to safely broad subjects: Travel, Health, Expectations about the future, Sex, Ambitions, Money.
4) Read the feedback A palm reader holding a customer’s hand is able to pick up on sudden tenseness – or an outbreak of clamminess. Similarly a psychic will watch out for signs of confusion – a customer trying to make sense of a statement – or excitement.
5) Play on people’s sense of uniqueness There are some specific-sounding statements that actually rely on the customer being more passé than they realise. Referring to a scar on a knee, for instance, will likely ring bells, or, as Wiseman says, referring to a family member called Jack – which one-fifth of people have.
6) Don’t take no for an answer If someone rejects a statement, appear incredulous and ask them to think harder. Or broaden the statement, as though further information is filtering through. “After that,” says Wiseman, “comes the old ‘I was speaking metaphorically’ scam.”
The more advanced psychic will read into clothing, handshakes, posture, accent and grooming. Ask any mentalist.