The big psychic scam: How mindreaders and fortune tellers prey on the vulnerable

Going to a psychic can be quite a nerve-racking experience. What will they say? Will they be right? There are so many questions, but definitely one of the most asked is “are psychics real?”

While there’s no definitive answer on that, it is well-documented that many psychics aren’t being honest and are in fact not in touch with the spiritual world, so much so that they’ll take your money and laugh all the way to the bank.

There is one type of psychic medium that is largely criticised by self-identified true psychics – cold readers – and they are the people who tell you they have a direct phone line into the afterlife, such as well known personality John Edward. This technique is very effective but can prey on people at their most vulnerable, i.e. those who have just lost someone. Before we go into just what tricks so-called psychics use to convince their clients, we’ll take a look at a very embarrassing slip up an American clairvoyant had on an Australian TV show.

James Van Praagh is similar to John Edward in that he alleges to hear voices and messages from an audience member’s dearly departed.

Van Praagh started out his routine on the now axed talk show The Circle by asking a lady about her mother, and guessed that she took medication of some sort, an answer that would have a very high chance of getting right. He then asked whether this lady’s mother had arthritis (no), a back problem (no), or trouble with her legs (no). He realised that he was getting into trouble so he asked if anyone else had leg problems, and she revealed her father had hip replacement. “So he can’t walk as well as he used to”, he says. “No, he walks very well”. He then makes a guess about her family being Catholic and having a picture of Mother Mary in the house – around 25 per cent of Australians are Catholic.

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He then has no option but to ask another person about their father and if he liked cars, before the host of the show ended the segment.

What Van Praagh was attempting to do is called cold reading, which is perhaps one of the most common and well-known tactics used by alleged clairvoyants. It works on the give and take sort of format in that a person with a deceased loved one will do anything to talk to that person once more, and in the midst of their desperation, reveal very specific details that the psychic can then use to convince them they have their loved one on Line 2.

Cold reading psychics will guess things that have a high chance of being true and are expert body language readers, taking cues from what you’re saying. If a guess is confirmed, the alleged psychic pushes forward in that direction, hoping that confirmation bias will make the victim remember the hits and forget the misses.

Other types of master manipulating psychics will do warm or hot readings, which is where the alleged psychic will use broad statement such as guessing a common cause of death. More commonly in the digital era, psychics can read up on you before an appointment and use what they know to have you believe they know something you don’t.

Cold reading psychics rate themselves on how often they get a hit, i.e. they guess something correctly about that person. They use crowds instead of one on one meetings so that they can increase the probability of at least one person agreeing to their statements i.e. ‘who has the mother with the red hair?’ or ‘I see a woman with a large dog’.

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These types of psychics love people who want to have a miracle because they will believe anything, even if the psychic makes mistakes and covers them up by changing the subject, asking other people instead, attributing it to an ‘interruption’, or rationalising it.

At the end of the day, if you have just lost someone, it’s advised not to go to a psychic straight away to console yourself. Seeing a trained professional will be much more worthwhile and legitimate. With that said, it is impossible to know who is a psychic and who isn’t, so use your judgement to figure out if it’s worth your time.


Tell us, have you ever been to a psychic? What was the result?