How Do Psychic Predictions Work? I Visited One To Find Out

This post is adapted from my IFLScience article of the same title originally published on 28/08/23

As I wait, shuffling nervously between the cramped shelves of Spiritualism for my psychic, Paula, to materialize from her sanctuary (the basement), I half-read the almost comically specific inscriptions of the “supernatural stones” the shop sells. “Bloodstone – A stone to overcome influences such as electromagnetic stress”. “Bronzite – known to protect against curses”. “Amethyst – guards against psychic attack”. If things go wrong downstairs, I may need this one.

Evidence of the popularity of soothsayers dates back many thousands of years to ancient Egypt, China, Chaldea, and Assyria. Today many of us deride these shamans as charlatans and their prediction practices as unreliable nonsense. But the amorphous desire to believe in extrasensory ability – some hazy awareness or reception of information perceived through means other than the usual senses – still finds willing vessels in many modern-day believers. Why, even in the face of modern scientific consensus to the contrary, do many still believe in the power of horoscopes, premonitions, and “psychics”?

Attempting to answer this question is what draws me to Spiritualism to have my fortune told by Paula. I am here to learn the tricks of the trade and to understand the everyday psychological spells that are cast on the willing victims of psychics.

As we sit down, Paula hands me a deck of Tarot cards and asks me to shuffle and select five at random. As she turns over the cards and begins to tell me about “the threads” she has “gathered from the gloom of the past”, it soon becomes apparent that she is conducting what is known as a “cold reading” on me. She doesn’t have any background information, so she is relying on extracting information from me to build her predictions.

The Barnum-Forer effect

Looking at the cards she has turned over, she begins by throwing me some compliments, telling me I am very “intuitive” and very “empathic”, that I “read people well”. These general platitudes are known as Barnum statements. Such statements were named for 19th-century American businessman, showman, and renowned psychological manipulator Phineas Taylor Barnum. Barnum, whose shows were filled with often elaborate hoaxes, is said to have claimed of his circus “we have something for everybody”. His sentiment nicely sums up the idea of a Barnum statement – a general personality characterization that could apply to almost anyone. Consider, for example, the following personality assessment:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

It sounds pretty accurate, right? In fact, these are just a bunch of Barnum statements strung together and designed to elicit the Forer effect, a prevalent psychological trait in which the recipient of a general and vague personality assessment interprets it as if it were extremely personal and unique. 

The effect is named after psychologist Bertram Forer who in 1948, after previously administering a personality test to each of his 39 students, gave them what he told them was an individualized personality description based on their results. When asked to rate the accuracy of the description on a scale from 0 to 5, the students gave an average score of 4.3 indicating that they believed the depictions Forer had come up with matched their personalities extremely well. Only later did Forer reveal that he had given each student exactly the same characterization, comprising many of the above statements, which he had taken directly from an astrology book.

Rainbow ruse 

Another of the statements Forer picked out for his students was the following:

At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

As well as being a vague Barnum statement, this description is also an example of a cold-reading technique known as the rainbow ruse. By giving statements that comprise two or more opposing aspects of a given emotion or experience, at least one of which almost everyone will have encountered at different times in their lives, the rainbow ruse is a comprehensive catch-all. The statements are designed to cover the whole spectrum of an emotion or character trait from positive to negative, just as the rainbow separates white light into the full spectrum of colors from red to violet. Confirmation bias does the rest of the psychic’s work for them as our brains choose the aspect or aspects of the statements that best apply to us.

When trying to diagnose potential “emotional blockages” for me, Paula gives a fairly crude illustration of the rainbow ruse when she tells me, “There are times when you’re happy and you’re up here,” holding her hand up high, “and other times when you’re sad and down there,” holding her hand correspondingly lower. ‘Who hasn’t felt both happy and sad during their lifetime?’ I think, but I murmur my assent nevertheless.

To mix things up I decide to ask Paula if there are “any messages from my dad, on the other side”. Although I didn’t tell Paula this, I should disclose here that my father is still very much alive, but I was interested to see whether she would be able to figure this out.

After a protracted pause in which Paula closes her eyes and seems to be concentrating quite hard at looking relaxed, she comes back to me.

“I’ve got a male,” she informs me. “He wasn’t a tall man, was he?”

“No,” I answer, “he was shorter than me and I’m not exactly huge,” I laugh, expecting her to backtrack.

“No, I didn’t think so,” she parries, turning the original implication of her prediction on its head. She carries on, “I see him standing in front of me, but for one reason or another he’s feeling quite shy…” When I fail to show any recognition of her prediction in my face – no tell-tale smile of acknowledgment, no subtle nod of the head – she quickly picks up that she has it wrong and continues “… which is strange because he’s usually so outgoing”. I can’t help myself but nod in agreement and admire her dexterity.

Ex post facto

These two about-turns are examples of much-practiced psychic sleights of tongue known as ex post facto declaratives – statements that can be interpreted or reinterpreted after the fact. The first is an example of the vanishing negative. The technique works using a grammatical construction known as a “negative tag question”, in which a positive question is tagged onto a negative statement, making the questioner’s intent potentially ambiguous. It’s a common ploy many of us will use to avoid offending someone whose views we are not quite sure of.

The second reversal is an example of a punctuated rainbow ruse, giving one polarised aspect of a personality statement then, after reading the non-verbal response cues, quickly reversing the statement if there is no clear hit.

Paula tries again to divine some specific detail relating to my dad. This time she attempts to predict how he died. “He keeps telling me that he passed due to a problem in the chest region,” she guesses, waving her hand over her torso, from her neck down to her waist. Of course, the region of the body Paula has indicated with her gesture includes almost all of the major organs: the liver, stomach, intestines, pancreas, heart, and lungs. The bottom line is that, in the end, everyone stops breathing and their hearts stop beating. These are the ultimate markers of death, so a prediction of problems in the chest region will always be assented to by someone who wants to believe enough.

Cold, warmer, hot 

Most of the tools Paula has tried out on me this evening could be classed as cold reading techniques, relying on reading my body language, appearance, and reactions to extract information from me. But this last ruse is a catch-all designed to give a hit in almost any circumstance, much like a Barnum statement. The use of such generic statements is known as “warm reading”.

Although evidently well-versed in the psychic staples of cold and warm reading, it’s clear from her low rate of successful predictions this evening that Paula has not gone as far as to delve into the murky waters of “hot reading“. To prepare for a hot reading a psychic actively investigates prospective sitters beforehand in order to access the information they would be expected to arrive at by supernatural means. The advent of the internet has made hot reading significantly easier. Facebook and other social media platforms now provide would-be hot-readers with unprecedented insights into the private lives of potential clients.

As my session with Paula draws to a close, I thank her for her efforts. In spite of the fact I don’t feel she has brought me much enlightenment, I appreciate her skill. She couldn’t get through half an hour of speculating about the life of a total stranger – with the expectation that she will reveal some fundamental truths – without being well-versed in the tricks of her trade. Such tricks have been practiced over generations and will continue to be as long as there are people out there willing to suspend their incredulity and play along with the psychic game.