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No One is Psychic, But You Can Fake It With Psychology

You don’t have to have a killer costume to impress at this year’s Halloween party. The only thing better than looking like the dead is convincing people that you can talk to the dead. Here’s how you do it.

Psychics, palm-readers, mediums, and mentalists are amazing. Not for their connection to the “other side,” but for their mastery of human psychology. Though they may be harnessing the vortessence to reveal things about your life, they are more likely utilizing clever, tried-and-true techniques that encourage volunteers and viewers to assume a mystical power. Generally, these techniques fall under the term “cold reading.”


Select Your Subject(s)

If you want to give the impression that you can read minds or even communicate with the dead, the first step is to select your subjects. The easiest route is to get a small crowd together. That way, there are more potential “hits” for your questions. Start looking for identifying qualities and logging them in your mind. What are the ages in the crowd? The sexes? The races? It sounds like profiling, but what you are really doing is trying to narrow down the broad questions to come, in order to sound more mystical.

Can’t get an audience? Trying to read a single person is fine, like a fortune teller would do, but you’re going to need more information. Strike up a friendly conversation before the reading begins, try to glean anything that you can.


Start Digging

When you have an audience, statistics are on your side. Start “shot-gunning” — throw out vague questions to the crowd that can apply to many people. For example, if you say something like, “I’m getting something from John…does John mean anything to anyone?” If each person in your audience knows dozens of people, the chances of at least one of them knowing someone with the name John, a very common name, are pretty good.

Shot-gunning takes advantage of the Forer effect, named after Psychologist Bertram R. Forer. It is the tendency for people to unknowingly personalize statements that could apply to just about anyone. Forer discovered this quirk in 1949 when he gave his students this “personalized” statement, asking them to rate it for accuracy:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

This test has been replicated hundreds of times since then, all with similar results — on average, people rate this paragraph around 84 percent accurate (an aggregate of a 0 – 5 scale) though it can apply to literally anyone. In other words, we unconsciously try to fit vague statements to our own lives. (The same tendency explains the lure of astrology.)

To best take advantage of the Forer effect with your audience, use so-called “Barnum Statements,” the intentionally obscure yet alluring phrases we want to make fit. Try something like, “I’m sensing that someone is having a financial problem,” or “You are often insecure but are trying to change that, is that correct?”

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Stay on Target

Once these vague statements start landing, hone in on that information. If someone volunteers that he or she has a loved one that has recently passed, for example, make a quick judgment about their age. If they are older, chances are it is a parent or sibling, rather than a grandparent. As you are digging, look for body language and facial reactions that may give away whether you are on target or not. If you are getting it right, move on to “warm reading” — use information about the person specifically to inform your next question. Look for wedding rings, the quality of clothing, height, weight, etc.

You’ll have a bit of leeway here because of another psychological quirk called confirmation bias, a tendency to accept and remember information that confirms our preconceived notions, and to forget or ignore information that does not. Someone who is volunteering information to some extent wants you to be right. It’s just more interesting. When you are shot-gunning questions, getting one correct will be immeasurably more memorable than the dozens you did not.

And when you do miss, turn it into a hit. Let a volunteer fill in the information on their own, and then make that answer yours. If you ask, “I get a feeling that you are making a big life decision right now,” and they reply, “not really, but I am concerned about my mortgage,” you can answer with something like, “yes, a large financial choice, that’s right.” Still “right,” still amazing.

If all else fails, don’t say anything. People hate awkward silences, and will many times fill the gaps with information you didn’t even ask for. From there, you can work your psychological magic.


Be Honest

You’ll need to practice a lot to be suitably astounding. Mentalists, mediums, and other performers work for years to get good. It takes time to learn the statistics and averages that would make you seem all-knowing. If someone tells you that his or her father unfortunately passed away, it takes research to know that you might be able to say something like, “I’m getting the sense that it had something to do with his abdomen,” knowing that many older men have heart, prostate, or colon problems.

But when you get that good, you will be dealing with incredibly sensitive information from people that have willingly made themselves vulnerable. You have to consider the ethics of cold reading itself. Either you let people know that you are going to perform a trick beforehand, or you go all-in and say you can speak to the dead. While the former seems like the logical choice, many psychics, mediums, and fortune-tellers choose the latter. If you are going to use psychology for a party trick, make sure that everyone knows it is a trick. Don’t use someone’s grief for personal gain.

IMAGES: Are you Psychic? by C. P.; Fortune by David Gaz; Cartas by Ricardo Rosado; Psychic vision by Thomas Hawk; Psychic readings by ancient history

Kyle Hill is the science editor at Nerdist Industries. He reminds you that no one is actually psychic. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

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