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Scientific American

Deconstructing the Dead

published August 2001 | comments (2)
“Crossing over” to expose the tricks of popular spirit mediums
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Like all other animals, we humans evolved to connect the dots between events so as to discern patterns meaningful for our survival. Like no other animals, we tell stories about the patterns we find. Sometimes the patterns are real; sometimes they are illusions. A well-known illusion of a meaningful pattern is the alleged ability of mediums to talk to the dead. The hottest medium today is former ballroom-dance instructor John Edward, star of the cable television series Crossing Over and author of the New York Times best-selling book One Last Time. His show is so popular that he is about to be syndicated nationally on many broadcast stations.

How does Edward appear to talk to the dead? What he does seems indistinguishable from tricks practiced by magicians. He starts by selecting a section of the studio audience, saying something like “I’m getting a George over here. George could be someone who passed over, he could be someone here, he could be someone you know,” and so on. Of course, such generalizations lead to a “hit.” Once he has targeted his subject, the “reading” begins, seemingly using three techniques:

1. Cold reading, in which he reads someone without initially knowing anything about them. He throws out lots of questions and statements and sees what sticks. “I’m getting a ‘P’ name. Who is this, please?” “He’s showing me something red. What is this, please?” And so on. Most statements are wrong. If subjects have time, they visibly shake their heads “no.” But Edward is so fast they usually have time to acknowledge only the hits. And as behaviorist B. F. Skinner showed in his experiments on superstitious behavior, subjects need only occasional reinforcement or reward to be convinced. In an exposé I did for WABC-TV in New York City, I counted about one statement a second in the opening minute of Edward’s show, as he riffled through names, dates, colors, diseases, conditions, situations, relatives and the like. He goes from one to the next so quickly you have to stop the tape and go back to catch them all.

2. Warm reading, which exploits nearly universal principles of psychology. Many grieving people wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to a loved one. Mediums know this and will say something like “Do you have a ring or a piece of jewelry on you, please?” Edward is also facile at determining the cause of death by focusing on either the chest or the head area and then working rapid-fire through the half a dozen major causes of death. “He’s telling me there was a pain in the chest.” If he gets a positive nod, he continues. “Did he have cancer, please? Because I’m seeing a slow death here.” If the subject hesitates, Edward will immediately shift to heart attack.

3. Hot reading, in which the medium obtains information ahead of time. One man who got a reading on Edward’s show reports that “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.”

Whether or not Edward gathers information in this way, mediums generally needn’t. They are successful because they are dealing with the tragedy and finality of death. Sooner or later we all will confront this inevitability, and when we do, we may be at our most vulnerable.

This is why mediums are unethical and dangerous: they prey on the emotions of the grieving. As grief counselors know, death is best faced head-on as a part of life. Pretending that the dead are gathering in a television studio in New York to talk twaddle with a former ballroom-dance instructor is an insult to the intelligence and humanity of the living.

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2 Comments to “Deconstructing the Dead”

  1. Lil Says:

    Over the past several years, a new business scheme has been gaining popularity. It is “Animal Communication.” Many of these “intuitive” or “sensitive” people conduct their alledged psychic communications with dogs, horses, and other animals via phone conversations with the animal owners. $50 – $65 per session is the going rate. I have observed, unfortunately, that patrons of these fine professionals become quite surly if one points out that they are merely practicing the ancient art of cold reading.

  2. Kirsten@Cold Reading Says:

    Cold reading has always shocked people. And what’s not to be very impressed about? Whether or not the person can’t truly read your brain as he would read words in a book, there’s still something undeniably astounding about a individual who can profile you in an instant.