117. Psychics / Cold Reading / Barnum Statements

Listen to Luke explain the previous episode of the podcast, and how that relates to psychic readings and so-called ‘Barnum statements’.

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In the last episode I told you a story that I felt I had made some kind of mystical connection with a listener to the podcast – that somehow I had developed a connection with one person in particular, and that in a vivid dream I had a conversation with that person which led me to write a detailed personality profile. I then read out the personality profile and asked you to respond if you felt it applied to you.

I must say at this point that the story I told was not true. I didn’t have a dream, I haven’t felt a connection with one listener in particular (beyond the emails and comments which I have received) and that the whole thing was an experiment. I am recording this now on the same day that I recorded the previous episode so I have no idea how my experiment went, if it was a success and if anyone out there felt that the personality profile I wrote related to them in particular. For all I know, my experiment failed and no-one felt I was describing them. Or maybe some of you listened to the last episode and really felt that I was describing you, even down to quite specific details like your relationships, or if you have a scar on your knee. I have no idea what happened, but in this episode I would like to explain the purpose of the experiment I did.

I would also like to apologise sincerely if you feel like you have been conned, duped or misled at all by this experiment. I see the experiment as being like a magic trick really, and magic tricks involve deception and lying to a point, but it is justified because they are interesting and engaging, and that is what I always try to achieve with these podcasts – to be interesting and engaging and to teach you some things. So, if I deceived you with this experiment I apologise and I hope you will forgive me. Now I would like to explain myself, what the experiment was about, and if you were ‘fooled’ by it – I mean, if you felt that personality profile really described you, then I would like to explain exactly how that happened. It can all be explained by linguistic tricks – there is certainly no real magic, psychic power or any other kind of mysticism. It’s all basic psychology and manipulation of language.

OK, so what was the experiment?
I am very interested in magic and related areas such as illusion, mind reading, hypnotism and psychics. By magic I mean the slight of hand techniques used to make playing cards disappear, or how to fool people into picking a certain card etc. By illusion I mean the way in which our senses can be tricked into seeing or not seeing things. By hypnotism I mean the way we can be convinced to do or believe things simply by someone suggesting those ideas into our subconscious. By mind reading I mean the ability to see into someone’s mind and then read what is in there, and by psychics I mean those people who claim they can communicate with the dead and who seem to know deep personal information about you although they have never met you before.

It is psychics and mind-readers that I am particularly interested in at the moment. I want to know if someone really can communicate with the dead, or if someone really can read your mind without even talking to you. Is that stuff real or is it fake? To be honest, I suspect that it’s fake but I can’t be sure. Perhaps some people really can read minds and communicate with the dead, or perhaps they just use other techniques to make it look like they can.

How does this relate to my experiment and the latest episode of the podcast? Well, I wanted to write a personality profile, using very carefully selected words and sentences, and I wanted to see if I could convince people that I had made a psychic connection with them. I also wanted to test some techniques which I believe are used by psychics and which could prove that their methods are psychological rather than genuinely psychic. I wanted to know if it was possible to achieve the same results without being genuinely psychic. Obviously, I still don’t know the results of my experiment but still, let’s proceed.

So, my personality profile was full of what is known as ‘Barnum statements’. These are sentences which are very carefully worded to sound like very specific descriptions of a person, but which could apply to everyone. For example, “At a party you appear to be very social and outgoing – perhaps talkative, funny and outgoing, but after the party you become quite introspective and you might even think carefully about what you and other people said, and worry about how other people see you. In fact, sometimes when you are at a party you feel disconnected as if you are just playing a part in a movie and you are a million miles away from other people”. Now, although the sentence seems specific it is actually very general. Of course if you are at a party you will act in an outgoing and social way. Those are the rules of a party – but it might not be who you really are. Of course we all worry about what other people think of us. We all present a certain version of ourselves to the world, and worry about what other people think. That is something which everyone experiences. So, the Barnum statement seems specific but it is just describing something we all can relate to.

There are other statements in there that could apply to everyone. For example, “You have a scar on your knee or leg which is a result of an accident you had when you were younger”. Well, most of us have a scar on our knee or leg. It’s the most common place to have a scar, and of course it happened because of an accident. No-one really intends to give themself a scar on the leg do they? And of course it happened when you were younger! So, although this statement seems specific it is actually very general and may apply to everyone.

These statements are used in horoscopes, mind-reading and psychic reading all the time. They are just a small part of the complex way in which people give the illusion of reading your mind. The technique becomes even more effective when the person being read wants it to make sense. The reader then starts to look for ways in which the sentences fit. If you really believe in mind-reading then you will want it to work, and so you will find ways to make the statements relate to you personally. For example if you read the sentence, “You had an accident as a child that involved water”, you might search your memory for an accident you had as a child that involved water and make it fit. Add that to the fact that it is very common for children to have accidents with water. Think about it. I’m sure you had an accident involving water as a child. I did. I fell into a canal once when I was fishing with my Dad. My brother spilled hot water on his arm. It’s very common.

Here are some more examples of statements which sound specific but which could apply to anyone:
“I sense that you are experiencing some tension with a friend or relative at the moment” – it’s highly likely that you’re experiencing tension with a friend or a family member. On any given day there’s always someone who I’m having trouble with. It could be my parents, my brother, a friend. If you want it to fit then I’m sure you’ll find something which matches that statement.

“I feel you’re quite an independently minded person and you like to make up your own mind about things” – well who doesn’t feel they are independently minded? Everyone wants to feel they are independent. If you’re not independent then what are you? You’re a sheep or something, and no-one wants to be a sheep.

“Generally you are a cheerful and friendly person but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset. You still think about that moment sometimes and you haven’t fully get over it, or dealt with it yet, but you will in time.” – Everyone has a time in the past that they were upset and which they think about sometimes. It could be a break-up, an exam failure, a death in the family. These things always take time to deal with.

“Very much this will likely lead to you having considered writing a novel or some such, but a fear that you won’t be able to achieve quite what you want stops you from getting on with it. ” – Sorry but everyone considers writing a novel or creating some work of art, but hardly anyone actually achieves it because it’s really hard to finish a novel! But, writing a novel is an intensely personal thing. Again this could apply to anyone and feels very personal and specific.

“Your relationship with your parents (and I get the feeling here that one is no longer around, or at least emotionally absent) is under some strain. ” – Again, everyone has some issue with their parents. That is the nature of the parent/child relationship. I can’t think of anyone who is completely fine with their parents. Then the bit about ‘I get the feeling that one is not around or is emotionally absent’, could apply to everyone too. Either one of your parents has died – and if that doesn’t apply to you then maybe the line about one being emotionally absent, and I think again it’s common for some of us to have lost a parent and even more common to feel that one of your parents is not as emotionally close to you as you’d like.

“There’s also an odd feeling that you should have been born in a different century, like you feel that you would be more suited to another time in the past. ” – Again, it is very common to feel that you don’t really belong in this time, and since we understand the past pretty well we can just pick a time which suits us in the past. For example I often imagine that I would be perfect for life in the sixties, mainly because the music which was made then really appeals to me. In reality, I would be terribly out of place in the 1960s.

“A look around your living space would show a box of photos, not organised into albums, out-of-date medicines, broken items not thrown out, and notes to yourself which are significantly out of date.” – OK, everyone has a box of photos in their home and this is one of the most common lines which psychics use. Photos are very personal and private and yet we all have them in our homes, especially ones which are not in an album because who has time to put all their photos in an album? Also the stuff about out-of-date medicines and broken items. Again, these are things we all have in our homes when you think about it.

The list goes on. Many of the statements are designed to flatter you, such as the line about you having a fantastic sense of humour. Well, everyone loves to believe they have a good sense of humour. Who would say they didn’t have a good sense of humour? It’s very likely that we would believe that applies to us.

So, basically the trick with these statements is to make them sound specific but actually to make them as general as possible to allow people to really make them fit. Naturally, we all look for ways to make the description fit us, so it is you who does all the work. The mind-reader throws out general sounding statements and the subject makes them fit. Now, it’s not as simple as that of course. Mind reading is a complex art form and involves a lot of skill – especially when doing it live in front of a person, or in front of a crowd, but if the psychic is confident and skilled enough he/she can make a live reading even more impressive.

How do psychics read minds in front of a live audience?
Here are some ways that a psychic might do live readings in front of a crowd:
1. The psychic claims to be in communication with the dead, but the messages that come in are vague. Isn’t it funny that the messages are vague at first? Surely the dead would just come out with their statement clearly from the beginning. Psychics never give a good reason for this though.
2. The reading will begin with a name or even just a letter. The psychic will say “I’m getting an Anna or maybe an Anne, does that make sense to anyone in the audience?”, then each person in the audience tries to think of someone they know with the name Anna, Anne or Annie. Because they want to contact a dead relative, they will search for a dead relative called Anne or Anna. It’s a very common name. Surely someone in the audience will say yes because they have a dead relative or someone else called Anna. So immediately the psychic has got a ‘hit’. Then the psychic continues by making more general statements and letting the person explain how they make sense.
3. The psychic will use negative statements. For example, “This person didn’t have an accident involving water, did he?”. Negative statements like this are effective because both a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer will look like a success, or a ‘hit’. For example, “She didn’t have an accident with water did she?” – ‘No.’ No, I didn’t think so. Or “Yes she did”. Ah, that’s what she’s saying to me.
4. The psychic puts the emphasis on the person being read. So if the psychic says something like “I’m getting something about a dog, or a pet” and the person says “No” then the psychic may say “Well, I’m definitely getting something about a dog, can you work harder?” or “Well, it’s definitely a dog so I want you to go away and really think about what that means” and then the person is responsible for finding a connection to a dog.
5. The psychic uses the information from the subject to change the message. E.g. “I’m getting something about a dog” -No, we didn’t have a dog. “Well, it’s a pet maybe a dog or a cat, an animal of some kind in the family”, -Yes my grandfather used to have chickens, “Ah yes that’s it, it was chickens! Well he says he’s still happy with his chickens, and he wants you to know that even now he enjoys his chickens”.

The list of techniques goes on. All of it works very effectively when the audience really wants to believe it is true and so tries to make all the information fit.

But do you agree with me?
Now, you might not agree with me. You might believe that psychics are real, that people really can read minds and that it is because of paranormal activity or powers. That’s fine. Like I said, I have an open mind and I am willing to believe it if it is proved to be true. The problem is, when these paranormal skills are tested under scientific conditions then they just never work. Then the argument might be that a laboratory or other scientific skills will block the psychic skills. So then we have a claim which cannot be tested. It’s like saying, I have a UFO in my back garden but you can’t see it because it’s invisible and if you try to do a scientific test to find it then it will disappear. So, I am a skeptic. I am quite willing to believe in paranormal claims if they can be proven scientifically, and I’m not the only one. Some people have devoted their whole lives to trying to find out if paranormal claims are really true. There’s a magician called James Randi who goes around the world testing paranormal claims. You can see many of his tests on YouTube. They always seem to show that the paranormal skill is not paranormal at all. Certainly under scientific conditions the skills don’t work. In the end I think it comes down to what you want to believe. If you want to believe there are paranormal powers in the world, then you will – even if there is no genuine scientific evidence.

Are psychics fake or not?
Regarding psychics, I think there are a few possibilities:
1. The psychic genuinely does have psychic powers – they can communicate with the dead, etc but for some reason these skills disappear under testing conditions (although why this happens we don’t know).
2. The psychic does not have any powers, but uses secret techniques like Barnum statements etc in order to fake it. The psychics are deceiving their audience, exploiting people who have lost members of their family, and making money by lying to people.
3. The psychic does not have magic powers, but believes that he/she does. He/she uses normal methods (not paranormal ones) and yet believes his/her own bullsh*t to the point that he/she really thinks he/she has psychic powers.

Option 3 really is possible. Maybe some psychics believe their own claims to be psychic. Maybe they use non-psychic methods but interpret them as evidence of psychic power, when actually there are other explanations.

Personally I believe that most psychics are faking it, but I can’t be sure without testing them. It’s interesting that James Randi is so open minded that he has famously offered a $1m prize to any psychic who can prove that their method works under scientific conditions. To date, no-one has won the $1m.

What does this all mean?
I think it means we have to be careful of people who claim they have psychic powers and then use that claim to get money from us. It’s dangerous for us to believe that people have these powers. It’s dangerous to put our trust in these people who just want to deceive us and get our money. I also think it is morally wrong for people to lie like this. I especially think it is morally wrong for people to use people’s grief and desire to connect with dead family members to get money. Still, maybe what’s important is that if these grief stricken people do get genuine relief from psychic readings – if they do go away happy and satisfied, maybe it’s okay and it doesn’t matter if it is all lies. Perhaps the lies are justified by the outcome if people feel happy after a psychic reading. Who knows. One thing is certain: It is a complex and fascinating issue which we still don’t fully understand.

I want to know your opinions. First of all, what did you think of my experiment? Did it work? Was I wrong to do it? Perhaps it didn’t work because I am not a specialist, it was the first time I’d done it, and because doing it over the internet like that just doesn’t work. What do you think of psychics? Do they really have powers or is it fake? Is it wrong to say they contact dead people and to make people cry over the memory of a dead relative? Have you ever had a psychic reading? What happened?

Now I’d like to play you some recordings on this subject. First I will play you the audio track of a clip from a TV show in which a great magician called Derren Brown conducts the experiment which I did on 3 groups of people in 3 different countries. The experiment is a success.
The second clip is an interview with Derren Brown about psychics, Barnum statements and other techniques.

The third clip of a psychic doing some cold reading (that’s reading the audience without any prior information).

I hope you enjoy these clips. You can also see them on the website of course.
Derren Brown – Personality Reading
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haP7Ys9ocTk&w=400&h=300]
Derren Brown Interview about Psychics and Cold Reading
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xswt8B8-UTM&w=400&h=225]
James Randi Exposes a psychic
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlfMsZwr8rc&w=400&h=225]
A Psychic completely fails in a cold reading
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t07UzTcApMI&w=400&h=225]
BBC ‘Bullshit’ investigators
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4qGfNViVN8&w=400&h=225]
Tony Stockwell’s Psychic Reading (the one from the end of the podcast)
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUsqP0Aj89M&w=400&h=300]

Here are two comments from a YouTube video involving a psychic. I think they sum-up the situation quite well.

Burger Van Dreamz2 months ago:
LOL these people need stopping, its cruel and just plain wrong.
These people are vulnerable, and psychics should be outlawed as its fraudulent abuse!

jmjmartin2 months ago
Some excellent points… (And please understand, I am NOT on the side of the Psychics). But, nobody ‘forces’ these to people to visit Psychics or Mediums. Ok, they pay… But they are comforted, soothed and sympathised with…Is that so bad in a ratbag world we live in, where our neighbours, would step over you, rather than help you up!
Here’s the video they’re referring to:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82tTr5I33hc&w=500&h=281]