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James Randi Educational Foundation

Lecture Series

The Art of "Cold Reading"

The currently-popular "psychics" like Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, and John Edward, who are getting so much TV space on Montel Williams, Larry King, and other shows, employ a technique known as "cold reading." They tell the subjects nothing, but make guesses, put out suggestions, and ask questions. This is a very deceptive art, and the unwary observer may come away believing that unknown data was developed by some wondrous means. Not so.

Examples: "I get an older man here" is a question, a suggestion, and a guess by the "reader," who expects some reaction from the subject, and usually gets it. That reaction may just be a nod, the actual name of a person, or an identification (brother, husband, grandfather), but it is supplied BY THE SUBJECT, not by the reader. "They're saying, 'Bob,' or 'Robert.' Do you recognize this person?" is another question, suggestion, and guess. If there's a Bob or Robert, the subject will amplify the identification. But if there's no Bob or Robert immediately recognized, the reader passes right on, after commenting that Bob is there alright, but not recognized right now. If any Bob is remembered later, that is incorporated into the spiel. You should observe and listen to a video of a reading. In one such by Van Praagh, prepared by the "48 Hours" TV program, a reading that lasted 60 minutes, we found only TWO actual statements made, and 260 questions asked. Both actual statements--guesses--were wrong. Van Praagh was looking for the name of the woman's deceased husband, and he came up with it by asking, "Do you know anyone named, Jack?" The woman answered, "Yes! Jack, my husband!" But Van Praagh didn't identify "Jack" at all. He asked her if SHE would identify him. By that time, Van Praagh had already tried on her 26 other men's names--all wrong. But, the woman--the subject--forgot about those failures, because they were not important to her. "Jack" was important.

The readers have a way of leading the subject to believe that they knew something they didn't. Example:

Reader: "Did your husband linger on in the hospital, or did he pass quickly?"

Subject: "Oh, he died almost immediately!"

Reader: "Yes, because he's saying to me, `I didn't suffer. I was spared any pain.'"

It's strange that the reader (Van Praagh, in this example) had to ask that question.....

And remember, these readers often go out and interview the audience members when they're on line waiting to get into the studio or auditorium. That technique was employed by the very successful reader Doris Stokes. She would feed back any data she got as if she were refreshing her memory of what had been told her. "Are you the lady who has a passed-on sister, dearie?" would of course receive assent from the victim, and ahhhs from the audience. Also, a person who approaches the reader before the TV show or auditorium meeting and says she has a question about her deceased grandmother, can then later be selected out of the audience when they're on-camera or during the live encounter, and can then be asked, "Is your question about your grandmother?" and that appears--to everyone else--like a bang-on "hit." Or, and this is very subtle indeed, people in the studio or auditorium audience--usually seated up front for best visibility--are sometimes those who have already been to the "psychic" for a private reading, and have then been asked to show up later to occupy reserved seats at the public in-person gathering "to develop more information" using the "collective power of the assembled audience." The reader then repeats previously-gleaned data, and that appears miraculous both to the audience in the studio and at home, watching, or elsewhere in the auditorium audience.

We tested Sylvia Browne in 1989, on live TV, and she failed miserably. On that occasion, she was not allowed to speak to anyone in advance, or to be asked or told anything in advance. The audience was told to only answer "yes" or "no," when asked a DIRECT question, and Sylvia bombed out big-time. She blamed it all on bad vibrations.... Van Praagh and Edward have not responded to our offer to test them--for the million-dollar prize, even.

So, you see, it's your perception of what's actually being done, rather that the reality of the procedure, and your ignorance of other subtle clues and methods, that misleads you in your observations of these "psychics."

I'll give you one example of something I did when I was performing as a mentalist in Toronto, my home town, at the age of 18. (I hasten to add here that I would ALWAYS thoroughly disclaim any genuine powers, before and after my show.) They had a huge auditorium filled with reserved seats, just about every one of them occupied by eager subjects. It was some sort of a charity affair, and seats were expensive. After I got rolling with the various moving objects and blindfolded duplication-of-handwriting stunts (spoonbending was not yet a popular miracle!) I stopped abruptly and pointed to a lady in the third-row aisle seat. "I'm led to say to you that I get a middle name of 'Rose' for you, madame!" I cried. Her gasp verified that I was right." And that name is more than significant to you." She leaned forward. "I see a clock, a very old clock, and on the dial three pink roses?" She started to speak, and I silenced her by raising my hand. "But this is a strange clock. It can't tell the time!" By now, the poor woman was about to pass out in excitement. "Why is it useless? I see two arrows, or darts…They're metal, and they're broken…Ah! I see! These are the hands of that clock, and they've come off the clock face, and are lying together behind the glass cover of the clock dial! Is that right?" The woman was standing, mouth open, nodding vigorously. She was awe-struck, and the applause was vigorous indeed. How was it done? A lucky guess? No. Planning.

T.K. Lawson, my buddy, had been working with that charity. He was the one who got me the gig (a contracted appearance). And he also went through several neighborhoods selling tickets to likely donors. He had sold tickets CC-20 and CC-22 to this lady, and she'd invited him into her living-room while she made out a check to pay for the tickets. He observed that the "rose" theme was everywhere, and an embroidered "sampler" was framed by the door, with the woman's full name on it. That clock was by the fireplace. T.K. noted these facts, and reported them to me. I must tell you that together we intercepted that dear lady as she left after the show, and explained to her how I'd been "psychic." She was highly entertained with the explanation, and grateful for our caring to tell her.

I somehow don't think that Browne, Edward, and Van Praagh would trouble to do such a thing. But, after all, they say they're REALLY "speaking with the dead."

I'm amazed at how much death affects people who undergo the process. It makes them really stupid and forgetful. Whenever I've asked any psychics--or spiritualists--to contact my paternal grandmother, it seems she doesn't remember such basics as the name of her husband, or the name of her church--both important elements in her life while she was "here." Now that she's "there," her rather prodigious intellect has left her quite completely.


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