So you want to be a psychic. You want to make tons of money, preying on desperate, gullible people. Let's assume you don't actually have psychic powers — or else, you already know that you don't need to read this article. For the rest of us, pretending to have clairvoyant abilities is a whole complicated art form.
Learn some tricks from the masters, including history's great charlatans — and find out what common traps to avoid. In no time, you'll be seeing the fake future, and people will be eating out of your hand.
Top image: Caren Parmelee/Flickr.
One of the best things about going into business as a psychic is, the title acts as a filtering system for you. Few people who don't already believe in psychics are going to plunk down money for psychic services, unless they're writing scathingly satirical articles to other people who are already convinced you're a fraud. Since these are two self-segregating groups, the lack of overlap is already in your favor.
So here are a few tips to even the odds:
Rumor has it, a psychic performed seances in the White House for President Lincoln and his wife. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters lecture tirelessly about rational thought, got into spiritualism in his late forties.
The end of World War I coincided with a resurgence of mediums practicing the then-old-fashioned art of communicating with the dead through a series of knocks, all of which were generally produced by the medium herself under the table. There's a reason behind all of these people's interest in contacting the great beyond.
The seances in the White House were meant to contact Willie Lincoln, a child the Lincolns lost during the Civil War. Doyle turned to the practice, after the death of his wife and son. And the mothers of the Great War brought the mediums in in droves after losing their loved ones. The knocking craze first kicked in after the Civil War, and reached its peak in the late 1800s. The women were going back to the psychic traditions of their youth the way people today might turn to Ouija boards or Tarot cards.
That's how you launch a psychic business in the first place: Go where there's a need. This sort of grief not only drives people to psychics, but also provides clues to get the ball rolling.
Movies and pop-culture have already planted the idea that an object belonging to the deceased has the ability to jumpstart psychic visions, so people will wear it or bring it to an appointment. Even people who aren't influenced by Hollywood will often wear jewelry that belonged to a loved one. To start out, search for the unusual element in a person's outfit, and focus on it. It's almost always something that belonged to a significant person, was worn to events with that person, or was bought as a remembrance of that person. It creates an all-important "in" for a psychic, a calculated gamble that can look startlingly intuitive, and a way to get the person talking.
There are a lot of important techniques in cold reading, and they each have their own names.
Shotgun statements are things like, "A female relative of yours has had a brush with breast cancer; it could be an aunt, a mother, a sister, or a grandmother." These statements are made while watching the person for any visible reaction, taking wider and wider shots until they sit up.
Rainbow statements carry the entire range of the behavior spectrum: "You try to be a hard worker, but if you admit it to yourself, you often delay work longer than you should, and sometimes you can even be very lazy." By the end of the statement. anyone in the world could identify with it.
Trivia statistics use the common ground that everyone shares, to come up with things that feel personal to the onlooker. "You have an item of clothing at home. It was expensive, but you've never worn it once. Why is that?" Another example is to ask people if they've played a musical instrument when they were younger, if they ever tried to go vegetarian, and so on.
Vanishing negatives are an ever-popular technique. "You don't happen to work with computers, do you?" This phrasing can allow a psychic to nod their head and either say, "I thought not," or "I thought so," no matter what a person answers.
The reason vanishing negative statements are so important is, they mimic the style of the entire exchange. They give the psychic the ability to shift from subject to subject, building the momentum of the conversation.
"Do you know an Emily? A mother, a sister, a friend."
"No, I don't."
"You will. When you meet her, you'll probably need to set aside the fact that you usually tend to be stand-offish to people you meet. At times, I think, you can be very outgoing, but most of the time you hold back more than you should, am I right?"
"Yes, that's me."
"When you meet Emily, I think you should mention that box of old clothes that you haven't gotten a chance to give to Goodwill yet. I'm sensing that you have one of those. Or maybe it's old electronics equipment. You don't happen to have a lot of that, do you?"
"Yeah, I do."
"I thought so. You'll meet an Emily before you donate that stuff, and you will want to mention it to her. She'll probably know a place."
Cold reading is about shifting and shifting until there is some common ground to get to. From there it's easy to spin out a narrative that feels specific to the person, especially if they're cooperating.
You'll be most in need of cooperation when you're cold-reading. And putting on pressure can help elicit that cooperation from your subjects. A lot of people marvel at the way psychics manage to charge hundreds of dollars an hour for a session, and people come away from saying these sessions were totally worth the money. The same goes for psychics who work a crowd of people, instead of hooking people one by one. Both situations seem to put pressure on the psychic to deliver. They do — but they also put pressure on the person being read.
So you gave some fortune teller on a sidewalk five bucks and they did a silly routine, and you mocked her by giving wrong answers, and the whole thing was a farce. It was a laugh, right? It was worth it for the entertainment. Now picture setting down two hundred dollars for a session with a world-renowned psychic. If this goes badly, it won't be a funny story. It'll be a loss of hundreds of dollars.
Now you're in a crowd at an auditorium and the psychic's on stage and there are people all around you. In the past hour you've seen several readings, and you've seen one person who kept saying that the people, places, and events that the psychic was describing had no relation to her life. The psychic concluded that the vision had to be for someone else — found that person and they had a compelling reading. The first person sat back down and had to watch the show for the rest of the night. Which person do you want to be: the person who prompted a vision, or the person who had foolishly thought that they might prompt a vision?
Readings work best when they're presented as a mystery that the person and the psychic have to solve together. The pressure adds to the need to help solve this mystery, which in turn encourages the people being read to be very forthcoming, and willing to believe in the truth of the vision in the first place.
Crowded, ticketed events provide the final way to prove psychic abilities: flat-out cheating. A disgraced faith-healer would get people to fill out prayer cards before coming to his events, had his wife feeding him the information by radio, and then simply act like he was able to divine their afflictions when they were in the crowd. Before that, healers would have ushers or plain-clothes associates outside events, engaging the people in line in conversation — and then rushing the information to the healer.
Now, with online ticket purchases, it's even easier. A healer can find out who is in each seat and what their history is the moment they buy their ticket. A psychic in Ireland actually got in a bit of hot water when a window at the back of the theater opened and people heard her being fed her lines when she was on stage. The story from both the psychic and the venue owner was that the audience simply misheard the lighting crew talking to each other.
Whatever the scam, the thing most people need to make it work is in the mind of the person being read. It's not stupidity. It's cooperation. The same thing that gets you through a conversation with regular people also helps to build up a plausible psychic vision. A person has to be willing to volunteer information about themselves, to make empathetic leaps in order to identify with certain broad facts, and to quietly brush past points of contention in order to build on common ground. What, after all, is the function of conversation other than to help people get to know each other better, and make intuitive leaps about each other's life and experiences? When it works well, we get to know people without even realizing it — by magic. The only difference between that and psychic scams is that the scam is designed to draw people's attention to the magic, and not to the conversation.