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The “Psychic” Skeptic PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Dr. Karen Stollznow   

As research for an upcoming presentation a group of us decided to try cold reading some strangers. On our first day, skeptic Mathew Baxter became “psychic medium” Mathias. He chose to tackle the hardest clients of all: psychics. Wearing more rings than Ringo Starr and an eye of Horus pendant, he visited Spirit Wise, a metaphysical bookstore in Denver. Connie, the owner of the store and her friend Tim agreed to have readings from Mathias. Both work as “professional” psychics.

Connie set up a reading room for us downstairs. This was a cozy setting of couches complete with props, including a lemon-scented candle and an enormous amethyst cathedral geode. The geode was shaped like the hooded Mother Mary, and was an excellent example of pareidolia.

His first reading was with Connie, and Mathias began by talking about the room. “When I came downstairs I had several impressions very quickly, but the strongest one was that I could sense a lot of children in the room.” Connie encouraged him by nodding, so he continued. “I can sense the presence of a lot of children and a lot of laughter. This was a play area. I certainly had that feeling. It was uplifting to walk into.” This was a hit. As Connie explained, “We used to have a children’s circle that met here every Saturday. There were 30 or 40 little kids down here. It was a ball.” Matthew later explained that he could tell from the layout of the building that the business had once been a house, and he assumed that the downstairs room had been a play area of some kind.

Taking a tip from the TV psychics, Mathias then said that there was a stern woman “pushing herself to the front of the line. She’s quite a handful!” Connie laughed, so Mathias knew he was on the right path. “She had this disapproving air, but it masked her pride for you.” Connie nodded, and obviously believed Mathias was referring to her mother. “She is telling me that… did you once go to a salon and have an unfortunate experience?” This was another hit. Connie laughed nervously in agreement. “I was having a facial and the beautician dripped glycolic acid into my eye!” Matthew later said that most people have had a bad haircut or a bad salon service, and he guessed that this would be true for Connie too; and it was.

Then Mathias tried one of the oldest cold reading tricks in the book. “Now she’s talking about some item of jewelry.” Of course, there’s a reason why this is the oldest trick in the book – it works. Connie began twisting the gold ring she was wearing on the ring finger of her right hand. “This was my mother’s wedding ring. She wore it for 40 years. When she was dying we took it off her hand before it got cold and I put it on. I have worn it ever since. It has never gotten cold.”

Overall, Connie’s feedback for Mathias was glowing. “You’re good. You have lots of good stuff to say, and you have a great energy field.” She told him that he would become famous some day, and she’d be proud to have known him. She lives for quirky moments like this. “Every day I open the store and think it’s going to be a grand adventure, and poof! Here you are!”

Next up for a reading was Tim. He was more po-faced, and not wanting to give anything away. However, he told us beforehand that he was an “Energy Healer”, so we knew he was a believer. Mathias tried the same line on Tim that he used on Connie, where he had a bet each way. “I see a stern figure who has a disapproving air.” Tim nodded at this. “But he is bursting with pride on the other side.” Tim agreed, and was obviously thinking of his father. Mathias continued, “I don’t know how to say this, but in this other person’s opinion, did you have a phase of promiscuity?” This was a hit. Tim laughed, “I’ve had my party years for sure!” He looked it too, with his long hair and beer belly.

Mathias continued, “He said the words ‘sheep shears’ to me. I’m not sure what that means.” Tim revealed that his father had once threatened to take a set of sheep shears to his head to chop off his long locks! Mathias stayed with this theme of the ne’er-do-well son. “He’s saying to me, ‘When are you going to grow up? When are you going to get a real job?’” Tim nodded like a bobble-headed toy. Clearly, he had heard all of this before.

“You’ve had some reservations about your career, and there have been several crossroads.” Of course, the experience of career crises resonates with most people. Mathias continued reading Tim’s visual clues. “This is the tough part with readings like this. You’re sitting in front of me and it’d be easy to say, ‘You have long hair so you’re a musician’. But I’m feeling that you really are a musician.” This was another hit! Tim is a musician who hates his day job that leaves him with no time for a band. He’s attending night school to attain the skills for that “real job”. As Tim added, “I play guitar. I had a band but we didn’t all have the same vision. I want to start a new band and I’m kind of looking for those people.” Mathias told him what he wanted to hear. “You will start a band, and these people will be on your page this time.” As a musician himself, Mathias/Matthew spoke from personal experience, “But there will be a drummer problem.” Tim laughed, “There’s always a drummer problem!”

Like Connie’s feedback, Tim’s comments about the reading were also positive. “It was good. It felt natural and it wasn’t like you were trying to coach answers out of me or trying to draw words out.” Tim then had a heart-to-heart with Mathias about the psychic industry, psychic reader to psychic reader. “You know how it is,” he complained. “It’s hard. You’re trying to make a living on something that’s almost imaginary.”

With thanks to Stu Hayes and Rick Duffy for their assistance with this project.

 


Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.

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Comments (17)Add Comment
Cold Reading
written by Joni, March 07, 2013
Hi,
For any one not aware, the book "The Full Facts book of Cold Reading" from Ian Rowland is a really good read. Even I too can become an effective sigh-kick....

Oh? You knew I was going to say that? ;-)
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written by SheldonHelms, March 07, 2013
That last line made me spit coffee on my computer screen. Hilarious!
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written by Arjan, March 07, 2013
This may be off topic, but I feel the need to interject this.

I've known Connie and Tim for several years. Connie started with nothing many years ago and built up a successful chain of shoe shine stands around Denver. She eventually sold that business to buy Spirit Wise Gifts. While it is considered a "metaphysical store", they mainly sell jewelry, clothing and gift items.

They do believe in some unusual things, but those beliefs are only one aspect of their personalities. They are also kind, generous and trusting people who go out of their way to help others.

Connie and Tim have never claimed to be "mind readers". It is unfortunate that Mathew felt the need to lie to them about who he was and what his intentions were.

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written by Stanfr, March 07, 2013
Along the lines of what Arjan just said, the end of the story is missing here. Were they told the truth after these readings? If they were, that's a good learning opportunity for them and should be highlighted as the most important lesson of this article. If they weren't, it was downright mean and no better than the psychics we complain about on this site. I hope they gave permission to have their names used here.
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written by Mitchell Meek, March 07, 2013
Hi Arjan,

I don't think the article was commenting at all on the quality of Connie and Tim as people, and being that you know them, we can take you at your word that they are lovely, kind people.

The point was to expose the effectiveness of conducting a cold reading as a means of fooling believers/those willing to believe. Connie and Tim believed that a medium could contact their deceased loved ones, and with a few simple observations, Tim was able to convince them he was communicating with the dead.

It's just an exercise in debunking a supernatural claim.
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written by Arjan, March 07, 2013

I'm all for investigating supernatural claims. The problem is that it appears that this experiment was conducted in an unethical manner. If they were informed of the truth afterwards, and gave consent to have the story published, then I will stand corrected.

It seems that we tend to slip into ridiculing those who believe in the supernatural. This doesn't help anyone. I made the above post to suggest that we put people over principles. The fact that someone believes in the supernatural does not make them "fair game" for public mockery.

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written by Mitchell Meek, March 07, 2013
I agree with you that ridicule does not help, Arjan, and that believing does not leave you open to public mockery.

Generally speaking, I tend to think that you can believe what you want in so far as it does not impact anyone else - for example, as a parent, you can go right ahead and believe in homeopathy, but you'd best be taking your child down to the doctor for scientifically proven medical treatment. Similarly, Tim and Connie selling jewellery and the like is fine, but if they are selling it with the promise of some sort of spiritual reward/value, then that's a problem. They become not just believers, but charlatans.
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written by Arjan, March 07, 2013
I can attest that the jewelry she sells is not intended to do any more than compliment one's outfit.

Something else to consider,
It can be hard to know if you are a good cold reader because most people are too polite to tell you when you are wrong. For example, I happen to know that the statements Matthew made about her mother were dead wrong.
She is too nice to tell him that however. So she just let him believe he was correct so he could feel good about himself.
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written by Stanfr, March 07, 2013
So...a fake psychic skeptic cons a real but fake psychic by being falsely psychic, who then in turn cons the skeptic by not being skeptical (kind of a double-agent psychic skeptic). My head is spinning... smilies/shocked.gif
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Consumer protection
written by denver, March 07, 2013
From the spirit wise web site, it looks to me like they charge for their 'readings'. So this effort seems quite different from experimenting on a believer: it was testing the efficacy of a product offering. If someone offering "readings" for money cannot tell the difference between a real psychic and a fake one, how can they tell if they themselves are real or fake? This is very common consumer protection strategy: like taking a car into a clinic with known mechanical problems, and seeing what the mechanics actually diagnose. No one seems to consider that unethical, regardless of whether or not the test is revealed to the mechanics who failed. As long as the results are revealed to their customers, it seems a worthwhile effort.
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written by Arjan, March 07, 2013
Interesting point. Although this was being done for research purposes. As such, it violated current ethical standards for social research such as voluntary participation, informed consent and confidentiality.
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NIce Double Standard
written by Baxter, March 07, 2013
Arjan states more than once that I should have told the truth to Connie and I was a bad person for not doing so. However, when she possibly lies to me to "make me feel better" it is because she is nice. Would it have been better if I had just charged her a fee?
Look, my intention was to educate myself about cold reading - not educate them. What would they have said if I had revealed myself? "Oh! Now I see! I have been wrong this whole time!"
Not only was my experiment not to prove that they are frauds, it was also not to convince them of anything. Nowhere did I test their abilities and try to expose anything about their claimed skills. They have their beliefs and I wasn't going to change them. I found them both to be pleasant people and I truly hope that Connie sells lots of her wares in that store. I hope that Tim gets his band going so I can go listen. All I did was test my own ability at doing a first time cold reading. I showed that anyone can be fooled if we are not expecting it. It makes us human.
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written by Arjan, March 07, 2013
Well in any case, I suppose that you have at least given them the opportunity to know what was going on by publishing it.

Seriously though, it is hard to find a cold reading subject who will tell you when you are wrong. If the person likes you they will want you to succeed.
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written by Stanfr, March 07, 2013
Baxter, I don't buy that reasoning. It's like asking us to believe that you really believe 'psychics' are truly the "toughest clients". If they truly believe in their abilities, then they probably are the easiest clients to convince--they're readily accepting of your own abilities since they believe in their own.

Denver's proper analogy would be sending in a fake mechanic to an auto shop, doing some work on their car and asking how they performed. What does the owner/mechanic's evaluation of the fake's claimed abilities have to do with his own abilities? Nothing! It's not 'consumer protection' and it certainly isn't good science.

Sounds to me like you're rationalizing to me. If you thought they were pleasant people it's odd that this story makes them look like fools.
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written by Stanfr, March 07, 2013
What would they have said if I had revealed myself? "Oh! Now I see! I have been wrong this whole time!"
That's the point--you have no idea how they would have responded since you did not give them the opportunity to do so. As Arjan said--that's not kosher. If this were Sylvia Brown--i agree, no holds barred. But I doubt you would say Sylvia was a "pleasant person".
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pretty neat!
written by Illuminazi, March 08, 2013
I think while inadvertently exposing them as frauds, the author did confirm his ability to mimic their abilities. Whether the intent was to outwit or self-educate, the result will not protect those in our population wanting to believe in the unknown for no scientific reason. No amount of education will sway those who choose faith over science because the result is ostracization from the herd due to a new belief system. I've questioned the beliefs of others only to discover they cringe when their faith is subjected a simple question of "we'll, how do you know for certain". 99% will not entertain a debate, favoring the conservation of brain power reserves choosing to believe in things like the aforementioned psychics for no scientific reason. The population who choose not to discuss the professed psychics abilities should not be protected from stepping into bear traps set up for financial gain. To remove them from society through education (assuming that's hypothetically possible), would be the equivalent of removing part of the food chain...we would have no intellectual nourishment
The easily fooled population is an IQ litmus test for the observer and his/her abilities to test theories like the psychic scenario. Great job.
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written by Arjan, March 08, 2013
"... the author did confirm his ability to mimic their abilities"

If I might play devil's advocate one more time. None of us know what exact claims the aforementioned people actually make about their abilities. Even I don't even because I never asked them.
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