This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 20, Issue 3, from 2007
As the regular reader and proud sceptical disciple (or the quietly and perhaps appropriately embarrassed believer) that you must necessarily be to clutch this fine journalistic artefact firmly alongside today’s copy of the Daily Mail, I shall presume you are already aware of the existence of cold reading.
For the keen but uninitiated few, cold reading can essentially be described as the art of attempting linguistically, behaviourally, and often rectally, to relay to people, personal information which is derived from observation, rationality and inductive reasoning. It is a technique by which an individual can appear to know more about another than they feasibly should. Formed from many psychologically allied fields, cold reading provides a highly sophisticated and informed analysis when performed well, but in consideration of its use by deliberately deceptive and fraudulent psychic or mediumistic performers, I make no apologies for sphincter level tenure in this article.
That stated, the particular episode of apparent cold reading which inspired this articulate rant was a comparatively innocuous, if blatant, affair on the behalf of Mr Colin Fry, resident psychic and lone presenter of FTN channel’s 6ixth Sense programme. I must admit to being newly initiated to this specific twice nightly, thirty-minute delight, but the seductive title sequence perhaps suggested that Mr Fry would gesture enthusiastically towards audience members, whilst simultaneously relaying important messages from the ‘other world’. What actually resulted was a marvel seemingly best described as a Q&A session – our genial host asking direct questions of audience members and subsequently showing paranormal ‘insight’.
Now I realise that, although the fundamentals of cold reading may come as no surprise to many readers, this claim may be more easily dismissed quickly by the perhaps more open-minded and less delightfully critical reader. With that in mind, I offer the following analysis based on the first reading of the programme broadcast on Tuesday 7th November 2006:
The reading itself lasted for a total of exactly three and a half minutes from introduction to closing. During this period, eight topics were mentioned by the host. Within these, four items were initial ‘hits’. That is to say that four comments addressing those eight topics superficially made immediate sense to the participants. Conversely, only one item was a ‘miss’. That is to say that only one comment was not verified as true by the participants.
Now the above might lend credence to Fry’s abilities either as a master cold reader or as a genuine psychic. That is, of course, presuming his other seven direct questions and two completely unverifiable predictions about the future are ignored. I intend to consider these future predictions first.
Seeing into the future
To me, there lies an important distinction in apparent psychic readings, illustrated quite nicely by a sign currently advertising a shop in the centre of Ealing, London. The sign in question simply reads “Psychic, healer, palmist”. If such abilities are presumed genuine, then it may be entirely plausible that the paranormally gifted individual working inside this shop can relay important information from your dearly departed grandmother, before transmitting palliative energies to cure your terribly sensitive, irritable bowel. However you regard these abilities, each can hypothetically exist within its own right. We are expected to believe that such abilities do not necessarily exist exclusively: one could potentially possess a single ability in mediumship or healing, but one could also be blessed with all of these extraordinary abilities.
The distinction, however, is that Seignior Fry not only seems blessed with the ability to deliver messages from the dead, but also to deliver messages about the future. For me, palmist abilities or messages from the dead require a certain stretch of the imagination, but specific predictions about the future require enlightenment on an entirely different level. The hypothetical psychically gifted healer who dabbles in palmistry may possess extrasensory channels of communication but she certainly cannot divine your future. She may make ‘informed’ guesses about major events in your life through the consideration of lines in your skin, but she does not talk about specifics. In this sense, the palmist cannot divine the future.
Conversely, Fry, as a modest psychic medium speaking about the sizeable financial difficulties of one audience member, is able to state with absolute conviction that “You can sort it out by the sixteenth of December”. It is uncertain whether this is his own insight or that derived from the deceased grandfather of the audience member with whom he has contact, but at no point to my knowledge has Fry ever claimed to have personal insight into the future. As such, I am presuming that he must gain future insight as a sole result of his supposed communication with the dead. So, consider this: what aspect of death permits one’s least favourite, late, great aunt to have personal insight into your future?
If the process of dying is not absolute and somehow empowers people with visionary qualities, it would have major scientific and philosophical implications. If the dead could accurately foretell our future, new consideration must be given to the debate about free will and determinism. Would our lives be determined? Would we be under the influence of a higher power? Or is it perhaps a little more logical to apply the principle of Occam’s Razor to this scenario and conclude that Colin Fry, whilst conducting a psychic reading, might have been making statements for dramatic effect? Fry’s participant simply heard what she wanted to, what she expected to hear.
Having briefly considered visionary qualities, it is also important to consider the role of direct questioning in psychic readings. Fry claims possession of clairsentient abilities: a form of ESP which permits psychic insight primarily through personal ‘feeling’. Given that clairsentience acts through emotional means rather than the relaying of directly verbalised messages, the psychic must bring their own interpretation to the ideas and feelings they experience. As such, some direct questions asking to clarify or confirm assertions might be justifiable. What did seem rather difficult to psychically rationalise, however, were any reasons why around half of all the statements made by Fry were direct questions.
A total of seven questions were asked of the audience members during the reading; five of these being in the first 40 seconds, and the final two following shortly after. Essentially, for the first 40 seconds of the reading, Fry did nothing but sensitively interrogate one lady about her family, potential bereavements and present company, at an impressive average rate of one question every eight seconds. After taking a moment to relax and breathe, he then focused attention on her friend.
Addressing this second volunteer, Fry first asked to see her hands. He specifically asked if the ring on the fourth finger of her middle-aged right hand, was her late mother’s wedding ring. He continued by affirming quietly to himself that “Mum’s in the spirit”, quickly suffixed by the justification to his volunteer that “she said ‘get her to show you…. hands”. Now these may indeed be the overly-analytical musings of a sceptic who should know better, but what intrigues me is why the exchange progressed in this form. Fry could have stated from the outset that he believed the ‘spirit contact’ was possibly the late mother of this individual, and he felt that she was reporting her daughter was wearing her wedding ring.
Instead, he decided to pose short questions to the lady, drawing conclusions and continuing only after affirmative responses had been given. Perhaps this is indicative of an attempt to make the reading more sensational by gaining more affirmative responses. Perhaps it could be indicative of mere fishing.
Unfortunately, I cannot prove a negative in this – I cannot prove definitively that Fry was not using a form of mediumistic sense to derive information from the dead mother of a volunteer, following fairly specific questions. What I can state quite confidently is that his method of revealing this information appeared extremely suspicious to me, as a viewer who is expected to subscribe to the proceedings.
By this stage, after the establishment of a series of affirmative responses, audience and volunteer alike are assumedly convinced of Fry’s penchant for paranormal prophecy and are likely to no longer search for confirmatory evidence for this. As such, Fry is permitted to make greater numbers of general statements and entirely unfounded claims – something which is seemingly exploited to maximum effect, considering the following:
I have to say I don’t know what they’re talking about here, but it’s meant to be something that’s like [sic] personal to you, that you’re meant to understand. Sometimes you have to accept, you’re flogging a dead horse. Sometimes you just have to accept ‘back out and start again with something or somewhere else.’ Do you understand? You can.
These three sentences are a very good illustration of standard ‘Barnum statements’. Named after Phineas T Barnum, these statements are described in Ian Rowland’s The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading as those which “a majority of people, if asked, will consider to be a reasonably accurate description of themselves”. Although the most typical Barnum statements refer to personality or character traits, they can also easily address events or states of mind, as seen here.
First is a disclaimer that the medium cannot know the nature of this reference specifically. It provides a valid reason not to elaborate on the Barnum statements. In Fry’s case, this is followed by a statement that, to be fair, most people who have experienced bereavement would be able to understand. Few individuals, I suspect, would progress with their life and not ruminate over their deceased loved one or those things they personally regretted not doing or saying. “Flogging a dead horse” seems a very general description of these issues. In fact, upon watching the reading, one of the esteemed co-editors of this lovely magazine made some impromptu quip about eBay, and the unusual equine interests of the lady, if she was indeed literally ‘flogging’ a dead horse.
Joking aside, ‘flogging a dead horse’ and ‘starting again’ are perhaps two of the most generalised concepts which could be applied to someone in the grieving process. It says nothing of the individual, stating nothing specifically as fact. Similarly, ‘Jacques statements’ which Rowland describes as being “derived from common rites of passage, widely-recognised life patterns, and typical problems which we all encounter”, also provide an explanation of the seemingly positive interpretation of such phrases. The power of these statements becomes obvious from the volunteer’s post-reading interview in which she talks about the “bereavement problems” to which she believed she heard Fry refer. In reality, Fry made no such reference in the broadcast show.
Instead, it is reasonable to assume the volunteer had placed her own significance and insight onto the very generic and non-specific statement made by Fry, and consequently remembered the exchange to be far more accurate than it truly was.
Again, in short, I cannot disprove the use of any psychic sense in the reading, all I offer is a pattern which conforms to the models within cold reading. I echo the same question from above – was the participant only hearing what she expected to? Their own silly faults?
No venture into the possibilities of fraudulent mediumship and cold reading would be complete without mentioning a contribution from Derren Brown, the “devil bearded mind fiddler” as dubbed by hedonistic Zoo magazine. He partly addresses the issues of expectation and the need for belief, writing in Tricks of the Mind, his latest entertaining excursion into psychic-bashing. Writing in his typically acerbic mode, he states
Most people don’t take psychics seriously, and may find all this self-evident. But some poor souls take psychics very seriously indeed, and many become reliant on them for advice or a sense of well-being. Perhaps that’s their own silly fault. Quite possibly.
In many senses, Brown may be correct. Some individuals, I am sure, do tend to hold the psychic world in rather high regard and apply concerningly low critical analysis to its claims. Some individuals may become reliant on psychics in their personal quest to continue communication with loved ones. If it is genuinely possible to live in some form after corporeal death, and if it were genuinely possible to communicate with these entities, then advice or a sense of well-being from this, would be perfectly ‘normal’. In these statements, Brown is absolutely correct. The point I dispute, is that it is “their own silly fault”.
The fanatical faith many individuals unreservedly place in psychics and the associated industry undoubtedly aids the perpetuation of personal exploitation, but to a field which trades in belief, this is hardly surprising. In return for a suspension of disbelief, clients receive reassurance, comfort and guidance. This does not mean, however, that the client is at fault.
In bereavement, individuals have a need for positive belief. There is little point in visiting a psychic or a medium whom you personally believe to be fraudulent. It is the responsibility of the psychic or medium concerned to respond sensitively and appropriately to their client. If psychic abilities do exist then, morally, the practitioner should not use that ability for detriment or disproportionate personal gain. Importantly, if no psychic abilities exist in practice, this still remains true.
Society has few moral issues with the use of placebo therapies when effective, and presuming they have a similar positive outcome [editors note: placebos are probably not as effective as people assume!], I see no reason why the same cannot hold true for psychic readings. Negative outcomes such as addiction can occur with medicinal treatments, talking therapies, and likewise with psychic readings. Controversy exists regarding the nature of action of many medicinal therapies, clinical hypnosis, and again, with psychic readings. These criticisms, therefore, are definitely not exclusive to psychics, though sceptics still tend to regard psychics with a special variety of loathing.
Aside from the provision of life guidance, my personal issue with the psychic industry lies within the exploitation on which much of it would appear to be based. Fry, to use an apparently very pertinent example, owns a Swedish establishment named the “International College of Spiritual Science”. Marketed as “Colin’s College”, it claims to teach the techniques and methods needed to become a psychic practitioner. If Fry truly were psychically gifted, what practical aspect of their talent can actually be passed on to others? Magicians of all varieties have been sharing secrets and practical techniques for centuries. Psychics, by their very nature, simply cannot – there is nothing to pass on to the general public, there is only a personal ability! Instead, it would seem to me that the college provides an opportunity centred more in financial and media gain than that of any educational sense.
The most revealing factor in this, and perhaps largest proverbial nail in the coffin of psychic exhibitionism, is provided by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. Introduced to repeal previous legislation aptly entitled as the ‘Witchcraft Act’ of 1735, the Fraudulent Mediums Act is, in essence, the most potent legal position which counters the exhibition of fraudulent psychic ability for personal or institutional benefit.
Aside from protecting individuals in an interpersonal context, the act also ensures that psychic displays, televised or otherwise, cannot deceive audiences. It stipulates that broadcast programmes must not make untruthful claims and, as such, cannot lead viewers to the belief that a performer is psychic, when in truth they are not. The most simple and effective method to ensure this does not occur, is to include a written or a verbal disclaimer to prefix or suffix the broadcast.
Conveniently, 6ixth Sense with Colin Fry happens to do just that. Appearing for a total of eight seconds – which coincidentally is not long enough to read it in its entirety – at the end of the final credit sequence, this disclaimer states the following:
No information concerning any participant in the 6ixth Sense was passed onto Colin Fry prior to filming. To this end, we have relied upon information provided by Colin Fry and third parties who have expressed their own personal opinions, which do not represent the views or responsibility of the producers. 6ixth Sense is an entertainment programme and the content should not be construed as advice, counselling, suggestions or fact.
I am personally divided between which aspect of the very specific and considered phrasing appeals to me most, so I will address them briefly in order of statement.
Firstly, “No information concerning any participant in the 6ixth Sense was passed onto Colin Fry prior to filming.” This means precisely what it says – no information was passed to Colin Fry prior to filming. This does not mean that Fry could not have conducted his own pre-show investigations. Similarly, information could have been provided to Fry during filming with-out breaking this disclaimer. Presumably there are pauses in filming during which this could feasibly occur, however, there are also a multitude of very deceptive techniques which could covertly provide Fry with information in real-time.
Secondly, “we have relied upon information provided by Colin Fry and third parties”. My interest here lies within “third parties”. This ambiguous term could either refer to the participants and interviewees in the show, or perhaps any confederates potentially working alongside our host. As I say: perhaps.
Thirdly and finally, “6ixth Sense is an entertainment programme and the content should not be construed as advice, counselling, suggestions or fact.” Very simply, Fry is neither offering counselling nor advice, nor should he. To my knowledge, Fry is not a qualified therapist, so this statement is very well informed. It would seem though, that Fry does not offer his insight as fact either. Admittedly the process of supposedly relaying messages from the dead is not a direct one, and consequently messages may not be entirely factual. However, this is inherently obvious. Critically though, there is no qualification as to what proportion of Fry’s messages may be factual, simply meaning that none of what Fry claims has to actually be true.
To compound all of this, more recent programmes have been prefixed by a spoken disclaimer claiming that the origins and explanations of clairaudience and clairsentience are not agreed upon, and again claiming that the 6ixth Sense with Colin Fry is an entertainment programme.
So, whether Colin Fry accomplishes his televised readings through a psychic sense, cold reading, hot reading, creative editing, none of the above, or a combination of all of these techniques, I will tentatively admit to finding the programme entertaining, though perhaps for reasons other than those the producers intended. The views people express about these areas seem almost inconsequential against their overriding emotional expressions, and perhaps that is the point. The psychic industry thrives on emotion rather than cold rationality, and it probably will continue to do so. This is not to cast judgement on Fry or his abilities, but I hope that an increasing awareness of the existence of fraudulent techniques can foster greater critical analysis. Time will tell.
- Brown, D. (2006). Tricks of the Mind. London: Transworld Publishers.
- Rowland, I. (2001). Full Facts of Cold Reading, 2nd ed. London: Ian Rowland Limited.