A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Review of Three Powerful Books on Persuasion


The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold
by Robert Levine
(John Wiley & Sons 2003)




Don't Get Taken! - Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself
by Robert A. Steiner
(Wide-Awake Books 1989)





The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading (third edition)
by Ian Rowland
(Ian Rowland Limited 2002)





[Note: all numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers of the book or article under discussion at that point.]

These books could save some readers lots of money, grief, and time.  I look at them as books on self-defense and liberation. They teach invaluable lessons about the manipulative techniques of salespersons, motivators, political and religious leaders, cult recruiters, phony psychics and healers, and the many frauds who are trying to pick our pockets while promising to empower us.

Robert Levine's The Power of Persuasion explains how people persuade other people to do or believe just about anything, from buying Tupperware to joining a cult. Levine is a social psychologist who, along with some of his students, went undercover to detail the methods used by sales people, cult recruiters, and mentalists. Their field research brings to life a number of theories about manipulation.

One lesson I learned from Levine is that if a good-looking, sharp-dressing doctor who exudes great self-confidence and drives a fancy car offers me a ride while making direct eye contact, I shouldn't get in. (I should turn off the television or stop daydreaming.)

According to Levine, "it seems that most [persuaders] are reading from the same manual" (3). The most important factor in most persuasion isn't the message, but the person doing the persuading and how he or she presents the message. "Research shows that three characteristics are related to persuasiveness: perceived authority, honesty, and likeability" (31). Research also shows that Americans identify authority not only with titles, but also with clothes and luxury cars (31). Furthermore, if a person is physically attractive, we tend to like that person and the more we like a person the more we tend to trust him or her (57). Research also show that "people are perceived as more credible when they make eye contact and speak with confidence, no matter what they have to say" (33). As I was reading this I had visions of Deepak Chopra in his Jaguar.

While the persuaders may have much in common, the same is not true about us, the persuaded. There is no trait or set of traits by which the persuaded can be identified. Levine reinforces Bob Steiner's message: anybody can get taken, even you. Research has failed to find a common thread even among people who join cults. According to Levine, "studies have uncovered surprisingly little commonality in the type of personality that joins cults: there's no single cult-prone personality type" (144). This fact surprised Levine. When he began his investigation of cults he "shared the common stereotype that most joiners were psychological misfits or religious fanatics" (81). What he found instead was that many cult members are attracted to what appears to be a loving community. "One of the ironies of cults," says Levine, "is that the craziest groups are often composed of the most caring people." He calls one of their tactics the "love bomb" and has a nice story about an anthropologist who did a weekend retreat with the Moonies and came away wondering what it was that was supposed to be so bad about them (84 ff). Levine devotes an entire chapter to the Jonestown cult and has this to say about Jim Jones: He was "a supersalesman who exerted most every rule of persuasion in this book" (213). He had authority, honesty (remember, perception is reality in the art of persuasion), and likeability.

Levine's book is about much more than just cults. He discusses the psychology of persuasion based on the triad of the source, the target, and the context. What characteristics does the source have? What is the mind-set of the target person? What is the psychological context within which the communication occurs?

One common factor in the context is self-deception. Most of us have an illusion of invulnerability (the subject of chapter one). We think we're at less risk for being duped than others. We also tend to think that other people who are suckered lack character. But if it is ourselves who are suckered we blame it on the situation.

He calls the creation of context "the art form of persuasion professionals." Advertising, for example, is all about background. "More attention is paid to context than to the product." "There's an old Madison Avenue axiom that every ad should include at least one dog, child, or sexy person" (92).

Part of the book is devoted to cultural hot buttons. For example, some cultures encourage individuality and independence, others have collectivist values. Thus, in some cultures "showing a person alone implies that he has no identity and no friends, that he doesn't belong." Also,

...in some Far Eastern cultures--China and Japan, most prominently--the idea of contentiously challenging someone in public is considered rude and unacceptable. In these cultures, where the predominant goal of social behavior is to maintain the appearance of harmony, to scrutinize another person's ideas is to criticized the character of the person voicing it. One way traditional Chinese and Japanese cultures have preserved harmony is by encouraging the belief that there's truth to any argument, even opposing arguments" (231).

This has promoted a "tradition of moderation and tolerance in daily life" in those cultures, according to Levine.

The chapter I found most interesting was "The Contrast Principle" (ch. 4), where Levine discusses "framing" and "anchor points."  The contrast principle "relies on the fact that human minds magnify differences: when two relatively similar stimuli are placed next to each other, they'll be perceived as more different from each other than they actually are." Your anchor point is a focus of expectation and a reference point. It is "remarkably malleable."

I could relate Levine's message to my own experience. When I was looking for a digital camera, I compared prices and features of several brands and models. I had a price range in mind based on what my daughter had spent on her digital camera. She does a lot more photography than I do and is more digitally literate so I guess it should not have surprised me that I ended up buying the same make and model that she had. When about two months later I saw the same camera for sale for about two hundred dollars less than what I had paid, the camera didn't seem like such a good deal anymore. When my daughter upgraded to another model with better features for less than what I had paid for my camera, it became even less attractive.

"Because our anchor points are so readily manipulable, they're often easier to change than the product itself" (100).

To drive home his point about anchor points, Levine poses a little quiz. "Benjamin Harper is best described as a meek, unassertive person. He's either a salesman or a librarian. Which one do you think he is?" Most people answer "librarian" and think the probability is about 90%. Why? Because that answer fits their stereotype of a librarian. "The logic sounds sensible," says Levine. "But it's completely wrong." The problem is your anchor or base rate. The ratio of male salesman to male librarians is about 100 to 1. Levine says "there's only a 1 percent chance he'd be a librarian."  Even though most people wouldn't know what the ratio of salesmen to male librarians is, most of us should be able to reflect ever so slightly and conclude that there are many more males who are salesmen than librarians and that some salesmen are meek and unassertive. And while we wouldn't expect one to know the percentage of meek salesmen, we would expect them to realize that such people would be a small minority. Thus, if you weren't told anything more about Harper than his sex, you should guess that he's most likely a salesman. The personality data provide evidence against this hypothesis, but they don't seem to outweigh the gender data. We often have to make decisions based on incomplete and inadequate data. This little exercise should teach us that it can be helpful to separate the data in order to evaluate it (change the anchor points or frame of reference).

Another interesting topic Levine addresses is the law of reciprocity (there is no free lunch), which he calls "the moral memory of humankind" (66). "When someone does something for us or gives us something, we feel obligated to do something for that person in return" (65). We've all received a pack of greeting cards from some charitable organization. No obligation. You can keep the cards, even if you don't buy any. Or, come on up and get your free microwave. No obligation. Just let us tell you about our time-share program. The Japanese practice of giri takes this law to the extreme.

One question I was hoping Levine would answer is "how can hundreds, thousands, even millions of people be persuaded to believe in delusions." Chapter 7 on gradually escalating the commitments explains this as well as anything. You would not eat a Big Mac and fries and wash it down with a chocolate shake or giant cola if within minutes you gained 100 pounds. But many people will eat such meals over a 10- or 20-year period and gain 100 pounds. Why? Because it happens gradually. Nobody would smoke a cigarette if lung cancer or emphysema resulted as quickly as, say, the effects of radiation like that at ground zero in Chernobyl. Likewise, nobody would join a cult if the pitch were: "Here. Drink this poisoned Kool-Aid and commit suicide." Many beliefs and behaviors have developed slowly, over long periods of time, in increments that, taken separately, don't seem outrageous or absurd. Can another Hitler arise? Of course. Another Holocaust? Without a doubt.

I watched the CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil" and shook my head at the end when I had the thought that one very persuasive psychotic paranoid was responsible for the deaths of nearly 50 million people. Had Hitler in Mein Kampf called for concentration camps, human experimentation, poison gas ovens, and incineration to exterminate the Jews and homosexuals and Catholics, etc., how many people would have followed him? It took several years of escalating the violence against the Jews to get from traditional, barnyard variety anti-Semitism to the Final Solution.

I also wanted Levine to explain why it is so easy to persuade some people to continue believing in a delusion after it's been exposed. Why is it that, for some people, nothing succeeds like failure? For example, Levine describes Marian Keech's UFO cult of the 1950s. She claimed to get messages from extraterrestrials known as The Guardians. Like the Heaven's Gate folks, Keech and her followers, known as The Seekers or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, were waiting to be picked up by flying saucers just before the earth was to be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. When it became evident that the Guardians weren't stopping by to pick them up, Keech

became elated. She said she'd just received a telepathic message from the Guardians saying that her group of believers had spread so much light with their unflagging faith that God had spared the world from the cataclysm (206).

The Seekers didn't abandon her. They became more devoted after the failed prophecy. "Most disciples not only stayed but, having made that decision, were now even more convinced than before that Keech had been right all along....Being wrong turned them into true believers." Levine's explanation: "Cognitive dissonance is the mind controller's best friend"(202). People will go to bizarre lengths to avoid inconsistency between their cherished beliefs and the facts.

But I still don't understand why some people would rather change the facts than their beliefs. Furthermore, if this kind of aberrant thinking is common, then it is pointless to produce evidence in the course of trying to persuade some people of the error of their ways. Some people will always be clever enough to come up with an ad hoc hypothesis to save their cherished notions.

In addition to explaining various ways to manipulate and control others, Levine offers some advice on how to build up one's defenses against professional manipulators. For example, he describes one exercise where students go through an experience of meeting a persuasive professional in real time. Later, they analyze the tactics used against them and consider what they might say if they had it to do over again. The exercise strengthens resistance. He also notes that getting direct and unambiguous feedback when we've done something wrong teaches a powerful lesson.

I could go on, but I think I'll stop and just recommend that you read this book if you are at all interested in how to persuade others and reduce your own chances of being manipulated. Maybe you're in sales and want to improve your chances of success. This book will tell you how. It will tell you what works and what doesn't, and it will tell you why. This book could even be your start toward a new career in consumer or retail anthropology.

*   *   *

Part I of Bob Steiner's Don't Get Taken is entitled "You Can Be Taken." That is a message that reverberates throughout Levine's book as well. No matter who we are or how smart we think we are, we are vulnerable to the snares of the con man. Why? It's not because we're greedy or stupid. It's because we are trusting. It behooves us to discover why we trust certain people and not others. Even more advantageous would be to figure out what qualities correlate significantly in real life with being trustworthy. Then we should ask: are those the same qualities we use to determine whom to trust?

We trust people we think are sincere and being sincere is certainly a quality of trustworthy people. So it would serve us well to determine whether people who are trying to persuade us to believe or do something are really sincere. However, as Bob Steiner points out, if what the person is selling is nonsense, it doesn't matter that she's sincere.

If you consult an astrologer to make life decisions, you are giving up control over your own life. You are living your life based upon mystical nonsense. That is true whether the practicing astrologer whom you consult is a fraud or a sincere true believer (6).

One other common feature Levine's and Steiner's books share is a concern for dispelling myths about persuaders. Our stereotypes of salesmen, cult recruiters, and con artists are, for the most part, wrong.

Bob Steiner's Don't Get Taken is a how-to manual in how to protect yourself from cons and scams. Bob is an accountant by profession and a magician/mentalist by avocation. As I said, he begins with the warning that anybody can be taken, including you. If you fail to learn lesson number one, don't bother reading the rest of the book. Bob doesn't just explain in the abstract why psychics and astrology are bad investments; he demonstrates it firsthand. In his mentalist performances, he plays the role of a psychic. He is very convincing in this role and in 1984 hoaxed the Australian continent as psychic Steve Terbot. (You can read about it in chapter 3.) After Bob convinces you he is psychic, he then reveals the truth: he is not psychic and he uses cold reading techniques to do what he does. Don't Get Taken has the short version of how he practices cold reading. For the longer version, see his article on the subject in The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience.

Cold reading is the name given to a set of techniques used by psychics, astrologers, palm readers, numerologists, "or any of numerous other mystical practitioners of nonsense" (21). The reader "starts cold, with no information" about his or her client.

The reader begins with generalities which are applicable to large segments of the population. He or she pays careful attention to reactions: words, body language, skin color, breathing patterns, dilation or contraction of the pupils of the eye, and more. The subject of the reading will usually convey important information to the reader: sometimes in words, and sometimes in bodily reactions to the reading.

From observation, the reader will feed back to the subject what the latter wants to hear. That is the overwhelming guiding principle of the mystics: Tell 'em what they want to hear. That will keep them coming back for more (ibid.).

In fact, from what I have seen of cold readings the reader can say just about anything, general or specific, applicable to large or small segments of the population, and many subjects will find some way to give it meaning by connecting it to someone or something in their lives. It may not be apparent to the client during the reading but many who have viewed tapes after their sessions are able to see that what they attribute to the psychic power of the reader is actually due to the ability to provide connections by the client himself.

In addition to cold reading, Steiner explains that psychics are often quite sensitive and perceptive people. They pick up on subtle clues. This surprises most people and leads many of them to attribute this sensitivity to being psychic. Thus, the sensitive, perceptive person gets a lot of feedback from others about their psychic abilities. "Hearing that enough, the person begins to believe that he or she is indeed psychic" (29).

Steiner doesn't think most psychics are frauds. He thinks the majority are sincere but wrong, and that none of them truly help the police solve crimes, despite what the media and the public might think. In fact, both the media and the public provide the same kind of after-the-fact finding of meaning that dominates cold readings when they give psychics credit for assisting the police. The alleged psychic detective supposedly helps the police locate the body of a murder victim. The psychic senses the body will be found near running water and, shock of shocks, the body is found by the edge of a river. Steiner was once in Iowa where this happened. His question?  "Where in Iowa do people live that is not near running water?"

After the psychics, Steiner takes on the astrologers. He considers astrology to be a pseudoscience. But he also argues that it is a form of bigotry because it prejudges people. (The same can be claimed for personality tests.) He has a hilarious chapter entitled "Hitler was an Aries."

If you think The Skeptic's Dictionary could ever provide a complete inventory of all the nonsense that people have used to guide them through life, Steiner's chapter on the blood readers (chapter 8) will end that thought. The theory is based on a Japanese book translated as You Are Your Blood Type. It is a deliciously funny story and I won't spoil it for you: Get Steiner's book and read it for yourself. (You already know the main plot. Substitute blood type for sun sign, palm lines, forehead furrows, foot shape, birth date, facial features, bumps on the head, etc.)

In a single chapter, Steiner takes on the Ouija board, tarot cards, remote viewing, reincarnation, alchemy, channeling, dowsing, biorhythms, the Bermuda triangle, Edgar Cayce, and Nostradamus. He relates these items to personal experiences in interesting and amusing ways. His style is easy, entertaining, and enlightening. Plus, he has the added virtues of parsimony and succinctness, unlike the author of this review who is repeatedly redundant.

Part III could save you a lot of money. It's about various cons, swindles, and scams, including pyramid schemes and the three-card monte. Part IV is called "the cruelest scams." Here Steiner assails psychic surgery, faith healers, and those who claim to communicate with the dead. He writes of the latter

It is unconscionable that these bunco artists prey on bereavement, love, superstition, and human emotions to rob the bereaved of not only their money, but of the opportunity to come to terms with reality. By perpetrating the illusion that their customers can actually communicate with dead love ones, the crime of fraud takes place in one of its most hateful settings.

There is no reliable evidence---NONE, not the slightest shred--that living humans can communicate with the dead (150).

If we learn nothing else from Steiner's book, we should at least be mindful that most people who sell bunkum (nonsense) are sincere. Their sincerity, we learn from Levine, is in large part the source of their power as persuaders. Nobody hammers home this lesson more forcefully than Ian Rowland.

*   *   *

Ian Rowland's The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading gives much advice on how to do a cold reading. He disagrees with many who have written on the subject. He doesn't think body language is important, for example. Nor does he think one needs to be a Sherlock Holmes to do a good cold reading. And, while many may think the cold reader spends most of his or her time fishing for clues, Rowland thinks this activity "is simply one small part of the complete explanation" (20). Rowland doesn't think throwing out vague statements or broad generalizations that might apply to almost anybody is very important, either. Like Bob Steiner (and Ray Hyman), Rowland thinks that the people who consult psychics, astrologers, tarot card readers, and the like are not necessarily stupid, credulous, gullible people. Remember: Anybody be taken, even highly intelligent and perceptive people.

Rowland is a professional magician and mentalist. He has been studying cold reading for many years both to improve his act and because he is genuinely interested in the psychology of belief. Like Steiner, when he plays the role of the psychic he lets his audiences know after the show is over that he doesn't really think he has any psychic powers. Many of you may have seen Rowland on ABC's Primetime last Halloween. He performed as a medium who gets messages from the dead loved ones of those in the audience. After the show, he revealed that he didn't have any psychic powers and that he was just employing the art of cold reading. I've written about his performance elsewhere, so I won't go over it in detail here. Rowland considered the performance an experiment. He has applied cold reading skills as an astrologer, tarot card reader, and clairvoyant, but he had never before pretended to get messages from the dead. In thirty minutes he made a connection with the dead for seven of the twenty people present.

After the session, he revealed that when he throws out a name, such as "Michael" or "Karen," he has not chosen these names willy-nilly. He has memorized the 18 most popular male and female names in North America over the past 45 years or so. He revealed that throwing out a name like "Michael" is a "Russian doll statement." It has lots of layers. Someone in the audience will be named Michael, or have a deceased loved one by that name, or have a friend by that name, or know a friend of a deceased person with the name, etc. ("Karen," for example, was the name of a volunteer's cousin's granddaughter. When Rowland asked about somebody moving, she identified her sister as moving.) He also revealed that when he says he is getting a message about a certain area of the body where an ailment is to be located, he is using his knowledge of the main areas (chest, stomach, head) where serious ailments usually occur. He noted that he does not worry too much if he doesn't get any bites on his first pitch. He'll just move on to another and eventually people will focus on the hits and ignore the misses. He occasionally asks about something very specific, such as an outdated calendar, and often these resonate deeply with people. The mention of the out-of-date calendar brought tears to the eyes of one woman. Rowland revealed that  this was just one of a list of things he has memorized that are likely to click with many people. Other things on the list include boxes of photos and appliances that don't work but haven't been discarded. He explained that he asks lots of questions, gets into a meaningful dialogue, maintains control, sets the pace and the agenda. He gives the client "scope for interpretation" and lets her make the plausible connections. He just gives her material to deal with. She connects the dots and supplies the significance.

Rowland defines cold reading as "a deceptive psychological strategy" (14) and notes that it is "not one single technique, nor one single procedure." Before even discussing the details of the various techniques a cold reader can apply, Rowland emphasizes the importance of the interpersonal communication that occurs before the reading begins and while the reading is going on. Simply put, you want the client to like you. As Levine noted, likeability is one of the most important characteristics of the successful persuader. According to Rowland, you must also convince the client of your sincerity and honesty--again, these are well-established as essential to the power of persuasion. Rowland advises letting the client know up front that tarot, astrology, etc., are not exact sciences and that much has to be interpreted. Let the client feel that her cooperation is essential to the success of the enterprise. Also, you should make the client aware of your impressive credentials (establish your authority) and let the client know how sincere you are about your field by letting her know how it has helped many people over the years or centuries. Rowland also emphasizes the importance of establishing an intimate atmosphere and setting the client at ease. This can get very personal. Rowland uses a soft voice, makes direct eye contact, appears to be sympathetic, isn't confrontational, and tries to be charming and welcoming.

Rowland calls this process of establishing yourself as likeable, trustworthy, and authoritative "the set up." He then goes over a list of principal themes used by the cold reader. The major themes are love, money, career, and health. The minor themes are travel, education, and ambitions. "These are the themes which experience has shown are most important to most clients most of the time" (30).

Once the essentials for persuasion are established, it is apparent that it does not take much to explain how cold reading works. It seems that there is only one thing that is absolutely essential for a successful cold reading: The client must find significance in your comments, questions, words, visions, and so on. For example, if I am playing the role of an astrologer, graphologist, palm reader, tarot card reader, personality profiler, fortune teller,  medium who gets messages from the dead, or any other similar role and I say something like "Michael is very significant," whether anyone will consider this ruse as a sign of anything will depend entirely on whether someone will give any significance to it, such as "Michael was my father's name. He passed on last summer." If I throw out a string of concepts and names--Michael, father, masculine, football, chest pain, unfinished business, and so on, the success of my reading depends entirely on someone finding a significant connection between some of these items. (Obviously, I'm not going to do very well if I throw out these words in such crude fashion. But if I sprinkle them in a bit of carefully chosen narrative, I know that many clients will be willing and able to connect these bits of data into something meaningful to them.) When I'm done and clients wonder how I knew all these things about them, I can say I don't really know anything about them. What I know is that given the willingness of many people to play the role of client or "sitter," I can count on them to do two things: (1) connect bits of data and find significance in them and (2) credit me with knowing things I don't know.

Cold reading cries out for the kind of socio-cognitive analysis done by Nicholas Spanos and other psychologists on hypnosis and multiple-personality disorder. There is a social context in which the cold reader works and this context entails certain expectations from both the client or sitter and the cold reader (the medium, astrologer, or the like). Just as hypnosis can't work on someone who thinks it is mostly a matter of role-playing, so cold reading can't work on someone who will not play the game, that is, will not connect the data to find something personally significant in it. Rowland (65) gives a telling example of the essence of cold reading in explaining "the Push Statement" (statements designed to be rejected by the client at first). He was demonstrating cold reading in a TV production meeting  and used "the shoe and the party" push statement (a narrative about an impression involving a shoe and a party) and the name "Charles." Nobody in the meeting could connect the name with the shoe or the party. Ten minutes after the meeting ended, a young woman very excitedly told him that she now remembers a party from her teen years at which she broke her shoe while dancing with Charlie! She was very impressed that Rowland had perceived this detail from her past that even she could hardly remember. Of course, Rowland hadn't perceived any such thing, but no matter. The story exemplifies the essence of successful cold reading: This works because our species is hardwired for finding significance and sometimes the brain works overtime in reading more into things than is there. In extreme cases, the brain goes haywire and everything seems significant. Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran thinks that the part of the brain that identifies objects of experience as significant goes haywire in religious experience so that everything from a grain of sand to a spider's web to spindrift blowing on the surface of the ocean become imbued with significance. The same thing seems to happen to some people with temporal lobe epilepsy. (See his Phantoms in the Brain : Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, with Sandra Blakeslee: Quill, 1999.)

I thought of Rowland's book while reading an article on Sylvia Browne's shortcomings as a psychic in Salon.com. That led me led to another article in Salon (June 13, 2002) that raved about the talents of James Van Praagh and John Edward. The author, Laura Laughlin, obviously knows little about cold reading. She incorrectly notes that it involves "talking fast, making safe guesses, and picking up on unwittingly offered clues." Only the last is important, picking up on clues. A good cold reader does not have to talk fast, though some do. Nor do you have to make safe guesses, though you might.

Laughlin attended a Van Praagh performance in Scottsdale, Arizona, where 1,900 people paid $45 each to see the show. She was quite impressed that, after a series of misses, Van Praagh didn't go with the flow when a woman offered him a free psychic "hit" with a question about a Chihuahua. (Note, too, that Van Praagh was not making a safe guess in this instance.)

When one woman stood to ask a question, Van Praagh noted she was surrounded by invisible cats. Cats and animals. Did she have a lot of cats? No. Did she work with a lot of animals? No. Did she work at a veterinarian's office? No. Did she have a friend who was a vet? No. The woman asked, "Do you see a Chihuahua?"

"No," Van Praagh said.

Although he struck out miserably, I gave him points for resisting an easy hit. A "cold reading" psychic might have exclaimed, "No, wait! It is a Chihuahua!"

An amateur cold reader might have bitten on that one, but not a pro. Van Praagh knew he was going nowhere with his cats and animals gambit. Going with the Chihuahua might seem obvious, but a good tactic is to admit your error and move on. As Rowland writes

In this way the psychic cuts her losses and moves on. She leaves the problem behind, where it will be quietly forgotten, and at the same time she comes across as extremely honest (104).

Laughlin summarizes her reasons for believing in the psychic powers of Van Praagh and John Edward (whose performance she saw in Tucson) as follows:

It occurred to me that if Van Praagh and Edward were fakes, their readings would have been more accurate. Each erred several times, sometimes saying their interpretation could be wrong or the person might not yet realize its accuracy. But their hits were so stunning, so personal and specific, that I had to believe in them.

The psychic can't lose. He or she is playing a Win-Win game, according to Rowland (97-104). If you're accurate, I must believe you. If you're inaccurate, I must believe you. For Laughlin, the only way a psychic could lose would be to do a performance with 100% accuracy or 100% inaccuracy. The chance of that happening with professionals like Van Praagh and Edward or with even the most bumbling amateur is about zero. The misses, which are bound to be many in this game, are mostly forgotten. But their presence is taken as a sign of honesty, of the difficulty of the task, of fallibility. The failures support the psychic hypothesis. The hits are remembered and some of them seem inexplicable. How did he know that? And How can you explain that? are common questions that issue from both skeptics and people who find psychics believable. The skeptic, however, knows that there are several possibilities, one of which is that the hit was made possible by psychic power. Without further information, however, the skeptic can no more explain each anecdote of a psychic hit than the true believer can. However, believers tend to put unwarranted confidence in their recollection of the event and in their powers of recall and observation. They don't consider the possibility of anecdote contamination (see Rowland, p. 130). They don't try very hard to find naturalistic explanations for the hits, such as cold reading or hot reading (e.g., the psychic using plants in the audience or using information gained from newspapers, the Internet, or even cards that people sometimes fill out when they attend psychic seminars).

If Laughlin had read Rowland's book she would have identified some of the things she witnessed and writes about in her article, e.g., the Russian doll statement and the eleven ways to turn a miss into something positive (97-104). She would have noted that since most people who attend these shows are there to make contact with the dead that the most common theme would be health and well-being, and that once you've identified the dead person's gender and relationship to the sitter there are some causes of death more likely than others. Once you've gotten the sitter to give you enough information to reasonably infer that her teenage son has died, you do not need to guess wildly at the cause of death. A good cold reader has at his or her disposal a number of what Rowland calls "stat facts," data based on statistics and demographics. You don't guess that a teenager has Alzheimer's or that an elderly man died in a mountain climbing accident, not because those things don't happen but because the odds are against it.

Laughlin should not have been impressed when Van Praagh told a woman her son had died in a car accident and that "he lost control of the car, a window was broken, and mom was asked to donate his organs." Most fatal car accidents will leave windows broken and it is common practice in many places to ask parents of auto-crash victims to donate their child's organs. Did he lose control of the car? It doesn't matter, but it's not a farfetched possibility with a young driver. In any case, the mother is probably sobbing uncontrollably by now so neither she nor the audience will worry about the details. Van Praagh knows that a car accident is a high probability for a young man who has died, but if he had been wrong, he would have just moved on. Rowland keeps reminding us that cold reading is a Win-Win game.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of numerous articles and books on pseudoscience, discovered how easy it is to become a psychic just by reading Rowland's book and applying the techniques explained therein. He describes his experience in an article entitled "Psychic for a Day - Or How I Learned Tarot Cards, Palm Reading, Astrology, and Mediumship in 24 Hours" (Skeptic, Vol. 10 Num. 1, 2003). Notes Shermer

There is much more to the cold reading process than I previously understood before undertaking to read this book carefully with an eye on performing rather than just analyzing (48).

Shermer claims that he did absolutely no preparation (aside from reading Rowland, I assume) for his performance until the day before he met with Bill Nye for the shooting of a thirty-minute segment on psychics and talking to the dead. Even so, he seems to have been pretty successful in his various roles. He followed Rowland's advice on the pre-reading set-up routine and stuck to the major themes, but he used just three of the many techniques described by Rowland: the "Rainbow Ruse," "Fine Flattery," and "Barnum Statements."

The rainbow ruse involves using "a statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite" (for example: "You can give the impression of being very stoical, the strong, silent type, but there are occasions when you appear vulnerable and others might perceive you as being emotional.") Such statements sound perceptive, but are actually very safe, as long as you don't say anything quantifiable and couch your claims "in terms of potential and capacity, rather than actuality and fact."

Fine flattery statements, according to Rowland, "are designed to flatter the client in a subtle way" (33). You don't want to be too blatant (you are so smart, so open-minded, so honest, such a good friend, so wise in the ways of the world) because that is too obviously flattery. He advises comparing the person to others in general.

Barnum statements are "artfully generalised character statements which a majority of people, if asked, will consider to be a reasonably accurate description of themselves, e.g., you have a strong need for people to like and respect you; you are an independent and original thinker; you don't just accept what people tell you to believe (41).

Some techniques seem better suited to certain personalities. For example, the so-called pet psychic, Sonya Fitzpatrick (who claims to get messages from dead animals as well as live ones), is a master of the presentational technique Rowland calls "sensory empathy."

The psychic acts [as] if she can feel the same things the client feels -- the same sensory experiences and the same emotions. If she talks about the client being anxious or upset, she acts as if she can 'feel' the same sort of anxiety and emotional pain. If she talks about the client's recent happiness in connection with romance, she acts as if she 'feels' and 'experiences' some of that inner delight, happiness and joy (110).

Not everybody can play this emotional angle. Maybe Shermer didn't use this approach because it didn't suit his personality. But it didn't matter. With only a few techniques, he could still satisfy his customers. However, when two of his "clients" were told that he wasn't really psychic, they were upset and asked that their readings not be used in the program. Perhaps they felt as if Shermer had made fools of them when they were told the reading wasn't psychic but cold.

There are certainly some ethical issues worth considering when one consciously plays with people's emotions in this way. True, not everybody gets upset when they discover they've been deceived. Some may even be grateful to you for enlightening them and showing them the way to the truth. Some might be happy somebody paid some attention to them. Others, rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the phony reading, rationalize the experience. One fellow in the Primetime experiment said that it didn't matter whether Rowland was using cold reading or was really talking to the other side, the session gave him a sign that it was real and "my hope that it is real will make it real."

It gave him a sign. We might ask, what wouldn't?

further reading

Prepare to Be Shocked! What happens when you actually click on one of those “One Weird Trick” ads? By Alex Kaufman, Slate, Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013.

weird trick ad

Research on persuasion has found:

  • Call something "secret" and people think it's important. (Hint: the secret "they" don't want you to know.) Many will be lured by the tease: "stick around to the end of this long and stupid video and I'll let you in on the secret."
  • Call something "weird" and people think it's interesting.
  • Long, stupid, boring video ads are a way to weed out the skeptics from the suckers. If somebody sticks around to the end, there's a good chance they'll take the bait. If not now, then later. You get their email address or use some other devious way to identify who's biting.
  • People want to believe they don't have to take pills or have surgery, making them uncritical when told of evil Big Pharma wanting to keep them sick with pills or evil Doctors who want to do unnecessary surgery just to make a buck.
  • Ugly (and non-slick) graphics attract the attention of people who are turned off by slick ads. People love stories about the lone wolf bucking the system (or the lone genius who gets no respect). Slick ads might wreck this illusion that some maverick or soccer mom wants to help out the little guy.
  • People want a simple solution with lots of support. The more reasons you give in favor of something, the more people tend to believe it, regardless of the quality or accuracy of those reasons. Long lists of bullet points--even if people don't read them--are impressive and persuasive.
  • I could go on, but what's the point?
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