Inside Out reveals mind readers' techniques

  • 10 December 2012
  • From the section England
  • comments
Paul Daniels doing as card trick
Image caption Magicians like Paul Daniels astound us, but we are under no illusion it is all just a trick

Going by the reaction we got in the middle of the street we had struck 'psychic' gold.

We asked psychological mind reader Kennedy to use his magician's skills and see if he could convince people he had a special insight into their lives.

Our street experiment was to demonstrate just how easily people can be manipulated into offering up information without realising it.

What seems like incredibly personal information, known only to them, is apparently being revealed by a stranger who they've only just met.

It's the kind of technique employed by entertainers to baffle their audiences. That's fine because everyone knows it's a trick.

On tonight's Inside Out we examine whether it's also being used by Stephen Holbrook.

He's an incredibly popular medium who sells out venues across the North.

But critics worry that his claims that he can hear the dead could be harmful to those desperate to make contact with relatives who've passed away.

Stephen categorically denies he uses 'cold reading' techniques insisting he does not advertise his evenings as "entertainment shows" because they are genuine.

Interestingly since we got in touch, his website was changed to say his shows are for "entertainment only".

You can be your own judge by watching tonight's programme - details are at the bottom of this page.

'Cold reading'

So what is 'cold reading'?

On the streets of Newcastle Kennedy showed just how it works combined with a bit of traditional magic.

Our volunteers secretly wrote down a name of someone they hadn't seen for a long time.

Using his magician's repertoire Kennedy was able to get that name - so he already knew the sex of the individual, and chances are that would be someone who was dead.

The changing fashions for names can also hint at a possible age or generation, providing more clues to work with.

Next he throws out a question that seems specific to that person but has in fact got a good probability of being relevant to just about anyone.

"What's this about dogs?" That question is so open ended we probably could all respond to that.

The thing is that our volunteers are filling in the details. Either it's a pet, or maybe they had a phobia of them.

Either way it starts to sound convincing.

"Why are there too many flowers?" This sounds a bit more specific, but is it really?

Flowers are part of our every day lives - but something young men probably don't care for much.

His mum made the connection with the flowers she had planted in his memory and saw it as "scary" that Kennedy would know this. But he never said it.

Asking the right question in the right way is vital to cold reading.

Game of probabilities

Another example would be if a young man has died; our mind-reader could ask if cars were important to him.

Statistically more young men die in car crashes than most other causes.

Image caption Mind readers often play a game of probability and use clever questions

If we hit the mark with this our subject would be amazed. How did we know the young person died in a car crash?

If we didn't, chances are that cars will have had some significance in his life - either because he loved them, wanted one, or was forever asking his parents for lifts.

At the end of it, all you remember is that the mind reader seemed to know every detail of the person you were talking about.

In fact you were doing all the hard work, and the man or woman with the gift was simply playing a game of probability and clever questioning.

You can watch Inside Out on BBC One at 19:30 GMT, Monday, 10 January, 2012

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites