The “cold reading” technique of fake psychics

derekacorahI’ve typed up the following transcript from a DVD called The Psychic World of Derek Acorah. Acorah is a famous medium in the UK, who hosts sell-out stage shows and is involved in a TV show Most Haunted. This is a short scene from one of his stage shows. Derek is apparently relaying information from the spirits of dead relatives to a woman in the audience, regarding her teenage son.

Derek Acorah: He has the potential of being a real bright spark, but he has lazy spasms.

Woman in audience: Yes.

Derek: That’s what she [the spirit] said. They’re not my words. But his potential is there. You need to, just slightly, keep him at a task, in a nice motherly, fatherly, gentle way, and you know, he will do things. There’s going to be big improvement with his concentration! D’you understand this?

Woman: Definitely.

DA: Good. Because they’re all coming behind him, because they want him to do well! And they’ll all put their little bit of spiritual penny’s worth in all together collectively, and make sure that placed into his thoughts is this motivation, okay? And everything will be okay. [Derek makes typing gestures] Does he love the computer, eh?

Woman: Yes.

DA: Because they watch, standing behind him when he’s on the computer. And he’s a dab-hand at it, isn’t he? Oh, and he loves it, oh, internet, eh?!

Woman: No.

DA: He wants it.

Woman: He’s not getting it. [Audience laughs]

DA: Okay. Well … [Derek shrugs, and the DVD cuts to the next clip.]

I am six minutes thirty seconds into watching the DVD and already I know I’ve rented a stinker. This is a classic example of a technique called “cold reading” that fake psychics use. Acorah appears to be saying very specific things to the woman in the audience, things he couldn’t possibly know. But here’s the thing you need to remember: what mother doesn’t see greater potential in her son? What teenager isn’t lazy at times and lacking in concentration and motivation? What teenager isn’t into computers? Those traits are so common in today’s youth. Now, read the transcript again with that in mind and Acorah seems far less impressive.

So, Acorah scores a number of hits, because the stats are heavily weighed in his favour, but he doesn’t get 100%. He thought it was a safe bet that the boy would have internet access, but he was dead wrong. And what the transcript doesn’t quite convey is the enthusiasm that Acorah pours into the sentence about the internet. This falls flat on its face when the woman says, “No.” Acorah deftly dodges this miss by quickly adding, “He wants it.” He diverts the audience’s attention away so quickly and expertly that nobody has time to think, “Hey, Derek, no fair! You got it wrong!”

After a thouroughly uninspiring twenty-six minutes, Derek is talking to people on the streets of Liverpool city centre. He has an interesting chat with three teenage girls (italics mine):

DA: Which one of you knows Steve … or Stephen? [Let’s pick one of the most common names. Surely, in the collective social circle of three people there’s a Steve.]

Girl with hooded jacket: Stephen?

DA: Is it you?

Hoodie: Stephen?

DA: Yeah. Not in spirit. Living, physical?

Hoodie: Yeah?

DA: You know him, don’t you?

Hoodie: Stephen … who, though?

DA: Well, it’s someone … I feel it is you, okay? Don’t be overly trusting of someone called Stephen, okay? Whatever he tells you.

[Well, that was impressive.]

[cut]

DA: Do you know Anne? [Yet another common name.]

Brunette: Yeah.

DA: How close?

Brunette: Emm … I go to college with her.

DA: You’re gonna be helping her very shortly. I see a slight upset, and she’s gonna be confiding in you. [I see where you’re going with this, Derek. What popular young teenage girl’s life isn’t consumed with drama?]

Brunette: Yeah. She has, as well. [Very clever, Derek. You play the future angle, hoping your target will throw you a bone here and there, and it looks like you knew all along – except we don’t see the bones that never get thrown, eh?]

DA: Has she done it recently?

Brunette: Yeah.

DA: And that confiding in you, it’s because she feels hurt by someone? [Top guess, but of course the dice were heavily weighed in your favour. After all, what does the drama of most beautiful teenage girls revolve around? Boys.]

Brunette: Yeah. [smiles] My God, that’s weird, that. [The girl doesn’t realise that Derek phrased his last sentence as a question. He was asking her if Anne feels hurt, but the Brunette heard it like a statement and was well impressed.]

DA: Right, that hurt, okay … is a male, okay? [Like I didn’t see that one coming.]

Brunette: [hands over mouth] Oh my God!

DA: And he’s told her lies. He’s told her fibs. He’s also playing hard to get. [Common teenage behaviour.]

Brunette: Oh my God!

DA: And he’s trying to, you know, make her feel – aw, bless her – trying to make her feel jealous with something. You know, the jealousy is just all around here. Do you understand that?

Brunette: Oh my God, that’s mad! [This girl has absolutely no idea how common and typical every aspect of her friend Anne’s troubles are.]

DA: And, so you tell her from me, okay, and Sam [Acorah’s spirit guide], she can do better than him. Tell her to, just tell him to eff off. She’s too good for him.

Brunette: [nodding profusely] Okay.

Sorry, Derek, but I’m totally unimpressed. And I’m actually a little disgusted. Not only is this guy obviously deceiving people, but he’s actually giving them directions for their lives. He goes as far as advising the girl to tell Anne to dump her boyfriend, whilst knowing nothing about the relationship beyond a few stereotypical observations.

One hour into the DVD, during another stage show, Acorah gives a much more in-depth and detailed communication to a man, involving a brother who died as a baby and the man’s relationship to “Alan,” a close friend with whom he had become estranged. This session goes way beyond cold reading, but given Acorah’s earlier antics in the programme, he has already lost all credibility with me as a genuine psychic. So how did he do it? Firstly, the body language of the man in the audience told me that he wasn’t in on it. So, assuming that tickets were purchased prior to the show, my guess is that some members of the audience were investigated, possibly by getting close to the lives of some of their friends and relatives, or by paying sums of money to such to reveal secrets. It could even be as simple as listening in on conversations at their local bar. The avenues for investigation are many and varied. Derren Brown has performed equally amazing feats of insight whilst denying he has any psychic ability whatsoever. The key to it is that the audience can’t realistically conceive that the host would go to such lengths. Therefore, the host exploits this very thing. I have no doubt this is exactly how Brown goes about it, and we’re seeing the same thing here with Acorah. I am unimpressed. The man gives a short personal interview afterwards, talking about how he now feels happier than he has felt in a long time, and has plans to break the silence between himself and Alan. Very noble, but at what cost? He’s now a “true believer” in a charlatan. I’m all for believing in life after death, and I’m all for forgiveness and reconciliation, but you can’t justify manipulating someone just because there’s a positive outcome.

The cherry on the cake was one of the extras on the DVD, a scene from Most Haunted, where Acorah visits apparently haunted locations and receives communications from spirits. After walking around a house in the dark with a couple of companions (are spirits afraid of electric lights?), Derek walks into a particular bedroom. The thing you’re not supposed to notice is that the camera operator isn’t following Derek; he’s already in there, with his camera facing across the room, at a suitably creepy angle by the bed. Derek opens the door and says and says, “Okay, I’ll go in first, shall I?” to his nervous companions. But you already made the cameraman go in on his own! Once in the room, Derek experiences a fresh reading from a spirit. My question is, how did the cameraman know this room was going to be significant? Ah, of course – the cameraman is psychic, too! It couldn’t be that the whole thing is merely staged, could it? Gasp! Obviously.

The only thing good about The Psychic World of Derek Acorah is the Eve of the War music (from Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds) that Derek likes to play at the beginning of his stage shows.

I am open to the possibility of genuine psychic abilities, including mediumship, but unlike so many believers I also have a healthy flow of scepticism running through my veins. Derek Acorah, you are exposed.

More importantly, it’s vital for us lesser mortals to learn the ways that our perceptions can trick us into believing a lie, so that we can stop the manipulation that infects our lives from so many sources.

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10 thoughts on “The “cold reading” technique of fake psychics

  1. Henry says:

    If you’ve not already read it, I can highly recommend Ian Rowland’s book on cold reading, available from his site here:
    http://www.ianrowland.com/ItemsToBuy/ColdReading/ColdReadingMain1.html

    I read it shortly after it first came out and I’ve been spotting lots of examples of cold reading exactly like the ones you’ve quoted above. Interesting stuff!

  2. Paulie says:

    I really can’t stand this man, not only is he a charlatan, he’s using his craft to prey on those in society that are usually weakest and most vulnerable. Any given audience that goes to see him will be full of people who have lost someone close and can’t deal with that loss.

    He was pretty awful on Most Haunted too, and indeed was found out on a few occasions to be faking being possessed, after being set up by the resident cynic. It stuns me that anyone believes a word he says, after he kicked off Most Haunted for being caught out, when Most Haunted itself is hardly trustworthy, so to get kicked off it for faking really is extreme!

  3. dscorereviews says:

    Totally agree about Acorah’s ‘psychic ability’.

    In saying that , I quite enjoy ‘Most Haunted’. Some of the
    episodes when Derek is possessed are laugh out loud funny.

    ‘Mary love’s Dick ‘ springs to mind as a great ‘Acorahism’.

    Like many people I want to believe in Ghost and ghoulies etc but Acorah lacks credibility and I think that’s why he got the boot from Most Haunted.

    If you needing a quick humourous fix of this ejeet’s background, read Extreme Psychic. Written by Derek it is an insight into his background and his talent!!

    It’s a classic!!

  4. Paulie says:

    I just can’t watch Most Haunted anymore, I did go through the LOL stage, but I reached a point where it was all just making me cringe, so I gave up.

    Ghost Hunters is a much better show, and a lot more realistic with it. The “hits” are a lot fewer and farther between, but it’s credible which means anything they do find, actually has value.

  5. Hi Darryl

    I think I should call round again to have a good chat about cold reading. I will try and bring all my old para-psychology articles with me. Its the biggest load of sh 1 t.

    Cheers

    Paul

  6. Darryl Sloan says:

    Hi, Paul. I would definitely be interested in having a look at your para-psychology stuff.

    Mind you, I’m the rather odd position of being both a sceptic of paranormal phenomena, and someone who seems to be able to do telekinesis in a small capacity. I have still yet to conventionally explain it this one, and I’m certainly open to debunking it despite my enthusiasm for it. 🙂

  7. G L Wilson says:

    Derek Acorah was caught out royally by Most Haunted’s resident parapsychologist Ciaran O’ Keeffe in the infamous “Kreed Kafer” incident.

    It’s bizarre that Ciaran O’ Keeffe is still involved in the show and is not exposing all their other fakery post-Acorah. They must be paying him well.

    Just look up Derek Acorah some time on You Tube – there are plenty of clips. There’s one outtake of him from a show called “Derek Acorah’s Ghost Towns” where he goes to a supposedly random house in the street to give a reading to one of the occupants. In this outtake we hear Acorah asking his co-presenter Daniella Westbrook which house it is, and she tells him. So much for “random”.

  8. doxie56 says:

    I’m not familiar with this “psychic”. However, although I’m skeptical about whether or not anyone can truly speak to the dead, I must admit that Long Island Medium (both the show and the lady) have me wondering. Maybe someday I’ll have the opportunity to find out.

  9. sgt.thomas says:

    I think the word psychic and medium now carry a negative feeling that is hard to shake off and now many people who claim to have psychic powers and use it to make money from people who have lost someone and that is not right! because if you truly have a gift you would be able to make money in other forms like sport teams and at the horse tracks and yes guessing the winning lottery numbers is not part of it but you only know if you will win but there is plenty of ways to make extra money, you can bet on who will win the next super bowl, so people who truly have a gift hide in fear they will persecuted and if they help with a crime you run the risk of being accused of the crime yourself or being hurt by religious nuts because you’re a devil and god will punish you. I think the world is not ready for that and what would happen if you believed when someone told you about september 11 or if you warn people not to fly or take a train would we forever alter the future, maybe things are suppose to be this way, in the same fashion you can’t guess the winning lottery numbers but you know when you will win because its part of your future. yes just another crazy person talking.

  10. dave lasky says:

    The long island medium uses the internet to get her info, on her show she is often shown sitting in the kitchen on her laptop! What are you looking up long island charlatan? Facebook, google, ancestry.com? Puleez!

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