Psychic on Demand
By Michael Shermer
This article originally appeared as "Psychic for a Day: Or How I Learned Tarot Cards, Palm Reading, Astrology, and Mediumship in 24 Hours" in Skeptic [US] 10(1), 48-55, 2003. It is one of the longer articles on this website and may be somewhat technical for younger readers, but for the rest of us it is essential reading. Dr Shermer is a former university lecturer in psychology, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic, and author of many skeptic books including Why People Believe Weird Things (2001).
On Wednesday, 15 January 2003, I filmed a television show with Bill Nye in Seattle, Washington, for a new PBS science series entitled Eyes of Nye. This series is an adult-oriented version of Bill's wildly successful 100-episode children's series Bill Nye the Science Guy. This 30-minute segment focused on psychics and talking to the dead. Although I have analyzed the process and written about it extensively in articles and on www.skeptic.com, I have had little experience actually doing psychic readings. Bill and I thought it would be a good test of the effectiveness of the technique and the receptivity of people to it to see if an inexperienced person could do it armed with just a little knowledge.
Although the day of the taping was set weeks in advance, I did absolutely nothing to prepare until the day before. This made me especially nervous because psychic readings are a form of improvisational acting, which takes both talent and practice. And I made matters even harder on myself by convincing Bill and the producers that if we were going to do this we should use a number of different psychic techniques, including tarot cards, palm reading, astrology, and psychic mediumship, under the theory that these are all "props" used to stage a psychodrama called cold reading (reading someone "cold" without any prior knowledge). I am now more convinced than ever that cheating (getting information ahead of time on subjects) is not a necessary part of a successful reading.
I read five different people, all women that the production staff had selected and about whom I was told absolutely nothing other than the date and time of their births (in order to prepare an astrological chart). I had no contact with any of the subjects until they sat down in front of me for the taping. There was no conversation between us until the cameras started rolling. The setting was a sound stage at KCTS, the PBS member station in Seattle. Since sound stages can have a rather cold feel to them, and because the environment in which a reading is done is a key factor in generating a receptive mindset, I instructed the production staff to set up two comfortable chairs with a small table between them, with a lace cloth covering the table and candles on and around the table, all sitting on a beautiful Persian rug. Soft colored lighting and incense increased the "spiritual" ambiance.
The partial facts of cold reading
Rowland stresses the importance of the pre-reading set-up to prime the subject into being sympathetic to the cold reading. He suggests -- and I took him up on these suggestions -- adopting a soft voice, a calm demeanor, and sympathetic and non-confrontational body language: a pleasant smile, constant eye contact, head tilted to one side while listening, and facing the subject with legs together (not crossed) and arms unfolded. I opened each reading by introducing myself as Michael from Hollywood, calling myself a "Psychic Intuitor." (This was Bill's clever derivative from my original version "Psychic Intuitive," which was grammatically incorrect since we needed a noun, not an adjective.) I explained that my "clients" come to see me about various matters that might be weighing heavy on their hearts (the heart being the preferred organ of new age nonsense), and that as an intuitor it was my job to use my special gift of intuition -- a gift, I added, that everyone has but that I have just developed through practice -- to help them find their way through the vagaries of life. I said that we would start general and then get more focused, beginning with the present then glancing back to the past, and finally taking a glimpse of the future.
I also noted that we psychics cannot predict the future perfectly -- thereby setting up the preemptive excuse for later misses -- by explaining that we look for general trends and "inclinations" (an astrological buzz word). I built on the disclaimer by adding a touch of self-effacing humor meant also to initiate a bond between us: "While it would be wonderful if I were a hundred percent accurate, you know, no one is perfect. After all, if I could psychically divine the numbers to next week's winning lottery I would keep them for myself." Finally, I explained that there are many forms of psychic readings, including tarot cards, palm reading, astrology, and the like, and that my specialty was the technique I was about to use with that particular subject.
Since I do not do psychic readings for a living, I do not have a backlog of dialogue, questions, and commentary from which to draw, so I grouped the reading into the following easy-to-remember subject areas that people want to talk about when they go to a psychic: Love, Health, Money, Career, Travel, Education, and Ambitions. I also added a personality component, since most people want to hear something about their inner selves. I didn't have time to memorize all the trite and trivial personality traits that psychics toss out to their victims, so I used the well researched Five Factor Model of personality, also known as the Big Five, that has an easy acronym of OCEAN: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
Since I have been conducting personality research with my colleague Frank Sulloway (primarily through a method we pioneered of assessing the personality traits of historical personages such as Charles Darwin by the use of expert raters), it was easy for me to riffle through the various adjectives used by psychologists to describe these five personality traits. For example: Openness to Experience (fantasy, feelings, likes to travel), Conscientiousness (competence, order, dutifulness), Agreeableness (tender-minded versus tough-minded), Extroversion (gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking), and Neuroticism (anxiety, anger, depression). Since there is sound experimental research validating these traits, and I have learned through Sulloway's research how they are influenced by family dynamics and birth order, I was able to employ this knowledge to my advantage in the readings, including (with great effect) nailing the correct birth order (first-born, middle-born, or later-born) of each of my subjects!
I used three techniques: the first two were the ones Rowland calls the "Rainbow Ruse" and "Fine Flattery," and the third was what many call a "Barnum" reading (offering something for everyone, as the showman P.T. Barnum always did). The components of the following reading come from various sources; the particular sequential arrangement is my own. Essentially I opened all of my readings with this general statement:You can be a very considerate person, very quick to provide for others, but there are times, if you are honest, when you recognize a selfish streak in yourself. I would say that on the whole you can be rather quiet, self-effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life of the party if the mood strikes you.
Sometimes you are too honest about your feelings and you reveal too much of yourself You are good at thinking things through and you like to see proof before you change your mind about anything. When you find yourself in a new situation you are very cautious until you find out what's going on, and then you begin to act with confidence.
What I get here is that you are someone who can generally be trusted Not a saint, not perfect, but let's just say that when it really matters this is someone who does understand the importance of being trustworthy. You know how to be a good friend.
You are able to discipline yourself so that you seem in control to others, but actually you sometimes feel somewhat insecure. You wish you could be a little more popular and at ease in your interpersonal relationships than you are now.
You are wise in the ways of the world, a wisdom gained through hard experience rather than book learning.
According to Rowland -- and he was spot on with this one -- the statement "You are wise in the ways of the world, a wisdom gained through hard experience rather than book learning" was flattery gold. Every one of my subjects nodded furiously in agreement and said that this statement really summed them up perfectly.
After the general statement and personality assessment, I went for specific comments lifted straight from Rowland's list of high probability guesses. These include items found in the subject's home:A box of old photographs, some in albums, most not in albums.
Old medicine or medical supplies out of date.
Toys, books, mementoes from childhood.
Jewelry from a deceased family member.
Pack of cards, maybe a card missing.
Electronic gizmo or gadget that no longer works.
Notepad or message board with missing matching pen.
Out of date note on fridge or near the phone.
Books about a hobby no longer pursued.
Out of date calendar.
Drawer that is stuck or doesn't slide properly.
Keys that you can't remember what they go to.
Watch or clock that no longer works.
And peculiarities about the person:Scar on knee
Number 2 in the home address
Childhood accident involving water
lothing never worn
hotos of loved ones in purse
Wore hair long as a child, then shorter haircut
One earring with a missing match
I added one of my own to great effect: "I see a white car." All of my subjects were able to find a meaningful connection to a white car. As I was reading this list on the flight to Seattle the morning of the reading, I was amazed to discover how many flight attendants and people around me validated them.
Finally, Rowland reminds his pretend psychics that if the set-up is done properly, people are only too willing to offer information, especially if you ask the right questions. Here are a few winners:"Tell me, are you currently in a long-term relationship, or not?"
"Are you satisfied in terms of your career, or is there a problem?"
"What is it about your health that concerns you?"
"Who is the person who has passed over that you want to try to contact today?"
While going through the Barnum reading I remembered to pepper the commentary with what Rowland calls "incidental questions," such as:Now why would that be?
Is this making sense to you?
Does this sound right?
Would you say this is along the right lines for you?
This is significant to you isn't it?
You can connect with this can't you?
So who might this refer to please?
What might this link to in your life?
What period of your life might this relate to?
So tell me, how might this be significant to you?
Can you see why this might be the impression I'm getting?
With this background, all gleaned from a single day of intense reading and note taking, I was set.
The tarot card reading
For dramatic effect I used the Death card, described as follows:The image of the boat belongs to birth as well as to death; the baby's cradle originally symbolized a boat. The trees and grass signify plants, the bones, minerals, the birds, the animal world, and the ferryman, the human world. The phoenix's eye in the center signifies looking at the truth in regard to death. The bird also symbolizes resurrection, the soul and the divine potential of a person. Divinatory meanings: The Death card rarely refers to physical death. Rather, it has to do with one's feelings about death. Psychologically, letting go. New opportunities.
There was no way I was going to memorize the meanings for all 78 cards, so I selected 10, sat down with my family the night before, and read through the instruction manual. We did a reading together, going through what each of 10 cards we used was supposed to mean. My 11-year old daughter Devin then quizzed me on them until I had them down cold. I used what is called the Hagall Spread (no explanation of the name was given), where you initially lay out four cards in a diamond shape, then put three cards on top and three more on the bottom. What the spread is supposed to indicate is as follows:1. The general situation.
2. Something you've done, or an experience you've had that has helped create the current situation.
3. Your beliefs, impressions and expectations, conscious or subconscious, of the situation.
4. The likely result of the situation as things stand now.
5. Spiritual history, how you've behaved, what you've learned.
6. Spiritual task at this time, challenges and opportunities in the current situation.
7. Metamorphosis, how the situation will change and the spiritual tasks that will come to you as a result.
8. The Helper: Visualize an actual person. This person gives you support.
9. Yourself. You are expressing the qualities of the person shown on the card.
10. The Teacher. This figure can indicate the demands of the situation, and also the knowledge that you can gain from the situation.
By the time of the reading I had forgotten all this. So I made up a story about how the center four cards represent the present, the top three cards represent the future, and the bottom three cards are the characters that are going to help you get to that future. It turns out that it doesn't matter what story you make up, as long as it sounds convincing. I was glad, however, that I had memorized the meanings of the symbols and characters on the cards I used because this subject had previously done tarot-card readings herself. (Since you are supposed to have the client shuffle the tarot cards ahead of time to put her influence into the deck, I palmed my memorized cards and then put them on top of the newly shuffled deck.)
Since she was my first reading I was a little stiff and nervous, so I did not stray far from the standard Barnum reading. I worked my way through the Big Five personality traits fairly successfully (correctly guessing that she was neither a first born nor a last born but a middle child), and did not hazard any of the high probability guesses. Since she was a student I figured she was indecisive about her life, so I offered lots of trite generalities that would have applied to almost anyone of her age: she is uncertain about her future but excited about the possibilities, she is confident in her talents yet still harbors some insecurities, travel is in her immediate future, she strikes a healthy balance between head and heart, intellect and intuition, and so forth.
Tarot cards are a great gimmick because they provide the cold reader with a prop to lean on, something to refer and point to, and something for the subject to ask about. I purposely put the Death card in the spread because that one seems to make people anxious (the Death card was then in the news because the East Coast Sniper had said it prompted him to begin his killing spree). This gave me an opportunity to waffle on about the meaning of life and death, that the card actually represents not physical death but metaphorical death, that transitions in life are a time of opportunity -- the death of a career and the rebirth of another career -- and other such drivel. The line was cast, the bait set, and the fish bit.
After each reading the producers conducted a short taped interview with the subject, asking them how they thought the reading went. Subject #1 said she thought the reading went well, that I accurately summarized her life and personality, but that there were no surprises, nothing that struck her as startling. She had experienced psychic readings before and that mine was fairly typical. I felt that the reading was mediocre at best. I was just getting started.
The palm reading
I mainly focused on the Life, Head, Heart, and Health lines, and for added effect threw in some blather about the Marriage, Money, and Fate lines. Useful nonsense includes the following:If the Head and Life lines are connected it means that there was an early dependence on family.
If Head and Life lines are not connected it means the client has declared independence early.
The degree of separation between the Head and Heart lines indicates the degree of dependence or independence between the head and the heart for making decisions.
The strength of the Head line indicates whether the thinking style is intuitive or rational.
Breaks in the Head line may mean there was a head injury, or that the subject gets headaches, or that something happened to the head at some time in the subject's life.
From one website I downloaded material about the angles of the thumbs in relation to the hands that was quite useful. You have the subject place both hands palm down on the table, and then observe whether they are relaxed or tight and whether the fingers are close together or spread apart. This purportedly indicates how uptight or relaxed someone is, how extroverted or introverted they are, how confident or insecure they feel, etc. According to one palm reader a small thumb angle "reveals that you are a person who does not rush into doing things. You are cautious and wisely observe the situation before taking action. You are not pushy about getting your way." A medium thumb angle "reveals that you do things both for yourself and for others willingly. You are not overly mental about what you are going to do, so you don't waste a lot of time doing unnecessary planning for each job." And a big thumb angle "reveals that you are eager to jump in and get things done right away. You do things quickly, confidently, and pleasurably because you like to take charge and get the job done." Conveniently, you can successfully use any of these descriptions with anyone.
It turns out that you can tell the handedness of a person because the dominant hand is a little larger and more muscular. That gave me an opening to tell Subject #2, who was left-handed, that she was right-brain dominant, which means that she puts more emphasis on intuition than on intellect, that she is herself very intuitive (Rowland says that a great ruse is to flatter the subjects with praise about their own psychic powers), and that her wisdom comes more from real world experience than traditional book learning. She nodded furiously in agreement.
According to the various palm reading "experts," you are supposed to comment on the color and texture of the skin, hair on the back of the hand, and general shape of the hands. Any major discrepancy between the two hands is supposed to be a sign of areas where subjects have departed from their inherited potential. The psychic should also take note of the shape of the fingers. The outer phalanges of the fingers (the finger tips) represent spiritual or idealistic aspects of the person, the middle phalanges everyday and practical aspects, and the lower phalanges the emotional aspects of personality. I found it most effective to rub my fingers over the mounds of flesh on each finger segment while commenting on this subject's personality.
For this reading I threw in a few high probability guesses, starting with the white car. It turns out that her 99-year old grandmother had a white car, which gave me an opening to comment about the special nature of her relationship with her grandmother, which was spot on. Then I tried the out-of-date calendar, which did not draw an affirmative response from my mark, so I recovered by backing off toward a more general comment: "well, what I'm getting here is something about a transition from one period in your life to another," which elicited a confirmation from the subject that she was thinking of switching majors.
Subject #2's assessment of my reading was slightly more positive than Subject #1's, as was my own self-evaluation, but no one had been floored by anything said. I was still gathering steam for the big push to come.
The astrological reading
I threw out a bunch of high probability guesses and got about half of them right (including the one about wearing her hair longer at a younger age), then closed the reading by asking her if she had any questions for me. She said that she had applied for a scholarship in a foreign student exchange program in England, and wanted to know if she was going to get it. I told her that the important issue was not whether she was going to get it, but how she would deal with getting it or not getting it, and that I was confident that her balanced personality would allow her to handle either outcome. This seemed to go over well. In the post-reading interview she was much more positive than I expected, considering how stilted the reading was, so I suppose we can count this one as a success as well, although I was not particularly pleased with it.
The psychic reading
This subject then opened up about her recent back surgery and other bodily ailments. I tried a number of high probability guesses that worked quite well, especially the box of photographs, broken gadgets around the house, and the short hair/long hair line, all hits, especially the hair, whose style she changed constantly. I said I was getting something about a scar or scrape on her knees, and that left her slack jawed. She said that she had not scraped her knees since childhood, but had just the week before fallen down and torn them pretty badly. Wow!
Although I was able to tell from the conversation that she had recently lost her mother, and a few minutes of stock comments from me about her mother staying close in her memory left her in tears, she really came to find out about her son. What was he going to do? A few questions from me revealed that he is a senior in high school, so I assumed that she was worried about him going off to college. Pure gold! What in particular was she worried about? He was thinking of going to USC, so I jumped in before she could explain, and surmised that it was because the University of Southern California is located in downtown Los Angeles, which is not exactly a safe neighborhood.
In the post-reading interview Subject #4 praised my psychic intuition to the hilt. Bill and his producers were amazed and very excited at what great dramatic television this was going to make. Imagine how John Edwards' producers must feel after a taping of Crossing Over. (On a positive note we did learn that day that James Van Praagh's television series had just been cancelled because of poor ratings.)
Talking to the dead
From our conversation I learnt that her father had died when she was 27, so I deduced that it must have been a sudden death (correct) and that she did not have the opportunity to make her peace with him (also correct). Finally, I accurately deduced that she was sad because she would have liked to share her many life experiences over the past two decades with her father, "such as having a child." Wrong, she is childless. Without missing a beat I said: "Oh, what I mean is giving birth to a new idea or new business." A three-pointer from downtown! She was an entrepreneurial woman whose father was a successful businessman with whom she would have loved to share her success. It wasn't long before Subject #5 was nearly sobbing. This was an emotionally fragile woman of whom I could have easily taken advantage by jumping in with some inane line such as "your father is here with us now and he wants you to know that he loves you." But I knew I would have to look in the mirror the next morning and just couldn't do it, even to expose a very exploitive practice. Instead I said "your father would want you to keep him in your heart and your memories, but that it is time now to move on." I wanted to give her something specific, as well as lighten up the reading because it was getting pretty glum, so I said "and it's okay to throw away all those boxes of his stuff that you have been keeping but want to get rid of." She burst out laughing and confessed that she had a garage full of her father's belongings that she had long wanted to dispose of but was feeling guilty about doing so. This exchange was, I hoped, a moral message that violated no trust on my part and still had the desired effect for our show.
In the post-reading interview Subject #5 said that she had been going to psychics for over ten years trying to resolve this business with her father, and that mine was the single best reading she had ever had. That made my psychic day!
The grace of scruples