Testing Psychics

It’s not my style to take ideas from anyone if I can avoid it but sometimes I run into article I like so much that I just have to share. Today that article happens to be  Testing Psychics by Derren Brown, a thoughtful and well-written reminder of why testing psychics is so important.  He makes some very important points:

  • Testing separates the genuine from the frauds: Assuming of course any of them actually are genuine this would be very important indeed. Wouldn’t any genuine psychic want to prove their abilities and not be associated with the morally vacant fraudsters praying on people in an emotionally vulnerable state?
  • It would show the world once and for all: It would get skeptics off their backs and open doors to exploring why the phenomenon works.
  • Skeptics aren’t being evil: We are not being cynical or narrow minded just inquisitive.

Brown also talks about how the methods of the fraudsters are not widely enough known. They are the same techniques used by magicians for cold readings. In the interest of education here are the most common ones:

The Barnum effect

Also called the Forer effect, this takes advantage of people’s willingness to make a connection between what is being said by the psychic and their own lives. For example:

Psychic “I sense trouble at work?”

Psychic’s Victim: “oh wow how do you know my boss wants me to work too many hours?”

Who doesn’t have trouble at work? It would be easy to site examples of this all day like: “Death in the family” or “Major Illness”, even one word statements like “money” or wife” could trigger this effect.


This is the technique of offering a lot of vague information all at once and watching for reactions from the listener. The more people listening the more likely to see a response of some kind from a listener (i.e. changes in body language or breathing…etc). Once a response is made the psychic can narrow the field and make a reading that seems to be accurate.


This involves making a guess based on observations of the person such as age, gender, what they are wearing…etc. For example a senior citizen is likely to have had a friend or family member that passed away recently. The ‘psychic’ can suggest something like “I see a person, possibly a relative that died recently”. They can judge if they are doing it right by the person’s reactions, even if very subtle. The technique involves using statistical averages to make a reading seem more correct. The psychic could say “I sense they died of heart failure” When that’s how you die, your heart stops beating. The Barnum effect kicks in and makes this seem even more accurate than it is.

Rainbow Reading

This technique involves taking advantage of how a person will naturally affiliate positive readings with themselves. The ‘psychic’ will say things like ‘You are very easy-going but don’t let people take advantage of you’ or ‘you are very brave’ or other compliments and the psychic’s victim will automatically associate these ‘readings’ with themselves.

Throw in some charisma and clever marketing and an unscrupulous psychic can make quite a fraudulent career using these and other similar techniques.

Share this and other articles such as the one at Wikipedia the more people know about this the less these morally vacant fraudsters can take advantage of people in emotionally vulnerable states. James Randi’s TED talk on the subject is also very good.


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