John Edward and the Art of Cold Reading
Randi, James, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
Observations on a Bizarre World
The James Randi Educational Foundation continues to receive lots of inquiries about "psychic" John Edward, who holds forth on the SciFi Channel, pretending to speak to dead people. The general technique is known as "cold reading," sometimes helped along by "warm reading" when the opportunity arises to overhear or elicit information from the victims. As an illustration of this possibility, a member of Edward's audience sent me this comment:
I was on the John Edward show. He even had a multiple guess "hit" on me that was featured on the show. However, it was edited so that my answer to another question was edited in after one of his questions. In other words, his question and my answer were deliberately mismatched. Only a fraction of what went on in the studio was actually seen in the final 30 minute show. He was wrong about a lot and was very aggressive when somebody failed to acknowledge something he said.
Also, his "production assistants" were always around while we waited to get into the studio. They told us to keep very quiet, and they overheard a lot. I think that the whole place is bugged somehow. Also, once in the studio we had to wait around for almost two hours before the show began. Throughout that time everybody was talking about what dead relative of theirs might pop up.
Remember that all this occurred under microphones and with cameras already set up. My guess is that he was backstage listening and looking at us all and noting certain readings. When he finally appeared, he looked at the audience as if he were trying to spot people he recognized.
He also had ringers in the audience. I can tell because about 15 people arrived in a chartered van, and once inside they did not sit together.
"Psychics" employ a technique known as "cold reading." They tell the subjects nothing, but make guesses, put out suggestions, and ask questions. This is a very deceptive art, and the unwary observer may come away believing that unknown data was developed by some wondrous means. Not so. Examples:
"I get an older man here" is a question, a suggestion, and a guess by the "reader," who expects some reaction from the subject, and usually gets it. That reaction may just be a nod, the actual name of a person, or an identification (brother, husband, grandfather), but it is supplied by the subject, not by the reader.
"They're saying, 'Bob', or 'Robert.' Do you recognize this person?" is another question, suggestion, and guess. If there's a Bob or Robert, the subject will amplify the identification. But if there's no Bob or Robert immediately recognized, the reader passes right on, after commenting that Bob is there, but not recognized right now. If any Bob is remembered later, that is incorporated into the spiel. A good example of this comes from James Van Praagh, in a tape by the "48 Hours" TV program. The reading lasted 60 minutes and we found only two actual statements made, and 260 questions asked. Both statements were wrong. Van Praagh was looking for the name of the woman's deceased husband, and he came up with it by asking, "Do you know anyone named Jack?" The woman answered, "Yes! Jack, my husband!" But Van Praagh didn't identify "Jack" at all. …