Psychics And The Numbers Game

ClairvoyantHow many people do you know? If you think about it, you could probably list at least a hundred or more. There are parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, friends, colleagues and others you come into contact with regularly in your day to day activities. So what?, you might say, but this is one of the reasons why psychics seem to be uncannily accurate when they “identify” people  known to those they give a reading for.

Isn’t it marvellous when a psychic talks to an audience and identifies not only people an audience member knows who are alive, but also people they knew but who are now dead? And they even seem to know about family members who died, but whom the sitters knew only through second hand stories passed down through a couple of generations of family history. How do they do it?

A couple of years ago, I went along to see a psychic performing to a live audience. The venue was fairly small but it was filled to capacity. The legal limit for attendance, due to fire safety regulations, was 110 people – all tickets were sold, and there had even been a waiting list for any possible cancellations. The place was sold out.

And then the psychic started his performance. (As a side note, I recorded the whole thing on a digital voice recorder (excellent quality) and later transcribed the whole thing – and that itself will provide enough ammunition for a whole other series about psychics and cold reading.) And – so it seemed to some of the audience – he “told them things he could not possibly have known.” He appeared to identify people in the audience by name; he appeared to to identify the dead relatives of people in the audience; he appeared to identify some of those deceased people that some of the audience knew through family tradition only. How could that be possible unless the psychic really was psychic?

Here’s how it’s done by someone who is not really psychic:

Suppose that the average person might know a hundred people – living or dead. For an audience of 110 people that means 110 x 100 = 11,000 possible names available for the psychic to “suggest” to the audience. If you have ever attended a live performance of a psychic or just watched one of the psychics on TV, think about it: they tend to say something like, “I’m getting the name James. Does that mean anything to anyone here?” If there is no response, then: “It could be Jim, Jimmy? Jane, Jenny? Kenny? Lenny?” And so it goes on, until someone in the audience exclaims, “Yes! That’s…” someone they know or knew.

Notice that no psychic ever singles out a person and goes to them saying something like, “You must be Elsie Bloggins. Your husband Roger tells me that he died suddenly two months ago when he collapsed with a massive stroke. He also tells me that you are worried because you think there is no money to get you by. He wants you to stop worrying because he wants you to know that he had just finalised his will – leaving you well taken care of – and it is hidden beneath the loose floorboard in the cupboard under the stairs.”

If that kind of accuracy were the norm, and the claim turned out to be true, then I would believe in the reality of psychics and mediumship. But that doesn’t happen. A psychic can throw out a name to an audience, as above, and out of at least 11,000 possible connections, it’s really hard for the psychic to score a miss. As in my previous post about psychics, I explained this idea to the same lady I mentioned then (I’ll call her “Linda” for convenience). Someone in the audience is almost certain to be able to make a connection of some sort.

I explained it to Linda this way: suppose the psychic, instead of just suggesting common names like Michael, Tom, Jane and suchlike, had actually included an old fashioned and obscure name like Septimus. He could have said something like, “Does anyone recognise the name Septimus? An older gentlemen who would have been known by his friends and family as “Sep”, or “Seppy.”

Linda was startled. “That was my great uncle’s name,” she exclaimed. “You couldn’t possibly have known that.” (Keep that phrase in mind as we go through this series about psychics.)

I didn’t “know” that at all, of course.  And I wasn’t claiming that the fictional Sep was anyone she knew personally. Even though I was just explaining a point, Linda – a believer if ever there was one – assumed that I had made some sort of psychic connection with her relative.

The fact that I had mentioned a rare and unusual name to her and it was identified, was a bit of a fluke. The probability of one particular person identifying such a name is smaller than throwing the same name out to a large audience, but that’s alright: in a one to one psychic reading it is sometimes worth taking a chance; if the guess is wrong, it is soon forgotten and never referred to again.

It’s a numbers game because psychics make guesses that have a high probability of scoring a hit. Common names are used more in one to one situations; rare names are used more when there is an audience.

Names are just one part of it, though. The same applies to occupations. When a psychic says to the audience – or an individual – something like, “Why am I seeing a uniform?”, he or she is not making a statement, they are asking a question. It is up to the sitter or audience member to volunteer the information. How many people do you know who wear a uniform? Someone who goes to sea; a police officer; nurse; fireman; supermarket worker; fast food operative; barrister; paramedic; traffic warden; security guard, etc.

But the word “uniform” can also cover a range of clothing that is not a uniform in the “peaked-cap” sense. Many people have to wear certain clothing appropriate to the job they do; for example, a car mechanic usually wears overalls; the fellow behind the counter in the bank wears a suit; a butcher wears a traditional apron, and so on. All of these can be called a uniform of sorts, and it just needs a small stretch to accept that a uniform just means that in a particular environment, people do dress “uniformly.”

So there’s nothing marvellous going on when a psychic asks his audience – or a single sitter – “Why am I seeing a uniform?” When he asks a question like that, it is the person or persons he is doing the reading for who then have to find the connection, and, more importantly, supply the meaning.

In a situation like this, psychics play what I have called a numbers game. A very large number of people wear a uniform of some sort, even if it is not something as distinctive as a military type uniform, so the probability of a sitter or audience member thinking such a statement is a hit is very high. Unremarkable, even. How many people do you know who wear (or wore) a uniform of some kind?

Then again, what about a psychic who says something specific about a sitter or the sitter’s deceased relative? No problem. This is where Linda comes in again.

Despite trying to assure Linda that I have no psychic abilities whatsoever, she is sceptical of my assertion that I am not psychic (irony, anyone?). And one night when we were talking, she insisted that I “do something psychic.” She insisted that I tell her something about her life that no-one else could possibly know. And she kept on insisting until the only way to stop her was to say to her, “OK.”

“Think back a lot of years,” I said to her, “to when you were a little girl. There’s one particular day I’m thinking of. Remember the time you were climbing those railings and you fell off? You hurt yourself – in fact you injured your leg.”

Linda immediately gasped as she sat up straight with a look of shock on her face, her eyes wide and her jaw hanging open. “You couldn’t possibly have known that,” she exclaimed.

She added some detail, however. Apparently the accident she was thinking of happened when her family took her on holiday in the countryside. It wasn’t actually railings but a wooden fence she fell from. and the injury to her leg was caused by some barbed wire attached to the fence. And it was a painful injury. Just amazing that I knew all that.

However, I didn’t know it. What do children do? They run around, they climb things and they fall off things. Often, they hurt themselves when they fall – it’s all part of growing up and learning about the world around them. What happened to Linda happens to just about everyone, so mentioning a childhood accident is no big deal. And, as I mentioned earlier, the sitter supplies the information, and Linda certainly gave it  all of its meaning. All I did then was to listen to her filling in the details as I murmured the occasional, “Yes”, “That’s right”, and so on. I was wrong about railings, I didn’t know anything about the barbed wire, it happened in the countryside, it was during a summer holiday – I just offered a generic scenario, and left it to Linda to tell me the details, after which she convinced herself that I really had done something psychic.

As always, in this sort of situation, I took her through it all and explained that I merely suggested a scene, but that she took it from there and filled in all the missing details.I’m not sure I convinced her, though. She still seems to think I am psychic but in denial about it. People like her (bless) are what keeps psychics in business.

Next time you see a psychic in action, just make a mental note of how often he or she asks questions – or makes open-ended statements – as opposed to how often they home in on precise details. Mentioning a common scenario such as a childhood accident is not as precise as it seems, and people tend to assume that the things they have experienced are unique to them. But they are not so unique at all. If you ever see one as precise as Mrs Bloggins’ psychic above, it’s probably understandable if you feel the need to raise an eyebrow.

Obviously, genuine psychics don’t have to go through all that rigmarole.

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