Part I: Skeptics, Mentalists and Tarot Readers

mind-readingFor purposes of this article let us assume that there is no paranormal or spiritual aspect to tarot readings. Let’s pretend, for the moment, that all tarot readings have a rational basis in easily explained normal human skills.

Skeptics and mentalists reduce tarot reading to just this level. Mentalists utilize skills to make money in public performances, while skeptics denounce any tarot or psychic readings that don’t acknowledge they are merely mental tricks.  They claim “pseudo-psychics” exploit human weaknesses and take advantage of the desire to easily gain benefit from something. Pseudo-psychic readings are seen as “too-good-to-be-true” and as giving false hope just to make money. Skeptics claim that psychic and tarot readings can be explained by techniques gathered under the terms Cold and Hot Readings. We will ignore hot readings (that fraudulently use information obtained ahead of time) as our purpose is to examine readings where nothing prior is known about the client.

Eyes-Open, Eyes-Shut

Skeptics and mentalists separate psychics and readers into two categories:

  1. those who are deliberately conning people (“eyes-open”)
  2. those who believe they actually have some powers—when all they’ve really done is learned how to do cold reading without realizing it. (“eyes-closed” or “shut-eye”).

Timothy Campbell, an executive of the Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry, feels that 99 percent of psychic readers are “eyes-open.”

Orson Welles commented that the occupational disease of fake psychics is to become a shut-eye—to believe in yourself. It was when he began receiving and speaking information instantaneously—without rationalizing it—that he quit doing his psychic act. (Interview for Tannen’s Magic with Jennifer Ward on his life as a magician).

Psychic and tarot readers who are mentalists are eyes-open practitioners. They either honestly explain that they are performing mental tricks or they lie or avoid the issue as part of a deliberate con. Craig Browning challenges fellow mentalists to be willing to be embraced by the public as the ‘real thing’:

“The refusal of going with this route not only delivers to us an up-hill trek in attempting to establish a career, it likewise reveals a sense of ‘guilt’ within our being that negates our ability to be effective as psychic performers. . . . I know what you’re thinking (I am a mind reader, you know…): “That’s not ethical!” Who out there is really all that ethical? . . . Either you want to make money and build up a career or you don’t.”

Obviously there are ethical mentalists and there are mentalists who are hustlers and con artists. (William Lindsay Gresham’s noir classic Nightmare Alley—film and novel—both do a superb job of portraying a carny mentalist.)

According to skeptics this leaves category 2—shut-eyes—as the only avenue through which honest tarot readers (who are not mentalists) operate. Even if you believe there’s a third option (as most of you probably do), for the moment let’s go with this and see where it takes us.


I need to be forthright in acknowledging that I see professional skeptics as fundamentalist proselytizers for a religion of science that operates within a mechanistic world view. Many of these professional skeptics have been described as pseudoskeptics by Marcello Truzzi, in that they take the negative rather than an agnostic position—denial rather than doubt. Besides the paranormal, this group of skeptics also target criminal profiling, many forms of psychological therapies and personality tests, alternative health practices, cults, cold fusion and, until recently, global warming and the greenhouse effect, among many, many others.

shermerThey take as a basic assumption that the recipient of a psychic or tarot reading is the victim of a hoax or deception (even if the deception is unintended). It is the skeptic’s responsibility to reveal the fraud and convince the public that a reading has nothing to do with reality or truth—which it is their mission to both vet and protect.

For example, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society, said in an interview,

“In general, the exposé of out-and-out fraud is not that interesting, because it’s just somebody lying. What’s more interesting is self-deception; how leaders of cults come to believe that they can actually do what they think they can do. . . . There is a real world out there that we can know and the best way to know it is through science. The reason for that is because there’s at least a method, an attempt to corroborate one’s own subjective perceptions.”

As guardians of a scientifically-defined “truth,” they believe that to trust subjective experience threatens the fundamentals of science and must be eliminated. It’s essentially a fear-based stance.

This perspective is stated even more clearly here:

“The use of unsubstantiated techniques eats away at the scientific foundations of the profession of clinical psychology. . . . Once we abdicate our responsibility to uphold high scientific standards in administering treatments, our scientific credibility and influence are badly damaged. Moreover, by continuing to ignore the imminent dangers posed by questionable mental health techniques, we send an implicit message to our students that we are not deeply committed to anchoring our discipline in scientific evidence or to combating potentially unscientific practices. Our students will most likely follow in our footsteps and continue to turn a blind eye to the widening gap between scientist and practitioner, and between research evidence and clinical work” (Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jeffrey M. Lohr, Carol Tavris).

I appreciate the work skeptics, scientists and even mentalists have done in describing techniques used in these kinds of human interactions and in identifying perpetrators of fraud. We can learn a great deal from skeptical watchdogs. What I object to is the reductionist conclusions they reach. Even skeptic Ray Hyman notes that the approach goes too far: “The gut reaction of the scientific orthodoxy is to discredit the offending claim by any means possible – ad hominem attacks, censorship, innuendo, misrepresentation, etc.” (from Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry, quoted in “The Psychology of the Sceptic”).

Cold Reading and Meaning

There are many definitions of cold reading. At its most non-judgmental, cold reading is a term for many methods of gathering information about a person and their circumstances and then telling that person something about him or herself that seems impossible to know.

However, the term is almost always used pejoratively as in this definition from The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

“Cold reading refers to a set of techniques used by professional manipulators to get a subject to behave in a certain way or to think that the cold reader has some sort of special ability that allows him to ‘mysteriously’ know things about the subject. . . . They bank on their subject’s inclination to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is . . . [and] to feel that the manipulator possesses some special power.”

Skeptics attempt to limit all “meaning” to just what is scientifically verifiable, as we can see from a further warning voiced in the Skeptic’s Dictionary,

“Successful cold readings . . . are always a testament to the ability of human beings to make sense out of the most disparate of data. . . . Cold reading always depends on the sitter being willing and able to connect the dots and make sense out of most of what the reader brings up. . . . This is part of subjective validation or the Barnum Effect.”

The Barnum (or Forer) Effect describes the phenomenon that people will find personal meaning in mere commonplace statements and believe them to be perfectly accurate for them, while in fact they apply to almost everyone. People readily perceive (or are led to perceive) information as metaphors, which that person applies in their own way. However, works such as Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By postulates that this is how human beings ascribe and communicate meaning. We can’t do otherwise. And Victor Frankl proposes, in Man’s Search for Meaning, that finding meaning in our experiences, even in the face of a reality that seems to negate it, is a (if not, the) most significant evolutionary and survival mechanism possessed by human beings.


londonmentalismmeetingMentalists (who are often also skeptics) are entertainers who use their skills to create an illusion—to get people to believe something that isn’t true. When a mentalist uses mental tricks as entertainment, it’s a legitimate  profession. In this post, however, I refer specifically to the deliberate use of cold reading and even conjuring techniques to do fake psychic or tarot readings. When it’s used as a scam to take advantage of people, it’s not ethical. Advertisements for training in mentalism with the purpose of becoming a psychic or tarot reader usually emphasize making as much money as possible (including selling their procedures at a high price to other mentalists), rather than helping the client. According to one,

“I have earned a LOT of money using this system and I’m pleased that we can now offer it to our customers. I believe that this system gives a no nonsense approach to reading tarot cards. It cuts out all the garbage, leaving the prospective tarot reader with the information required to go out and do successful readings and earn money. All YOU the tarot reader have to do is make your readings entertaining and the repeat bookings will flow in. In the end it is YOU not the cards who are doing the reading, never forget that.”

Another mentalist, Lynne Kelly, created something called Tauromancy that she describes as,

“A fraudulent system for performing ‘psychic’ readings. . . .  The reader is able to make a large number of statements about the client which appear to give information the reader could not know without special powers. Using Tauromancy, I have given hundreds of readings using cold reading techniques. Despite this honesty, there have been a number of sitters who are convinced I could not have known the things I claimed to know without psychic insights. I failed to convince them otherwise. Such is the human need to believe.”

You can learn to read like a mentalist at Magiczilla, where you’ll be told that tarot reading relies on a method known as cold reading. This technique is practiced by clairvoyants, psychics and mentalists to make someone believe you can read their underlying thoughts. All you need is a deck of Tarot cards and to memorize the proclamations below. Regardless what cards turn up, deliver the phrases and try to individualize the remarks as much as you can. You will obtain far more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’. To make the effect more ‘realistic’ do each step purposefully. This will give the impression that you know what you are doing.

13stepsWhat follows are standard Barnum Effect phrases:

  • You have some character weaknesses but are in most cases are able to compensate for them.
  • You have a need for other people to like and respect you.
  • You are overly critical of yourself.
  • You have substantial extra capacity that you have not yet turned to your benefit.
  • Security is one of your major goals in life.
  • Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you are worrisome and insecure on the inside.
  • You become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and obstructions.
  • At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  • You desire a particular amount of change and variety
  • You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without sufficient proof.
  • At times you are extroverted, approachable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, cautious, and reserved.
  • Some of your ambitions can be rather impractical.
  • You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.

The Client or “Subject” of a Reading

To a skeptic, as long as the subject is told that a reading is a hoax, it’s legitimately okay, albeit pitiable or even disgusting, to see how the subject, nevertheless, ascribes meaning to something that isn’t “real.”

Mentalist Michael Hughes has a more empowering take:

“Mentalism, as theatre, succeeds when the audience is convinced that what they’re seeing and experiencing can’t be a trick. When the spoon bends in their hands. When private thoughts are pulled out of their heads. No flashy gimmicks, no death-defying stunts, just pure demonstrations of what seems to be unexplainable.”

Hughes makes sure, though, that the audience leaves empowered by understanding:

“I close all of my shows with a demonstration of mind over matter accomplished only by audience members. They do all the work. And it’s something they can go home and repeat, with their friends. That is magic. That is phenomenal.”

Mentalists have a lot to teach tarot readers about both the entertainment business and the kinds of effects certain communication techniques have on people. Such knowledge, given the right intent, can make us more ethical and aware of what we are doing. [This is the kind of knowledge that’s referred to by Da’at on the Tree of Life. It’s a kind of knowledge that brings with it great danger and great responsibility.]

Part 2 will explore how supposed cold and warm reading techniques are normal modes of human communication—the ways in which we come to know, interact and empathize with others—that can add value to the tarot reading experience.

Added: Listen to a Podcast interview with me and Leisa Refalo at The Tarot Connection.

Part 2