Twenty-five years ago, I met Philip Haldeman, cochair of Seattle’s Northwest Skeptics, and we formed a friendship. One of the many topics of interest we shared was cold reading. As a result, over the years I have invited Haldeman to my general psychology classes to pose as a psychic and see how my students would react. At first, Haldeman doubted that even a studious application of cold reading techniques could fool college psychology students. But time and time again he was successful, convincing my students of his amazing “psychic” abilities. After his “readings” of the students’ lives for much of the class time, I would shatter the reality of what Haldeman was doing by announcing that he was in fact a fraud.
Since 2003, I have been teaching a two-credit class once a year at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington, titled Critical Thinking about the Paranormal. Despite the first two words of the title, I’ve found that students are attracted to the class because of the last word in the title. Like most people, my students are fascinated with claims of the paranormal but haven’t developed critical thinking skills to evaluate the claims.
On the first day of class I introduce Haldeman as a “registered psychic.” (This introduction by an authority figure is one of the most important elements of the deception.) Prior to his “reading,” I pass out a paper that asks students to rate their belief in ESP by answering the following question:
My general belief in ESP is:
a. Extremely high
b. Very high
c. Somewhat high
d. Not sure
e. Somewhat low
f. Very low
g. Extremely low.
<format as question on a survey>
After Haldeman briefly elaborates on his credentials (mentioning, for example, that he is speaking on the first day of class because he must fly out of town to help a police department find a missing person), he begins his cold readings. For the next thirty minutes, Haldeman gives his psychic performance using a list of likely “hits” he has memorized beforehand. He engages students eye-to-eye with statements such as, “I see a family in conflict. Would you care to say something about it?” or “What is this problem you are having with your car?” or “Who is Michael?” or “I see you are trying to choose between two careers.” In a typical session, Haldeman is able to “read” fifteen to twenty students.
The more Haldeman did these demonstrations, the more confident he became as a “psychic,” for he began to realize that the cold reading techniques he was using were nearly goof-proof. One time, he came up to a young woman with his usual, “Are you having some sort of problem with your car?” (The hit rate on this is quite high among college students.) The woman looked puzzled: “I don’t own a car,” she said. Now, this should have been embarrassingly wrong, but Haldeman said, “Oh, I see. That certainly is a car problem—not having one!” Haldeman learned to widen the basket so that, for example, if a person’s car was just fine, he’d simply predict a problem on the way, and that the person should be on alert. One time, a student had just wrecked his car a week before! An amazing hit—and of course the other students remember these hits when they occur and tend to forget when the psychic was wrong. This is the phenomenon of selective perception.
Following Haldeman’s demonstration, I ask the students to again answer the same question (as above) and to estimate the percentage of correct “readings.” Then I announce: “Phil is not a psychic. He is a friend who does what the scientific community calls ‘cold reading.’” With most students’ mouths agape, Haldeman and I proceed to discuss the many factors that contribute to the apparent reality of such readings. Following the discussion, I ask them to respond a third time to the same question.
I have compiled the results of this exercise. With the answers to the questions from 124 students, I performed two paired t-tests:
- Between the “before” condition and “just after Phil’s performance” condition.
- Between the “before” condition and “just after Phil is not a psychic” condition.
In coding the responses, I assigned a 1 to answer a, a 2 to answer b, and so on to 7 for answer g. In addition, in the “just after Phil’s performance” condition, I asked students to estimate Haldeman’s “hit” rate in terms of percentage.
Here are the results:
- The mean response of the 124 students to the “before” condition was 3.41 (SD=1.63), which put the average response about halfway between “Not sure” and “Somewhat high.”
- The mean response to the “just after Phil’s performance” condition was 2.96 (SD=1.66), moving up to “Somewhat high.”
- The mean response to the “just after Phil is not a psychic” condition was 4.16 (SD=1.87), indicating that the average score had moved down to “Not sure.” See graph below for comparison.
- When a paired t-test was performed to detect any difference between the “before” and “just after Phil’s performance,” the result was a significant (p<.0000003) increase in ESP belief.
- Twenty-one (17 percent) of the students answered “a. Extremely high” belief in ESP in both the “before” and “just after Phil’s performance” condition. Because these scores could not increase, they were eliminated from the next analysis.
- Of the remaining 103 students, 41 (40 percent) showed an increase toward believing more in ESP while eight (8 percent) actually showed a decrease after Haldeman’s performance.
- A paired t-test was then performed comparing the “before” score with the “just after Phil is not a psychic” score. The result was a significant (p< .000000001) decrease in ESP belief.
- Five (4 percent) of the students had already answered “g. Extremely low” belief in the “before” condition and answered the same in the “just after Phil is not a psychic” condition. These five were eliminated from the next analysis.
- Of the remaining 119 students, 55 (46 percent) showed a decrease in the direction of belief in ESP following the announcement that “Phil is not a psychic” while 11 percent showed an increase in ESP belief.
- When asked to score Haldeman’s accuracy rate, the average was 74 percent with scores ranging from 5 percent to 100 percent.
In interpreting the findings it is clear that many students enter the class slightly leaning toward a belief in ESP. In fact, 17 percent came into class already having an “extremely high” belief in ESP. The thirty-minute cold reading demonstrates that it is a powerful intervention that moved 40 percent of the students toward the “somewhat high” belief. Yet when students discovered how easily they could be fooled, 46 percent showed a decrease from their original belief, moving into the “not sure” range.
One of the interesting findings is that 8 percent of the students actually showed a decrease in their belief just following Haldeman’s performance (but not before we revealed him to be a fraud). It may have been that they were the small group of students who were not taken in by the demonstration. Another finding was 11 percent showed an increase in ESP belief even after we revealed the cold reading trick! It may be that some of these folks stubbornly believed that, even though Haldeman was a fake, there still must be true psychics out there somewhere—or that Haldeman really was psychic, he just didn’t realize it.
The 74 percent hit rate is clearly a demonstration of the power of cold reading. While some of students’ written comments prior to the “reveal” suggested that some of the readings appeared “general,” many were like the following:
- When he first started reading people, I thought that he was using techniques to read people. However, when he started throwing out names and I saw other people’s reactions and them being surprised, it became a lot more believable to me.
- I thought, there is no way this guy could make all this up.
- I never thought I would believe in this stuff, but that was freaky.
- I wonder how he does it. I want to be able to do that.
- After he did some readings, I was 90 percent sure I believed him.
Haldeman does not much enjoy doing this; he worries in the days leading up to the event, as an actor might before going on stage. Also, he still imagines that few of his cold reading statements would seem credible and has visions of a student jumping up saying “You’re a fraud!” (One person in a local television audience actually did this during the taping of a show with psychic James Van Praagh while I was on stage as the skeptic.) One time, Haldeman came up to a young woman with his usual “Who is Michael?,” and the woman burst into tears. Haldeman did not pursue that particular reading, but the example shows the discomfort that can occur. (Do psychics who take people’s money care what effects they have on the unsuspecting?) Nevertheless, Haldeman continued to help me teach critical thinking.
During the classroom debriefing, one of the issues we always discuss is the obvious ethical concern: I lied to my students. Indeed, every time I do this I am aware, of course, that my students are being deceived. As a psychologist, I have an ethical obligation in all my professional interactions. Section 8.07 “Deception in Research” of The American Psychological Association Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct reads:
(a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study’s significant prospective scientific, educational or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.
Further, section 8.8 on “Debriefing” reads:
(a) Psychologists provide a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of the research, and they take reasonable steps to correct any misconceptions that participants may have of which the psychologists are aware.
From a practical standpoint, neither Haldeman nor I take joy in the deception, although we admit to its cleverness as an educational tool. In other words, as noted in section 8.07, we do feel that the deception is warranted; the debriefing period is a time to discuss the inherent issues of this format.
In summary, after more than a quarter century of providing college students with an opportunity to detect the exact deceptive practices used by psychics, it is clear that skeptics, researchers, and educators still have much work to do. Moreover, if it is still this easy to deceive college psychology students (even those who sign up for a class with the words critical thinking in the title), consider the nearly effortless deception of many by those who shamelessly call themselves “psychics.”