Ask the (Former) Professional "Psychic"

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, and what tipped me was I figured maybe some Dopers who are holding out hope when it comes to psychic crap will be influenced for the better.

For a few years, I was a professional ‘psychic’. I started off working on 900 lines, and reading Tarot cards in parks in the city. Then I found some clients in a large, credulous family who hired me to read cards at a party, and they referred to me to others, and I started making decent money. I branched out into any kind of nonsense people could dream up, basically – I even got hired to cure a haunted house. Then I quit, because it was all too disgusting and wrong. (I went on to later do phone sex, which was also disgusting, but at least more ethical).

I have a natural talent for cold reading which, as a child, I mistook for some vague sort of psychic power. Long, long before I started this work, however, I’d figured out the truth. At no time during my career as a charlatan did I have any delusions that I was actually doing anything supernatural. I did go back and forth on convincing myself that I wasn’t hurting anybody, and was in fact helping some people feel better. Science could never convince them there was no ghost in the house, but I could put on a little show and they would sleep better at night.

But I know now that’s bullshit, and that con artists who feed on the natural tendency of human beings to believe in wonders and miracles are the lowest of the low. I’m now a dedicated crusader for skepticism, and I try to use my experience in discussing these issues with believers.

So, anyway, way too long. I don’t know if anyone will care to ask questions, but if so, here I am.

just what sort of information can you pick up cold reading? Would that talent eg give you an edge in becoming a successful live poker player?

Did you get the sense that most of your clients really believed your schtick? I ask because I have gotten my Tarot cards read, and my palm read, and my handwriting analyzed, etc. etc. but never believed a single word I was told. I just did it for fun and to see what the experience would be like. Hell, I now own a Tarot deck and have been learning how to read it (for myself only), but again, only for the entertainment value and for how it can enable me to think of a given situation in a new light.

Do you have a pretty good ability to “read” people? (Is that what you meant by “cold reading”?)

Not exactly a question, but could you talk more about your “natural talent for cold reading,” and why you ever saw it as something supernatural.

Perhaps if you could also talk a little bit about your usual methodology, that would both be interesting and educational if there are any particularly credulous people in the audience.

Oooh - I just thought of a question: Did you ever have someone intentionally feed you false information? How did you respond? As a skeptic and a right bastard, I’ve often fantasized about giving false cues to a cold reader, letting them run with it for a while, and then going, “Wait a minute! What was I thinking? I don’t have an Uncle Roger. I have an Aunt Mabel. She’s not a primatologist, she’s a floral arranger. Oh, yeah - and she’s not dead!”

Other than that, I’ll wait for your “ask the former phone sex worker thread.” I’ve got a lot of questions for that one. A lot of hot, hot questions. Like, “What are you wearing right now?”

RE: Job #1

What am I wearing?

RE: Job #2

What are you wearing?

And a genuine question–what made you decide to start doing tarot reading in the first place?

Cold reading isn’t just looking at a person, but has to do with how you talk to them, and get them to tell you things without knowing it. That said, the base of it is formed in impressions of their body language, clothing, speech patterns, and so on – all these things are signals. Everyone reads them, to a greater or lesser degree. You can probably tell by how someone is dressed that they are wealthy, even if their attire is not ostentatious. I could probably tell the same thing if they were buttass naked but otherwise behaving normally. Lots of people could, if they bother to think about it, to be mentally organized about it. I think one thing everybody I’ve met in the various confidence professions agrees on is that people aren’t complicated. What you see is pretty much what you get, so it’s just a matter of understanding what you see.

This is also true in poker, which I have in fact also tried. Unfortunately, poker is a much riskier game, and my nerves are bad; I tend to get the shakes when I get a good hand, which it doesn’t take cold reading to figure out is a signal. :wink:

Anyway, the set of signals that a poker player is reading for are different, but the principle is similar. However, like psychic charlatanism, that basic principle is worthless without a lot of other information/ability. If I couldn’t charm people into letting me into their houses and giving me money, my ability to tell what they’re worried about would be sort of useless.

(Emphasis mine)
I assume you are speaking of your former self here. Since you admit guilt in fleecing these folks of their money, what attempts at restitution have you made?

I think that it was proven conclusively in this thread that not ALL psychics are phonies… :smiley:

Interesting thread, Ensign. Thanks.

My question is did you work or interact much with other psychics and if you did, do they tend to keep up the pretense amongst themselves or is there any acknowledgement (when it’s just “us psychics” in the room) that they all know it’s just a scam and that the clients are marks?

I’m sure there must be some who manage to convince themselves that they actually have some kind of genuine ability but as a rule do psychics stay in character and maintain the act amongts themselves or do they ever drop it and acknowledge what’s going on?

When I was a kid, I discovered that I could impress people by telling them things about themselves. I was always observant and bright enough to tie my own shoes without putting out an eye, which helped. But mostly, I was an avid reader of books meant for adults from a very young age, and I socialized almost entirely with adults. What I didn’t realize was that this gave me a decent working knowledge of basic human nature that you wouldn’t expect to find in, say, a nine year old. It did not give me the experience and intelligence to recognize that my ‘ability’ was just an illusion. More reading eventually cured that. :wink:

I found out that it’s very, very common for people to make invisible mistakes in how they think, and that a person can actually learn how to be a better, clearer thinker. Most people are credulous because as human beings we have a complicated pattern-matching system in our heads, and in order for it to be sensitive enough for us to reason at the level we do, it has to be so sensitive it picks up a lot of false hits.

So basically, cold reading exploits two or three basic human traits. People think they are special and different from everyone else, so they don’t realize that ‘You’re worried about your husband cheating on you’ is not an earth-shatteringly precise statement. They tend to personalize statements that in reality are vague and/or broadly applicable. They are amazed that someone could understand them so well, when all it takes is a not-even-particularly-keen knowledge of human nature.

People also forget things, a lot of things, huge amounts of things; they forget half of what they’ve said and done in the last hour, or can be persuaded to, if the conversation is kept brisk and interesting. Misdirection, verbally, is a big part of the methodology. People would give me a name, and then later credit me with having plucked it out of thin air. The power of the belief system is so strong. The machine gets started in our heads, and it just won’t quit. It runs over everything else. People stop error-checking. They don’t pause and go ‘Wait, didn’t I tell him that name a couple days ago?’ They’re not thinking like that anymore, inside the machine. They’re really, I’m sad to say, not thinking at all.

So all you have to do is lead them around by their noses, and they follow. You’ll be wrong a lot, but it won’t matter. They really do all the work for you. They’re so locked into belief that they will happily discard all your misses from their personal reality. And of course they like you and want you to like them, or else you’re not long for the profession; this always makes people vulnerable, in any situation. The psychic creates an environment and a relationship which suggests to the client that they are equals, friends, specially connected. It blinds the client to the fact that the psychic is actually the one with all the power in the situation. Gradually, build up that trust, and they will turn over more and more control. People become pliant when they think you are powerful and will do things to help them because you really care about them.

It makes me kind of sick now, thinking about how I exploited that tendency, and I didn’t really hurt anyone financially or personally like the big dogs of the psychic charlatan world do. But that was an area where I did dupe myself, because I refused to see how it was wrong.

Hah. I never encountered this, but I would have just copped to it, honestly, if someone caught me or called me out, unless it was in a situation where doing so would have caused trouble for me, like during a party. There’s a standard set of bullshit for dealign with that stuff, though; negativity and trickery make the magic break, or whatever.

Well, boxers, for one thing. You all can make with the sexy flirty phone sex jokes, I don’t mind, but I hope you like guys, because my girl voice isn’t very convincing. :stuck_out_tongue:

Casual Tarot readings I did on the spot, in parks or whatnot: no, most people didn’t believe, or had no real opinion, when we began. However, a lot of them would walk away feeling like it was for real, or at least wondering. I was really really good with the cards as a tool of cold reading, which was part of it, but most of it was that they had spent their money and they wanted to feel it wasn’t a ripoff, and because it would be nice if magic were real so most people kind of hold on to a vague willingness to believe. And, like I said before, because it is really easy to trick even an intelligent and informed brain.

Private readings, things people made appointments for, absolutely, they believed. To a pathological degree in some cases.

What you say about thinking about things in a new light is valid, and how I started out, actually, with Tarot. I still think it’s a useful tool in a lot of ways; they’re just ways which are easily explained by principles we already understand, without having to resort to magic.

This is less of a question than a comment, but I’m curious as to your take.

We’ve all heard the excuse, when a psychic doesn’t perform 100% as expected, “Well, my powers are not perfect,” or “the stars only impel, they don’t compel.” This implies that some supernatural powers are truly genuine, but not all, and it’s hard to tell the difference.

It’s all bullshit to me. And I would think that a professional magician or someone in your former profession would be so close to the techniques of fooling someone that they wouldn’t be easily fooled themselves. Yet I was surprised when I once talked to the owner of a magic shop, assuming he would know all psychic powers are phony, to hear him say, “There just might be something to it.” And no, I don’t think he was pulling my leg.

You alluded to this ambiguous attitude already, but do you think it is common among workers like you? Or do they more commonly fall on the “fraud, and I know it” side of the fence, or the “total believer” side? And what happens when they get together socially? Do they argue over it or chuckle about the easy marks?

It would be funny if it weren’t so horrifically sad. Most of the people I fleeced were out twenty bucks at most, or were paying a phone line, not me. I couldn’t possibly find them all and pay them back, anyway. As for my big clients, who spent real money…when I quit I tried to explain to one of them, I’ll call her Lisa, that I had come to realize it was all way out of hand, and that I did not have any psychic powers whatsoever.

Did you see that wonderful episode of South Park where one of the boys pretends to be psychic, and people refuse to believe that he’s faking it even when he tells them?

Yeah. She wouldn’t hear it. She didn’t want anything back from me, she didn’t believe me, she thought maybe someone had put a spell on me, or I was afraid of something and had to get out. No matter what I said, she wouldn’t believe that it was all fake. She was way too invested, emotionally, at that point.

All this was a long time ago. I have considered trying to find a few people and paying them back, but honestly, no one was hurt by it financially, and I have been so extremely poor ever since then, until very recently, that all I could have offered was indentured servitude. If I’d kept up I could have eventually lived the high life indeed, I fully believe that. In fact that was why I quit. I realized that if I got any deeper, I would no longer be able to pretend that I was a decent human being, and that made me face the fact that I was pretending.

I think I do want to put some money where my mouth is eventually, however, and now that you mention it, I should work on saving up to donate to the Randi foundation or another worthy skeptical cause. Meanwhile I just try to have a big mouth about it and educate wherever I can.

Cool thread, Ensign. No questions yet, but I am reading avidly. Thanks.

Very good thread **Ensign ** and I think a donation to the Randi foundation would be a good call.
Can you explain more about the techniques used to cold read?

Jim {I loved that episode of South Park}

I don’t know if this is universal or regional, but in NYC it seemed like most real pros were lone wolves. Other psychics are your competition, not your buddies, if you’re a scammer. But the believers definitely hang together, and their whole group dynamic helps enforce the belief. Particularly charismatic believer-psychics can be way more successful than the sharpest shark in the water, because marks can smell sincerity (like the man said, it’s the first thing you gotta learn how to fake).

That said, I have a sort of loose band of friends who have been similarly employed in games of confidence and general rat-bastardry, some of whom still are, though none are psychics now. It’s pretty much the bottom of the barrel, when it comes to parting fools and their money. It’s just one step up from standing around parking lots selling bricks in DVD-player boxes for $50 each.

Anyway, in my experience, people who trick other people for a living, when they’re together, if they’re friends and have known each other a while, do talk shop. But it’s not a casual acquaintance thing, and among psychics mostly happens between believers couched in mystical metaphors they believe are real (talking about vibes, etc).

And I believe that the more successful a psychic is, the less likely it is that he or she will retain belief. The whole process just makes it eventually pretty damn hard to sustain, unless you can do a sort of doublethink, which is what I think Sylvia Brown is up to (John Edwards is just a con, and a shitty one, too, I have no idea why he’s so successful). You’d believe and at the same time, you’d engage in trickery. When caught, most psychics will claim the powers were real except for that one time. I think some of them might really believe this, but I have a hard time accepting that most people wouldn’t break under the strain and have to confess to themselves that they were charlatans.

I sort of answered this in my reply to Dio, but to expand in your direction a bit more, I think the majority are firmly in the middle. They start off like I did, thinking they can do something magical, and eventually discover that they can get things from people who also believe in the magic. Here a split happens, either they think ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly profit from my power’ and go on to paint their fingernails black and impress their friends at parties for a few years until they grow out of it…or they turn pro.

And once you’re taking money for it, like another man said, it’s no longer a question what you are, just how much you’re charging. If you want to charge a lot, you have to be really convincing. Even people with natural talent can’t get very far without honing it into a skill. To do that efficiently, you either: can’t be a believer, so you can treat it like a science/craft and be objective about how to maximize it; have to be a really crazy passionate believer who is totally consumed by the illusion (in which case you will probably not make very much money, but might end up on the evening news anyway); or pull off the doublethink I managed before, which is nearly impossible.

So I think a lot of pros maintain that vague “well, there’s real power behind it” for as long as they can so they don’t have to transition from believers to exploiters. They learn the tricks so they have a backup when the “powers fail” or are thwarted by the presence of a skeptic, that’s what they tell themselves at first. If they’re not ambitious, they could go on clinging to that forever, I guess, but it’s definitely not the way to succeed at ripping good people off.

I concur: great thread.

My question: How would you start your first call with a new client? Someone who say, just calls in for the first time? Did they often immediately start telling you their problems and you just directed them from there? Or did you have to begin prompting? I feel like those first few moments would be the most important (but I could be wrong there too).

Some folks are asking for more detail on cold reading techniques. Say I was using the cards, my best area. I would be directing you to look at the cards by constantly touching and gesturing to them, and talking about what they show. While you were distracted I would be checking out everything about you, looking at your shoes and hair, thinking about how you smell and carry yourself. Just generally getting a fix on you.

Meanwhile I’m using your responses to my patter to focus on who you are even better. You’re going out of your way to be expressive and responsive, because you have paid money for this so you start off engaged, and because I am friendly and likeable to a disarming disagree. (Note that in ‘real life’ I’m not charming; I could turn it on for the marks). I’m also talking about YOU, and everybody loves that topic, as all salespeople know.

And I’m throwing in a lot of interesting mumbo-jumbo, the nature of which will depend on the information I’m getting about who you are while we talk. If I think you’re an angel person, you’ll get angel talk. If I think you’re a stars person, it’s all astrology.

To expand that: I already have in my head a kind of library of traits that go with tendencies, built up through trial and error. If you match up in enough categories – sentimental and kind, wearing a cross, older woman, dressed plain but well, light or no makeup, very eye-meety and nodding at everything I say – I start to feel you out. If the first time I mention angels I don’t get the right non-verbal cues, I move on to stars, or vibes, or whatever. I’m trying a lot of things out on you, and you don’t even know it.

I’m letting you answer questions non-verbally while rushing on too fast for you to answer verbally, so you forget you told me. I’m watching how eager you look, how excited you seem, all your reactions or lack thereof. I’m keeping your focus absolutely directed where I want it at all times; control is key. I control the conversation, but I let you think we’re just talking, or even that you’re in charge.

I make very few positive, concrete statements. I tell you how you feel to begin with, to build up that trust, and once I’m properly calibrated to who I think you are, I can start to make more concrete guesses. You will forgive my mistakes by this point if I’ve done everything right, and even if I only get one of five guesses correct, you’ll probably be willing to say I might have real psychic powers.

As you can see, it all requires a credulous client. It’s absurdly transparent to a skeptic who is informed about the techniques, but average people will fall for it to some degree all the time because the process exploits natural human tendecies.