Psychic Fair Play?

Just prior to leaving for The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas (TAM 9) my better half and I (Tamara, she’s also an active skeptic) and another buddy decided to show up for a psychic fair taking place at a hotel conference room in Edmonton, Alberta. Advertised as an ‘ESP Psychic Fair’ where folks could come to part with some of their hard-earned money in exchange for a chance to learn about everything from the future to the dearly departed and even financial advice.

The three of us are all skeptically minded folks, and we are also well versed in cold-reading techniques. As an aside for those who are not familiar with the technique; Cold reading is the practice of using a person’s verbal and non-verbal cues to guide the ‘reading’ in such a way as to make it seem like the psychic reader is getting lots of ‘hits’ (accurate statements) when what is really happening involves the reader taking advantage of information provided by the person being read. This information comes in both active and passive forms, including basic data such as the age, gender, and clothing type and/or hairstyle of the person being read. It also comes in subtle feedback such as verbal statements, facial expressions, head nodding, and even smiles. A person may not believe that they exhibit subtle cues when listening to a cold reader, but those cues are often there especially for the credulous.

Tamara ultimately decided upon one psychic lady who charges $80 for a 30-minute reading. Tamara said she chose this psychic in part because (almost unbelievably) she was cheaper than most of the others, and also because she claimed to have helped police solve crimes. Her printed materials espoused her as a ‘World Renowed Psychic” (sic), which as a writer made me die a little inside. So, because she was pretty much booked up for the day we found a slot about an hour later and booked in for Tamara to get her very first psychic reading.

We passed the intervening hour looking at costume jewelry presented in various new-age formats, and were accosted by several psychics who were tossing around predictions and assessments of us in an effort to impress us enough to sit down and pay for a full ‘reading’.

Tamara Pawluk and Nathan Hinman cool their heels at a Psychic Fair.

After what I felt was a rather dull hour, we trotted over to the ‘world renowed’ psychic for Tamara’s reading. Tamara plopped herself down in front of the psychic while buddy and I nestled into some nearby public seating to wait for the end result, but not a minute into the reading I heard my name called and sure enough the psychic felt that I was somehow critical to Tamara’s reading and invited me to sit in on the event. While there were a number of general aspects of the reading that were highly annoying, I’ll get to those later since there were a few key problems that stood out for both Tamara and myself:

  1. The psychic talked about how Tamara and I were going to be together forever. This is possible, who can say? The psychic, however, was adamant that “this is the guy”.
  2. The psychic then asked Tamara how many children she has (one would think a psychic could establish that), and Tamara answered her honestly that she has one child. At this point the psychic told her that there is going to be another birth in her future and another child will be on the way. There are a number of serious problems with this statement, the first of which is that Tamara is going to be 40 this year and while childbirth probably is possible, she is beginning to push the age limit for conception. The real troubling factor here is that the psychic was adamant that I was to be Tamara’s partner going forward, but I am ‘fixed’ and cannot procreate (sexually anyway), so if Tamara is indeed going to be with child again, it means that I am going to have to accept the idea of her being with another man to become impregnated? Not likely.
  3. Lastly, the psychic asked what I did for a living and learned that I am a writer. She took the time to assure me that I will have success in the future and maybe even a movie deal, and that I should “just keep at it” and success will come. Unfortunately for this psychic she made the mistake most folks make when they meet a writer – they assume the writer is struggling. I won’t bore you all with my financials but I’ve had more than one book sell over 1 million copies and my work has been translated into 8 languages. I’ve done OK and am not struggling.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this psychic was that she didn’t predict anything. In fact, when we listened to the recording we realized that she asked Tamara directly questions like what she does for a living, if she has children, the age and gender of the children, her job, and the list goes on. It’s clear to me that the people that go see psychics like this go because they like having someone to talk to for an hour, and they enjoy the fact that the psychic tells them pleasant things about themselves or their futures. I imagine that folk’s emotional batteries get recharged by hearing that their shitty lives are going to be somehow better going forward, which is kind of sad and pathetic when one thinks about it.

Sadly, however, this costs a fair bit of money and as with the psychic Tamara and I saw, we were encouraged to return for multiple readings (at $80 for 30 minutes no less). Wouldn’t it be better if these people just developed meaningful relationships with those friends and family in their lives and spent their time and money developing those relationships rather than lining the pockets of those who are either knowingly or unknowingly less scrupulous? Certainly that $80 could go a long way to taking one’s spouse, children or friends out for a lunch and a good conversation rather than blowing it on a psychic who’s doing nothing but cold reading and angling for future returns.

10 Responses to “Psychic Fair Play?”

  1. Skeptical skeptic says:

    A professional writer, huh? I will point out that you introduced two characters, unnamed, wandered off for a paragraph to define a concept, then named a character without telling the reader if this was one of the two unnamed characters, or someone entirely new to the story. For shame. :)

    Thanks for the insight. I’ve never had a reading, but I love hearing about them from skeptics (fewer facepalm-related injuries than hearing about them from believers). My favorite was on the Reasonable Doubts podcast where the medium asked two people, “Whose grandfather smells like Old Spice?”.

    • Hello71 says:

      *not sure if kidding or just can’t read*

      “Just prior to leaving for The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas (TAM 9) my better half and I (Tamara, she’s also an active skeptic) and another buddy decided to show up for a psychic fair taking place at a hotel conference room in Edmonton, Alberta.”

      • Skeptical skeptic says:

        It would appear Mr. Farkas is engaged in a conspiracy to discredit my reading comprehension skills! First, he baited me with a non-parenthesised version of that paragraph, then changed it before any other commenters could read it. I suspect the Knights Templar are in on it too.

        I am not paranoid. Everyone is just out to get me.

  2. Bart Farkas says:

    I ain’t much for fancy book learnin’. ;-)

    I love that old spice anecdote. Priceless.

  3. Carol says:

    Is it a good idea to support these fakers by paying them for phony readings? That’s why I’ve never gone, although I’m curious about what they’d say. And wouldn’t it be a good idea when they ask a question to say, “Don’t you know? I thought you were psychic.” And you could ask directly how they get their information–do they see it, hear it, or does it just pop into their head? You had half-an-hour with this woman; I wish you’d asked her more questions than she asked you or at least, at the end of the interview, said that you had gotten no useful information. She did predict the future when she said that both of you would be together forever… except that none of us is likely to live that long. It would be nice before paying the money to ask up front what she does for her money that would make it worthwhile for you to pay it. And it makes me really sad to think of her getting paid $160 an hour for driveling, and sorry for her victims. Did you think that the psychic really believed she was psychic, or was she a conscious charlatan? Did she know you were recording the session?

    • Skeptical skeptic says:

      I have the same qualms, but figure it’s worth it, occasionally, for bloggers to expose this kind of shenanigans. You get a lot of exposure for your buck that way.

      I second the request for a judgement on the believer/charlatan thing. I’m always in awe of how Browne or Edward or van Praagh can look a person in the eye and unload barrels of such improbable bullplop.

  4. anthrosciguy says:

    She was right on with her “success in the future” prediction, since the future starts now and your success didn’t just stop abruptly, right? Amazing!

  5. I used to read tarot before I became a skeptic, and now that I know cold reading, etc, I’ve really changed my tune. I still do tarot readings occasionally because I have found that there can be some benefit, but only if you’re honest about it. I tell people it’s not magic, I don’t have powers, it’s pattern recognition. I think I am what I call a “metaphorical” learner; I can find and extract meaning from symbols and concepts. So an image of a cup overflowing with water representing being very emotional, for example, makes a lot of sense to me, because I can pull in all the associated concepts as well. Of course it’s purely subjective, and I tell people that too. I also tell them they’re likely not going to really remember the parts I got wrong, just the parts I got right and what connects with them. People were still open to this, and it leads to some really interesting discussions. I present it as a meditation tool (or just for fun), because what you’re going to get out of a reading is what you brought to it. You’re going to click with those parts of it that have meaning to you. I use horoscopes the same way; if it says say, “today you will have problems with authority” it gives me something to think about for the day. What are my feelings on authority? How do I treat people in authority? I think it’s interesting to give myself a topic to chew on.
    All the same I find it unconscionable and appalling that someone could look you in the face and tell you they have magic powers and can tell the future. I never told anyone I had that power even when I was more of a believer, and I certainly tell people the opposite now.

    • Erik Davis says:

      I actually think that’s a pretty cool approach. Certainly nothing wrong with using tools to elicit thought or discussion…it’s the deception (of self and subject) that’s the issue with psychics. And you’re actually teaching skepticism in the process. Neat.

    • Solange says:

      Hello Fishmonger,

      My husband reads tarot and gives astrology classes in the same was and for pretty much the same reasons. People have come to him for advice, and he tells them that most of what he gets “from the cards” are just hints for discussion paths. However, he often doesn’t even need cards because he is pretty analytical and can usually tell someone with certainty that if they stay on the path they are on, they will surely find some very logical results (spend too much money = financial problems in the future!). He also gives tarot “courses” to teach people (usually regulars) to think for themselves and use the cards as you do, for thinking about pertinent ideas. People don’t meditate enough these days – they just absorb info without digesting it first. It sure is nice to know there are other folks out there with a head on their shoulders and the creativity to use it! :-)

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  • Bart Farkas

    A full-time writer, Bart G. Farkas has authored over 100 print books and at least as many magazine articles over the years. Originally a Registered Nurse working in Trauma ICU in Calgary, Bart's been writing full-time since 1995 and lives in Sherwood Park, AB. From 2009 to 2011 Bart worked full-time for the James Randi Educational Foundation and has been a member of the JREF and an active skeptic since 1998. Working with IIG Alberta founder Tamara Pawluk, Bart helped to establish the first Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in Canada and currently works as the Publishing Czar and Public Relations point person for the group. He is 1/4 of the Podcast 'talent' for Inside Belief, a bi-weekly podcast that examines the nature of paranormal and alt-med beliefs. Bart has three wonderful children and lives with his girlfriend, fellow skeptic Tamara Pawluk.