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Ten Tricks of the Psychics I Bet You Didn’t Know (You Won’t Believe #6!)

Guerrilla Skepticism

Susan Gerbic

March 23, 2018


“There is no way the psychic could have known that!”

I have been researching psychics since 2002, and I have heard this phrase too many times to count. Mentalist and psychic expert Mark Edward would answer that with “Oh yes, there is.” Let’s look at ten ways psychics could know that, with real life examples. I bet you don’t know them all!

1. These people are very good, slick, practiced, and fast.

Hollywood Medium’s Tyler Henry claims he has already given over a thousand readings, and he is only twenty-two years old. When you look at people who have been in the psychic business for ten or more years, those people are on auto-pilot; the questions and statements flow out of them naturally. To an audience member who is watching them for the first time, they appear to be making statements that seem specific, but if you watch enough of these readings you will see some of the same “specific” statements come up over and over again. Old photographs in a box, the sound of keys or coins in a pocket, a fire in the house, someone fell off a horse, a bird came into the house, a garden with roses—all are generalities that seem specific.

2. They use stooges, and sometimes it’s you.

I’ve attended several psychic group readings, and it is pretty typical to arrive early and find that the first couple rows are saved for friends and the best fans. I purchase the VIP passes to these events and never get to sit in the very front row. When I chat up these front row women (yes, they are usually women) I discover that they attend multiple shows in different cities. They talk comfortably and with statements such as “he usually does this in his shows” or “in his show a couple days ago, he said/did this….” Chip Coffey reserves a segment of his show for something called “Coffey Talk,” which is where he chats with the audience and answers questions. It was clear from the questions that several of his fans knew a lot about the TV shows Coffey had been on years ago. Some were fairly obscure questions only a true fan would know to ask. Later on, during the psychic part of the evening, he “read” one of these women with some specific statements. I guess you would call these people psychic groupies; they are unaware that they are being used as stooges and are honored that their dead family members always seem to come through at each show. The regular audience who is seeing Coffey for the first time think he is really accurate and don’t realize what is going on.

Also, in that same event Coffey said that he was getting a message about a psychic business one of the audience women was thinking of opening. He made it sound like he had received this information from the spirit world, but I knew he had been chatting with the woman during the break.

For Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! Show “Talking to the Dead,” Mark Edward examined the incident of psychic Rosemary Althea connecting with a couple’s daughter who had committed suicide. Althea snapped her fingers and said, “She was gone like that,” and the parents nodded their heads and wiped away tears. Mark explained to the show’s producer that there was something not right with that; you don’t want to say suicide unless you are very sure. The producer interviewed the parents, and sure enough, they said that Althea had done readings for them before and the couple was friends with Althea’s publisher who brought them to this show.

At another psychic show Mark and I attended in 2017, after the event was over I chatted with a woman who was so excited that the psychic had given her a reading. She told me that this time her grandmother had come through, but last time she didn’t. Did you catch that? “This time… last time.” This was a woman who had already been read by the psychic; she was a stooge and didn’t know it. I bet she gets read each time she is in the audience, as the psychic already knows her family. And as the woman was in her late sixties it is probably not much of a reach that at least one of her grandmothers is dead and most likely both. Even if she didn’t know her grandmothers, she did have them.

During the same show, a woman in green a couple seats from us was getting a very specific reading. She was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue and was very convincing. But Mark Edward had a better view and leaned over and told me that there were no tears; she was pretending. We went to the after-party where everyone was given a copy of the psychic’s book, and when the psychic took the book from the woman in green to autograph it, she said “This time spell my name right. It has an I not an E.” Hmmm…. Then later in this meet and greet I asked the psychic if he had other psychics who he respected, and he said that he had several students who were very promising, and he put his hand on the woman in green’s shoulder and said “This is one.”

3. We really want to believe.

These events aren’t cheap. Private readings can be in the $250 to $900 range for thirty minutes. Group shows are $40 to $180 a seat, and VIP is right up front where they want you. The farther back you sit, the less likely you are going to get a reading. Remember the goal is to hook you into getting a private reading, so the psychic is looking for people with disposable income to spend. If you are one of the few that gets called on, you are more likely to search for meaning and make the connections than to say, “They were horrible. What a waste of my money!”

Also, why would you be there if you didn’t think communication with the dead was possible?

4. You were hot-read before the event.

If the psychic can get your name before the event, then with a little Internet searching he or she can discover a lot. When you sign up for events, you give your email and some personal information. I’ve had two psychics contact me after the event to thank me for attending. One found me on Twitter, which was odd because the only way he could have done that was if he looked at the name on the credit card when I purchased my ticket through Eventbrite. At no time did I use my real name other than the credit card. Hmmm…

Mark Edward did a cold-reading demonstration event at CSICon in 2017; the workshop was all skeptics, and you needed a separate ticket to attend. We obtained a list with about fifty names of people who would be at the workshop. All the list had was the name, city, and state. I spent about an hour going through all the names using Facebook as my guide. I had no problem finding about ten people who matched with the locations. By scrolling through their Facebook account, it was pretty obvious I had the right person.

Almost all the accounts were “friends only,” but that didn’t matter to me; enough of the posts were visible, and sometimes photos, favorite books, movies, and favorite groups were mentioned. If you scroll back far enough people will always start wishing you a happy birthday, congratulations, or condolences. All gold to a psychic that plans to hot-read you. Photos are also ripe with information. Are you at a wedding, prom, anniversary party? Are you on vacation, skiing somewhere or maybe at the Olympics? Who are you with? Young children, grandparents, work buddies? They can also click on your friends’ accounts and get information about you from there.

When Mark did the workshop, he peppered his lecture on cold-reading techniques with interruptions from the spirit world giving him messages about people going on vacation and celebrating weddings and new babies. He relayed this information vaguely, never telling them bluntly the day, but he would say, “You are a Leo aren’t you?” or “April is a special month for you… I think you have a child born then… around the middle of the month… I’m hearing the fifteenth?”

Mark tells of attending a show where the psychic told an audience member “I’m getting something about baby clothes,” and the audience member said, “That’s amazing. I just put up a bunch of my son’s clothes he has outgrown for sale on Facebook.”

Tyler Henry gave a reading to Jamie Horn, who won a reading with him by entering a contest on Facebook. Did you get that? She was a fan that entered a contest on Facebook … Facebook. Henry or one of his people could have known all about Jamie just by looking at her Facebook page. She said he didn’t, but then she really wanted to believe, and why should we trust what he said? He also says he is speaking to the dead.

I know if you want to get a ticket to see The Long Island Medium, Theresa Caputo, you will purchase your ticket and get to choose your seat. They also want you to log in using your Facebook or Twitter account, and then after you complete your purchase they ask you to tell your friends and give you the option to share directly to your social media. So now the psychic not only knows your name but also where you are sitting and has a link to your social media. Click, click, click, and they have all kinds of information about you, things it would be “impossible” to know.

5. Psychics are always observing.

They are backstage with the camera crew talking to whomever they can talk to. Makeup and hair are done before the show, and guess what, they are chatting those people up also. Tyler Henry did a reading of Matt Lauer, and when they greeted each other they talked about the last time Henry was on the show a few months back. During that time, I’m sure Henry used his time wisely, looking at photos, talking to the crew, and getting all kinds of information about Lauer and other cohosts, just storing that information waiting for an opportunity to relay it back in a way that would appear to be from the spirit world. In the book The Psychic Mafia, M. Lamar Keene talks about keeping index cards full of information he already knew about his repeat sitters. When he knew a sitter would be traveling to another city, he would share that information with other psychics there. It was an underground network of information sharing. Now with the Internet and computers, it is a lot simpler than ever to know what was “impossible” for anyone to know.

I watched a clip of Theresa Caputo giving a surprise reading to a crewmember who was getting her ready for a shoot she was going to do. She mentioned initials and a date of someone close to him who had died. This was all filmed by a cameraman a bit farther away; that cameraman captured footage that showed the crewmember had a tattoo with initials and a date on his arm with a large cross.

6. He pointed right at me–or did he?

This is a visual example, so hopefully I can explain this well. This was something I had never thought of before but Mark Edward explained this technique when we were watching a video of a psychic reading a large audience in a casino. In this particular case, the room has about 300 people in the audience. Using the rule of large numbers, if you are vague enough, when throwing out a statement to a large group of people, you will have something stick.

Picture this scene: An audience row in that casino has ten people in it. The psychic asks the entire row to stand up, then he points at the row and makes a statement, and someone reacts to the statement. He is pointing right at that person. How is that done? Amazing, right?

It is pretty amazing if the psychic is standing in front of the ten people and they are stretched out twelve to fifteen feet across. He lifts up his arm and outstretches his finger to point at the group. Then he makes a bold statement such as “I’m getting a miscarriage over here.” That’s a pretty personal statement, but actually it’s more common than you think. He watches all the faces for a reaction and then moves his outstretched finger to point at the person. If he is right in front of them, it will be really obvious if he has to move his arm to point at a specific person. But if he is standing off to the side of the people at an angle and makes the same statement, then when he sees the person making the reaction he only has to move his finger a fraction. The woman who says “That’s me!” will later say “He was pointing right at me when he said he was getting a message about a miscarriage,” and it would look that way from her perspective. Also remember the rest of the audience is watching the people the psychic is pointing at, not at the psychic. Misdirection!

It takes a bit of practice by the psychic to get the moves correct; to have his hand and finger already pointing in the right direction, make the statement, and quickly watch for a reaction. Remember trick #1: these people are skilled at this. And if they miss, then what? Well they always have an out. See trick #9.

7. What is missing might be more important than what was said.

In the earlier example of Caputo and the crewmember, it sure looked like a direct hit. She got the death date and the initials. But what was missing? Everything else. Who was this person? What was their name? Why did they die? She missed everything that would show she was really talking to the dead and not just reading his tattoo.

In the Tyler Henry reading of Jamie Horn he told her a lot about “a male figure” or “an older woman” who was watching over her. Jamie would later say Henry got in touch with her father and grandmother. No, Jamie, he didn’t. He said “a male figure” and “an older woman.” You supplied the rest of the information. And why didn’t Dad give anything specific, like his name or any other person’s name? He said he was watching over a young woman who had some difficult life choices to make, but he didn’t tell her anything important about those life choices. What career should she go into? What stocks should she purchase? Who should she trust? Who should she avoid? Why didn’t Dad want to talk to any of the other family members?

And there is the big matter of Tyler Henry giving readings to Matt Lauer and Alan Thicke. A year after the reading, Lauer was fired from his job over sexual abuse claims. His wife divorced him and took the kids, and he is now having to sell his home. It looks like his life is in ruins, but when Henry talked to him he got in touch with Lauer’s father who wanted to say how proud he was of his son. Dad also wanted to mention something about some coins—that there were two and Matt needed to look for a third one or something. And two months after Henry read for Alan Thicke, he was dead (Thicke not Henry). In the reading Henry had mentioned Thicke’s blood pressure and that he should get that checked out, and they both joked about it. When Thicke died from a heart problem, Henry’s fans went nuts saying he got it right. Well if that is so, then why were they joking about it and treating it like it was no big deal? Why didn’t Henry call the paramedics right then sitting in his home and say, “No man. This is very serious. If you don’t take care of this right now, in two months you will be dead”?

8. They have a living to make and will use any means possible.

When you see a psychic on a reality show do readings at a beauty shop or grocery store, remember you are watching a reality show—which is anything but reality. These places have to be approached in advance, and they have to give permission to film inside. Every person who gets a reading has to sign a waiver, and once you have the person’s name and location, you know what that means: hot-reading. Theresa Caputo is famous for walking up to people out of the blue and talking to them about dead family that wants to get in touch. Who are these people? Just random strangers? Or maybe people hired off of Craig’s List as extras for the show? Maureen Handcock did a TV promo a few years ago where she went into a fire station and did readings of the firemen. It turned out to be a small local fire station in her neighborhood. It was a place she knew she would be visiting; maybe she did a little research in advance and learned about the history of the building? Maybe her brother’s friend is a fireman at the location? Or her hairdresser’s son works there and has been telling her all the gossip during her hair appointments? What is more likely? That she is talking to the dead and getting information from the other side or that she found out some local gossip from someone very much alive?

Mark Edward is always saying that the real magic happens in the editing room. These TV shows record for ninety minutes or more, but only show twenty minutes. What was cut out? Maybe all the misses? Same thing with the readings done one-on-one; it has to fit into a three- to six-minute segment. Only the best makes it to the show, so if there is some kind of really great connection—serious evidence of communication with the dead—then it will be on the show and not end up on the cutting room floor.

Let’s talk about something else missing—glaringly missing. Why are there so many missing children in the world? Why so many cold cases? Bones found without knowing who the person is? Why are bridges collapsing and people shooting up churches, movie theatres, and schools? Why isn’t this psychic, or any psychic, clearing these cases up or giving clear warnings in advance? Maybe instead of doing group readings at a casino, they should be spending some time at the police station going through cold-case files. 

Recently a psychic put up a video of himself and another person eating lunch inside a restaurant next to the window, then a car came crashing through, throwing their table and them backward. He put up this video on his Facebook feed with a laugh and never addressed the unspoken question of why didn’t he see that coming? Chip Coffey had a post on his Facebook feed about a young girl that was missing, then a few hours later he posted that the girl had been found unharmed in the back of a neighbor’s car. He was very thankful of the police and the neighbor. Funny that he didn’t just know where to find the child. I read through the comments and no one mentioned this to him either. They were all “how wonderful” and “God bless.” Looking at Chip Coffey’s Facebook feed, I see him posting warnings of bad weather conditions, a tsunami scare in Alaska, and a friend who fell and broke her ankle. I just don’t understand, though. Why wouldn’t he know these things would happen? What kind of person has this ability but doesn’t warn anyone?

Mark Edward - demonstrating hotreading at CSICon 2017 - see link for video - photo by Karl Withakay

When asked, we are told “It does not work like that.” Well, how does it work? Or is the answer evident: it does not work at all.

9. They always have an out.

So, the psychic points at a group and says “I’m getting something about a miscarriage over here” and no one reacts. The odds are in a group of 10 people that someone will have some connection to a miscarriage, either to themselves or someone they know. But if no one reacts, then possibly someone in the row nearby will say “That is me” and they will be close enough. Or the psychic can say, “I know which one of you that it is, but this is too personal, and I know you are struggling with it. Let’s just move on to someone else. Please call me for a private reading so you can heal.”

10. We are human, and our brains will always try to make the connection.

In the CSICon workshop I was telling you about earlier, Mark Edward talked to a woman in the audience (let’s call her Maria) about an older woman he saw standing behind her. Remember that Mark already has done some hot-reading on the audience and already knows who he is calling on and has some facts about Maria. He told the woman, “She was happy to see you join the military.” Afterward, I had a chance to talk to Maria and asked her what she thought of the “reading” Mark gave her. Maria told me that she didn’t have a clue who the older woman might have been. Then she said, “My mother was already dead when I joined the military, so she could not have known.” Do you see what just happened? Maria first said that she did not know who the older woman could be; then seconds later she claimed the older woman as her mom. Maria’s brain was trying to help her make this connection.

We do this all the time: remember the hits and forget the misses. In the Tyler Henry/Jamie Horn reading, Horn says that the psychic contacted her sister and her father. Not quite. What actually happens is that Henry said he is getting an older male and a woman who died too soon, and Horn is the one who made the connection.

What can we conclude here? Psychics are out to fool you. Yep, and they are good at it too. Don’t think you are going to out-think them or show them up; you are in their territory. If you act like a skeptic and point out they were wrong, the people in the audience are going to poo-poo you. You are no fun and are ruining the mood. It’s best to learn the tricks and be forewarned. People who fall for these psychics aren’t stupid; they just want to believe and probably have never thought about it being impossible. Why should they question it when they see it all the time on TV? It all happens so fast, and when it happens in person, no one has the ability to pause, rewind, and replay. It’s wonderful we have the luxury to watch these readings over and over again.

And the psychic is so nice! How could they be lying?

In the end, it is not the responsibility of the skeptics to prove that the psychic can’t talk to the dead. The psychic is making the outrageous claim, so the burden of proof is on them to prove that they are communicating. If someone tells you that they can fly without any device or aid, you are going to say “Show me” not “Let me prove you can’t fly.” So why is it any different with psychics? We need to start pushing the burden to prove the ability to communicate with dead. If it were true, it would change the world overnight.



For more information, here are a few of the articles I’ve written in more detail about the tricks of the psychics mentioned. Thank you to Julie Berents and Mark Edward for their help with this article.

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic's photo

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.