Psychics have one of the easiest jobs in the world—all they have to do to be seen as vaguely credible is guess things that are probably true about other people. This is called “cold reading,” and it gets easier when you think about the kind of person who might be seeking out the services of someone who claims they can speak to the dead or know the future. (Have you had a loved one pass away? Most of us have. Was there some baggage there? There always is!) Or in the words of John Oliver, in a segment aired last weekend: “It’s like asking a room full of praying mantises, ‘Has anyone here lost a loved one because you ate them after having sex?’”
Psychics can become celebrities if they’re good enough—even Kim Kardashian hung out with hairspray icon/Long Island Medium the other day—and their methods of deception are getting even better in the age of Facebook, according to a New York Times Magazine piece, which follows a group of skeptics determined to catch so-called psychics in the act of “hot reading,” or mining the digital lives of clients for clues about who they are.
According to the piece, Susan Gerbic assembles teams of regular people to attend psychic readings in character—characters associated with fake Facebook profiles that other members of the group curate:
“Post often, post cat pictures, memes, favorite foods, recipes,” Gerbic urged through the crackle and pop [of a group Skype call], and to ensure they don’t get caught too easily, “Make sure the pictures aren’t too Google searchable!” The Facebook pages are meant to be catnip.
The hope is that a psychic hosting an event calls on the plants, and ends up reciting (fake) details from the (fake) personal lives. On one occasion, Gerbic attended a show as Susanna Wilson, and the psychic, a man named Thomas John, correctly guessed she had a brother who died of pancreatic cancer. (She cried to egg him on.) But then he started talking about her dog Buddy, another detail that had been planted on Susanna’s Facebook page; the problem was Gerbic didn’t know who Buddy was. (She purposefully didn’t read everything on her character’s fake Facebook page, so as to not compromise the integrity of the sting; a psychic could always say he guessed correctly by reading her mind.)
Gerbic says that’s when John knew he’d been found out:
Gerbic had no idea and improvised, “my father,” when in fact, Buddy was her fictional dead brother’s fictional dog.
John kept up the reading and then interrupted himself: “Oh, I understand — O.K., so I am being drawn over here,” and with that, he walked away.
Gerbic’s stings have mostly caught cold reads—but the subtext of the New York Times Magazine’s piece on her operation is that psychic readings are simply business ventures. Psychics are selling your something, and their livelihood depends on knowing what you want to be sold, so obviously they’re going to use every tool at their disposal to deliver. It doesn’t really make a difference if they’re reading your body language or your Facebook comments—and if a person is seeking out a psychic, they’re probably going to hear whatever they want to hear anyway. It reinforces that your information online is public, and that information is often used to sell you stuff—even a conversation with the dead.