Some psychics and mediums profess that they are able to communicate with the dead. They claim that they are able to tune into the psychic frequencies of those that have gone before and can facilitate a level of communication between them and the living. For many people, this is a source of comfort, allowing them to ask questions and receive answers that carry some importance to them.
However, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that mediums can contact people beyond the grave. Unfortunately for the psychic community, the only hard evidence that has been unearthed is that a number of mediums are, in reality, just very skilled cold-readers. Let’s have a look at what it is they do and whether or not you too could use these tricks to make it appear as if you can speak to the dead.
The cornerstone of cold reading
Put simply, the process of cold reading is using visual and aural clues to glean information about someone, without them knowing you are doing it. There are many methods involved such as a knowledge of body language and even the ability to auto-suggest.
However, the cornerstone of cold reading is an understanding of something called cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is a term used in psychology to describe the most common problems with human perception. It can alter the way we interpret things and even the way we recall certain events. Cold readers are well versed in exploiting this psychological phenomenon and turning it to their advantage.
Cognitive bias can be broken down into three main categories:
1) The confirmation effect. This is the tendency for people to seek out information that somehow confirms their own preconceptions. In effect, it allows cold readers to give people certain information, which they will then believe to be true, because that it what they want to hear.
2) Suggestibility. This is the phenomenon in which a cold reader suggests ideas that are mistaken by the subject for actual memories.
3) The self-relevance effect. This is the process through which memories that are personally relevant are given more credence than information surrounding a particular event; it relies on the fact that we all interpret the world around us from a singular viewpoint.
Cognitive bias in action
The essence to cold reading is to use words that sound specific but are, in fact, incredibly general. This allows the subject to interpret those words in the way that is pertinent to them and give you information, without being aware of it. For example, many fake mediums begin their patter by announcing that they are sensing a letter. As a result, a conversation between a reader and his subject might go something like this:
Reader: I’m sensing the letter ‘g’ or ‘j’…
Subject: My uncle Jack died a few months ago.
Reader: It was a tragic death, wasn’t it?
Subject: Yes. It was a car accident.
Reader: That’s right. He wasn’t focussed at the time; he didn’t see what was about to happen.
Analysing the way cold readers work
The first statement may seem specific, but it’s ambiguous enough that a subject will make the decision to confirm what they want to be true; it’s an example of the confirmation effect. Consequently, the subject affirms to himself – and the reader – that one of the letters is relevant to him; an example of the self-relevance effect.
The second statement is probably phrased as a sympathetic question – but it is a statement, nonetheless, as though he somehow has some insider knowledge as to the circumstances of the event. The key word here is ‘tragic’, and the word resonates on a number of levels. Any death can be considered tragic, it was tragic for those who were left behind and it may have been that the circumstances had an element of tragedy about them. It’s a word that’s waiting to be interpreted, through the confirmation effect. Once again, the subject confirms this, leaving the reader free to make his third statement.
While again vague, there are enough specifics in the statement to make it seem like the reader has an awareness of what happened. In essence, he’s fishing for details, whilst building upon what he has already learned from the subject. While there are plenty of other processes through which a reader can learn details, this is the fundament of cold reading at its most basic.
Visual clues and body language
Another weapon in the cold reader’s arsenal is an understanding of body language. Initially, they will rely on visual and aural clues to tell them a bit about who they are talking to; the way someone speaks and dresses can already help you build up some assumptions about a person – many of which will be correct. Listen for an accent, look for tattoos, see what jewellery they’re wearing. Clues like this can help you make some broad statements about someone that will help you learn more about them.
For example, if the subject has acne or facial scarring as the result of spots, then it’s fairly safe to assume that they are, to a degree, self-conscious about the way they look. A cold reader might exploit that by saying something along the lines of: “I sense that you put a brave face on for the rest of the world but, underneath, you’re a little bit frightened of people, aren’t you?” Again, it’s a statement that could be applied to practically anyone but, to someone who is a bit self-conscious, it can seem very pertinent.
Body language is a slightly different bag. Police interviewers are trained in body language, so they can tell if someone is lying to them. Similarly, poker players develop an awareness of other people’s ‘tells’, so that they can spot if a player is bluffing. Body language is the physical communication of other information that can give you a clue as to what someone is really thinking. The police use a system that relies on the idea that when someone is recalling an actual memory, they look up and to the left. Lies are communicated by looking up and to the right. Similarly, people who are lying often put their hands to their faces, as though they are trying to create a mask between onlookers and their mental processes.
There are a huge number of processes through which you can learn about someone and eke out all the information necessary to make it look as though you have the power to communicate with a dead friend or relative.