The Forer Effect (aka The Barnum Effect)

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Read the following paragraphs and think on them for a few minutes and then rate the statement as it applies to you:

You often try to leave an impression on your surroundings that you are stern and rigid, while you are actually an emotional and vulnerable person. Sometimes you are bright, communicative and social, but you can turn into yourself, and in those times it is hard for people around you to reach your thoughts. You live changes and dynamic, and lack of freedom can make you discontent, even melancholic and depressive. You know that you are a person that has an attitude and you don’t take random opinions without hard evidence. You have an amazing ability to understand people who surround you and who you love. You also have a well-developed sense for rightfulness, and it is hardest for you to accept human greed and a lack of feeling for others.

In your love life you had lesser problems. Still, aside for a few weaknesses, your inner strength provided you with means to successfully diminish them. You are often expressing criticism about yourself, even more than it is necessary. The main cause is that you have a strong need to be accepted and loved, and you turn too strict when it comes to your character. You are aware that you hold significant potential that you still haven’t completely put to work because of your reticence and insecurity. Soon you will learn how to put your abilities to full use.

Now that you have had time to think on the statement and have had time to rate it, how accurate was it? Did it describe you or did it seem to describe someone other than you? Would it surprise you if I said that you have probably rated it as around 80-90% accurate? Am I right?

What you are witnessing is the “Forer (Barum) Effect”. In 1948, Bertram Forer, a psychologist, gave his students a personality test and told them he would provide a personal reading for each of them. He then went away and put the statement above in envelopes with his students names on them. They all received identical readings. The statement was assembled from horoscopes.

He handed out the statements and asked his students to rate them as they believed the statement applied to them. He asked his students to rate the statement from 0 to 5 – with “0” being not at all accurate and “5” being “spot on”. The class average was 4.26. Over the years, the same experiment has been carried out in different countries with different ranges of people and the average is still very similar – 84%.

This Effect relies on a few things: by making it seem personal (using “you” and “your”) the recipient is far more likely to believe it has been put together for them and so make them more presdisposed to believe it. The intentional vagueness of the “reading” will allow it be absolutely meaningless while at the same time be instantly recognisable by most people who read it, on re-reading the statement who hasn’t felt some of those things? It also relies on wishful thinking, we all believe that despite our hardships (or shortcomings) that things will turn out for the best. The statement is also positive enough to make you think better of yourself. In short, it tells you nothing you don’t already know, but seeing it written down by a relative stranger will make you believe these things because this perceptive person must have seen your true inner wonderfulness!

This is one technique used by psychics and other reader. This is not the only thing that will be used, but compare this to the readings given by psychics and mediums and even your daily horoscope – see any similarities? This is also known as “The Barnum Effect”, because one quote from the late, great PT Barnum says “there is something for everybody”.

Further Reading:

Richard Dawkins Interviews Derren Brown

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You all know my views on psychics by now, I hope. The fact that so many people are still taken in by them is a real source of discomfort for me. Their tricks and scams have been so well publicised that it is a testament to how deluded humans can be that they are still able to practice.

Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous speaker on atheist, anti-religious and sceptical viewpoints out there (though James Randi gives him a great run for his money!). Derren Brown is a British illusionist who focuses on suggestion and who is guaranteed to entertain. As someone involved in stage magic he is in an excellent position to notice when someone is running a con or using any one of the usual tricks that psychics use. With thanks to the nice people at Bad Psychics (the largest sceptical and medium debunking site in the UK) for bringing this to my attention, I bring you the first part of an interview in which Brown and Dawkins discuss the phenomena of psychics, the reasons why people go to them (and why they shouldn’t) and the tricks that psychics use to make you believe in them. This is an informed interview between two intelligent and experienced men. Each part is around 10 minutes long and the next part will (or should) load automatically.

The first part is provided free online. If you would like to support the work Dawkins and other people do, consider purchasing ‘The Enemies of Reason: The Uncut Interviews’ on DVD by clicking on this link. The video can be seen after the jump:

What Is Cold Reading?

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I’ve been pretty lax in my posting. Back in 2007, I posted about the Forer Effect and had every intention of following it up. Now you know why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions! To rectify that, let’s talk about cold reading.

With the Forer (or Barnum) Effect, we saw how making generalised, non-specific statements can both apply to anyone and be used by anyone. People are always happy to believe nice things about themselves and to completely ignore the things that don’t apply. Something to remember about these fraudsters is that none of their methods is used in isolation – they couple Barnum Statements, Cold reading and Hot Reading together to make the “mark” believe that they have special powers. Cold Reading is especially effective in a group setting, with one psychic and a large audience. In fact, the bigger the audience the better this works.

So what is cold reading? In short, it is a method where the questioner makes vague statements and asks open questions to the mark to get the person to provide information. At the same time, they make it seem as though they knew this already and thus reinforce their powers in the mind of the believer. Worryingly, this even works on pre-recorded shows that can be taped by the home viewer and seen over and over again. You would have thought that this would stop the phenomena, but it doesn’t. The joy of being human, I guess.

Most psychics will start their show with a caveat. They will say something like “I can’t guarantee what will come through or whether what comes through will apply to you. I don’t know where my powers come from or whether they will even work. If you don’t receive an answer this could be for any number of reasons”. If they do wash out completely, it’s not their fault, it’s yours for either not believing hard enough (“negative energy”) or just because you’re too dense to realise that you’re being given the correct answers. I may use this to become a mechanic, I will say “your car may get repaired, but I can’t guarantee it. If it doesn’t work it’s because you didn’t diagnose the fault correctly. I may even fix something else entirely. That’ll be £500 please.”

Typically, the psychic will say “I get the strong feeling that someone here has lost a woman; a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister. An older woman.” And they will gesture to an area of the audience. So, you the individual reader, cast your mind through a list of every woman you have ever known. Are they all still alive? If so, you will not be featured in the show. So, someone puts up their hand. Likelihood is that a good number of people will put up their hands. The psychic will look at these people and make a decision about how to narrow down the choice.

Let’s say they decide that the person has lost their mother. This will be done by looking at the ages of the people – if they are older, that is a very likely choice. So they will say “You have lost a mother; an older woman; a mother-like figure.” A small number of people will lower their hands, the remainder will be even more hopeful. “I’m getting chest pains – the heart or lungs, possibly lower in the stomach area.” Guess which areas make up the largest number of defects leading to death? If you guessed chest and stomach you’d be right. In fact, broadly speaking, the heart stopping beating is what causes death – no matter what illness you have, your heart will stop beating.

That statement has culled accidental deaths and car crashes and any other difficult to guess illnesses or accidents. So let’s say that leaves 10 people. Now the psychic can get it down to one person (though the rest can be kept in reserve in case they need to go back to them). “I’m getting an older woman with a heart or chest problem. I’m getting E, L, R or S.” The psychic will keep looking to see who nods their head, someone will pick up on at least one of those letters – remember that they haven’t specified what those letters may signify: first name, last name, town or title. We see an older lady who seems to be happiest with the letter ‘S’. So the psychic can say “I’m getting drawn to this lady who lost a mother called, and I want to say, Sally, Susie, Sarah” and the lady will say “Yes of course, my mother died of a heart attack 20 years ago and her name was Susannah” the psychic will respond “Yes, that’s correct, a heart problem”.

The mark will be amazed – he correctly guessed that her mother, called Susannah, died of a heart attack. The psychic correctly pulled her out of 500 hundred people nd put her in touch with her mother. But let’s look at what actually was said, shall we:

  • I get the strong feeling that someone here has lost a woman; a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister. An older woman.
  • I’m getting chest pains – the heart or lungs, possibly lower in the stomach area.
  • I’m getting an older woman with a heart or chest problem. I’m getting E, L, R or S.
  • I’m getting drawn to this lady who lost a mother called, and I want to say, Sally, Susie, Sarah
  • Yes, that’s correct, a heart problem

Now this is a crude way of putting it, the psychic may well have a bunch of guesses and questions, but that is in shorthand the way these things tend to go. The best way for you to test a psychic is to not respond to the questions and ask the psychic to tell you rather than ask you. As you will see, they will very quickly give up. As an illustration of this, please read these two posts from Simon Perry when he went to see Joanne Jordan and Pamella Blaby – there are some revealing mp3 files to have a listen to.

To close, cold reading is easy to spot if you know what to look for and go in forewarned. The psychic will ask a lot of questions, mostly very open and you will be required to provide the answers. These answers will then be fed back to you as if the psychic were providing them. If you don’t believe this is happening, take a look on YouTube for John Edwards videos and other psychcs. Compare them side by side and look at what they do and how they do it. It will be very revealing to you!

Further Reading:

What Is Hot Reading?

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You enter the theatre to hear what the psychic you have come to see can tell the audience. You’ve paid your entry fee, milled around excitedly in the lobby beforehand and now the lights are dimming. The psychic gives you the preamble – negative energies interfere with the spirits, no guarantees that your loved one will come through, the spirit world is very different to our own world – when s/he looks at you and says “I’m getting an older lady, a grandmother, she died after complications during a routine operation. I’m getting a pain in the muscles of my stomach … I want to say “hernia”, does that sound familiar to you?” Quite rightly you are amazed – no questions have been asked, you are one face in a hundred. How on earth could the psychic know this? Could their powers be real?

We have looked at cold reading and Forer Statements previously, but these are not the only weapons in the psychics arsenal. Hot Reading is a very effective tool, especially when used alongside cold reading. In some ways, it is a very obvious con but it uses the selective memory and need for positive reinforcement that we all have. The likelihood of this is that while you were happily milling around in the lobby of the theatre, you engaged in conversation with a friendly person. They would have elicited, either directly or indirectly, who you wanted to hear from and what happened to them and they would have recorded it or written it down, known where you were sitting and passed that onto the psychic. Having a close relative die of something unusual is great (for them) because it’s memorable and not easily guessed at – if they can get that information from the “spirit world” surely they must be real. Once you are hooked via hot reading, they can switch to cold reading in the safe knowledge that you are on their side and won’t question their methods.

This is used to best effect by faith healers. In a very well known episode, noted sceptic James Randi put a small team together to work out how famous faith healer Peter Popoff did what he did. By chance, one of the team happened to tune into the same frequency that was being used by Popoff’s wife to transmit details of the audiences ailments. You can view the action here on YouTube. What Popoff did was reprehensible, he took people, many of whom were terminally ill, and he convinced them that he had the power of God flowing through him and with this could diagnose and cure their illnesses. Many of these people stopped their regular medications and treatments and subsequently died. When someone asks “What’s the harm in doing these fake sessions?” remind them of Popoff. In the meantime, Popoff and similar fraudsters have moved onto another town or city and never have to be confronted with the harm they have caused.

This is harder to defend against than cold reading as gaining prior knowledge can be done in many ways: they can question you directly, they can ask your friends and family in “normal” conversation or other sessions, they may see inside your home and get an idea of your tastes, likes and dislikes, or if you are famous enough just hit you up on Google. However, you are now aware of more of the tools of the trade and you should be able to notice when these things are being used against you – particularly if their investigations throws up incorrect information.

Further Reading:

Parliamentary Committee on Homeopathy

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The portcullis on a British one penny coin (pr...

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The full title should be “The Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee on Homeopathy” but I think that would make the URL unreadable. The English Parliament (UK Parliament?) has many Select Committees covering all aspects of governmental influence. The Committees are drawn from all parties and their role is to examine evidence and take expert testimony. They also take great pleasure in ripping apart MPs, civil servants and suppliers to the government. Where normal parliamentary business appears to be stage managed and operating off some bizarre codewords and actions, Select Committees are very plain speaking. Hansard, which publishes parliamentary records, has a list of Select Committee meetings and the records. Luckily for us, they also provide video records of the meetings.

This Science and Technology Committee meeting was called to hear evidence and submissions on 3 subjects:

  • Government policy on licensing of homeopathic products
  • Government policy on the funding of homeopathy through the NHS
  • the evidence base on homeopathic products and services


The Full Facts book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland

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The Full Facts book of Cold Reading

The Full Facts book of Cold Reading

This is the post I had planned to make before I messed up. As someone with an interest in the various tricks that psychics, mediums, tarot readers and similar use, Ian Brodie‘s suggestion that I read this book was welcome. Ian Rowland is a very clear and concise writer and clearly has a love for his subject.

This book cannot make you into a cold reader any more than a Haynes manual can turn you into a mechanic. What it does do is to take the reader through the steps that any cold reader takes, consciously or otherwise, in a way designed to make the client believe that the reader has more knowledge than they really do. This is the essence of cold reading – as the reader you need to convince your client that you somehow know things that you shouldn’t be able to. Whether you are posing as an intuitive person, a psychic, an astrologer or a tarot card reader or whatever, cold reading gives you a way to draw information out of your client without their knowledge.

Firstly, the one thing that jumped out at me was that Ian Rowland really does not want a discussion on whether psychics are real or not within the book. He discusses the methodology and mentions that this is one way that a psychic could operate. He also makes it clear that he does not know whether their are real psychics out there or not. This is in line with skeptical thinking – just because he has never met one does not mean that one is not out there. I was annoyed about this at first and felt that he should express an opinion. However, I then realised that this book (despite the content) is not the forum for that debate and he has neatly sidestepped it.

The book is broken down into 6 sections: the first section is about the book itself, the section is a long section on the theory of cold reading and the elements of it, the third section is transcripts of real readings that Ian Rowland has carried out, the fourth (importantly) explains how to block a cold reader, the fifth is “additional notes” and the sixth section gives details on real life non-psychic uses for the techniques and uses a police interrogation as an example. It is difficult to express the wealth of ideas that the author has put into a seemingly short book. Cold reading is easy to learn but tricky to master – look at a John Edwards reading as an example of poor cold reading!

At no time does Ian Rowland talk down to you, he is an able teacher with an obviously high regard for his subject. According to the transcripts provided he has an extremely high success rate (higher than that of professional psychics!) but at no time does he use his knowledge to make money dishonestly. Some of Derren Brown’s early work was taken from the techniques laid out in the book. Something else which is very important: this book does not hold back. I have read books that promise to give you knowledge and discovered that they do the opposite. Ian Rowland’s book does exactly what it says on the tin. He explains the techniques and methods. The book alone can only give you the methods, to properly make this work you need experience, some acting ability and a lot of seemingly trivial knowledge.

If you are interested in cold reading, whether academically, to learn to spot and block it or because you are an unscrupulous sort who wants to fake psychic ability you should definitely add this book to your library.


Tim Minchin – Storm

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Tim Minchin is well-known in the skeptical world. An Aussie musician/singer/comedian he applies his knowledge to his music and brings forth some wonderful songs.

In his 9 minute beat poem Storm, he is able to distil a million tiring conversations and can show us all why some people get that throbbing vein in their temple when someone starts to hold forth in a social gathering. Watch and listen to the poem, please.

This poem is being turned into an animated film and will be available later this year. Storm the movie looks to be a great short film. If you’d rather, follow it on Twitter and Facebook.


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