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Child's Play: Pretending to be Psychic

In the article "Child's Play," I note that I received an e-mail from someone who, with a friend, spent some time with Dalton and Larry Kropp, and found them to be "the real deal."

I am the correspondent’s “friend” that you refer to in your “Training Today’s Kid Psychics” section. It is true that the Kropps told us things that we already knew, but the point is that there was no way for them to know anything, especially events that happened years ago. Also, I was asked if my ex-husband was dead because the feeling was that he was no longer “there.” I was a little shocked by that statement and said that he was still living, although he had not been in our lives for a long time. Two weeks later I was notified that my ex-husband had died several months earlier. If this is trickery, I would be very interested in hearing your explanation. Hopefully, you will follow through and send someone to Danville , IL to spend a little time with Larry and Dalton Kropp.


Let's both be honest and admit that we cannot know with absolute certainty that the Kropp's used psychic means to discover that your ex-husband had died. You interpret their asking you a question "is your husband dead?" and their statement about a "feeling that he was no longer here" with making the statement "your husband is dead." I have studied the techniques of psychics and consider the question that is turned into a specific prediction by the "sitter" (the one getting the reading) as a common and very effective tactic.

After reading two lengthy e-mails from Larry Kropp, I am convinced that he is not a fraud, but sincerely believes he and his son are psychic. I don't deny that they do readings and that they appear to be psychic to themselves and to many others. But from what I have gathered from Larry Kropp and your companion, they are using a set of what are called "cold reading" techniques. There are many people who think they are psychic who use these techniques without ever having formally studied them. They are unaware that they are using processes that mentalists and conscious frauds also use. One of the most common responses to a cold reading is to claim that there is no way the "psychic" could have known that!

This phenomenon has been studied by expert psychologists like Ray Hyman and investigated by experts in deception and self-deception like James Randi and Joe Nickell. They have found that there are many people who sincerely believe they are psychic and who use many of the same techniques that tricksters use to convince themselves and others of their paranormal abilities. I am not psychic but I can predict with 100% confidence in my accuracy that should someone like myself or Joe Nickell be allowed to videotape a session with the Kropps, we would end up with two contradictory analyses of what had occurred. The skeptics will identify the cold reading techniques, the subjective validation of the participants, and the lucky guesses, while the believers will scoff at our interpretations and be convinced that something paranormal had occurred. If one of the Kropps tried to do a reading of myself or James Randi, we would consciously not respond to their questions. We would try not to provide them with any information by our facial expressions or gestures, much less by our words. Why? Because the reader gets information from us, not from the psychic world. If we don't respond, the reader will be unable to do a reading. Often, the reader or others will claim that the reason a reading could not be done was that the skeptic was blocking or preventing it from happening. They are right, of course, but we are not blocking any psychic messages. We are blocking messages from speech, facial expression, and gestures.

You are the one who says the psychics knew of your husband's death. They never said that. One of them asked a question and made a statement about a feeling. Both were intended, consciously or not, to elicit a response from you. Your response would direct the next track of the reading. Since you indicated to the Kropps that your ex-husband was alive, I take it they went on to something else. If they had pursued it any further, I assume you would have mentioned it here. Had they insisted that you were wrong, that your ex-husband died of a heart attack several weeks ago after being in a car accident, and they were right, then you would justifiably be impressed with their information. (They could not have done a hot reading on you, since they did not know you were going to be there that night. And they could not have overheard you mentioning the circumstances of your ex-husband's death, since you didn't know he was dead.)

You are the one who turned their question into a meaningful (to you) statement. This is not necessarily trickery. A common characteristic of communication called subjective validation is involved. If I ask Mary, "who's Jerry?" and she can relate that name to a person who has died, she might think I told her that Jerry was dead. I might have stated that I was getting a feeling that Jerry wasn't here. Mary might then get all excited at discovering a meaning to my statement. Maybe she knows someone named Jerry who is on vacation. He's not here. How did I know? I didn't. I just threw something out and she found a way to give it meaning and significance. (Another example of subjective validation occurred in a follow-up e-mail the friend sent me. She wrote:

For most of the questions, I answered only with a yes or no and gave no additional information. Another thing they told me was that my house was in a circle with a stairs in the middle as if it were two houses. This was very interesting to me because my house was at one time used as a duplex for two families, but nobody knows this except me, and my answer to them was only a yes for that too.

I responded: You have provided another example of subjective validation. They saw a house in a circle with stairs in the middle as if it were two houses. They didn't see a duplex, most of which aren't circular and don't have stairs. If you had lived on a cul-de-sac, or had a semi-circular driveway, or your neighbor had one, or you had a staircase that divided the front from the back of the house, you might have also given them credit for knowing something about you. The validation encourages you to think they're on to something and it encourages the (honest) reader to believe that he or she is actually getting messages paranormally.)

So, do the Kropps get psychic messages? I doubt it, but I can't prove that they don't. Can people appear to be psychic to themselves and others without using trickery? Yes, without a doubt.

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Last updated 12/09/10

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