Part 2: Hijacking What It Means to Be Human

(Read Part 1 to learn about mentalists, skeptics and cold reading.)


Imagine my surprise when I discovered there are at least a half-dozen extremely expensive books marketed by mentalists on tarot, of which I’d never heard in my forty-plus years collecting tarot books. And, they were written by and for professional tarot readers that I didn’t even know existed as a self-identified group. Of course, I was aware there are fraudulent tarot readers who deliberately used cold reading techniques to con their marks. Naively, I had assumed, though, that cold reading was used mostly by fake mediums and clairvoyants (as in the 19th century) and by mentalist entertainers. I had no idea that tarot was regularly taught as a scam except among some phone psychics and those storefront psychics who used it to extort money for removing curses, etc.—a whole different, albeit related, enterprise. [Note: some mentalists are also ethical tarot readers, and not all mentalists deny the paranormal. I am also not referring, in most of what follows, to ethical mentalists who are honest about using mental tricks.]

To me, fake tarot readers (who are usually also skeptics) serve as a dark mirror of who we are and what we do. In other words, we can learn a lot about ourselves by fearlessly looking in the mirror and learning about our shadow side. I am just beginning this journey and so I’d appreciate feedback and further information.

Currently, I separate what we do from what they do based on ethics, intent, and assumptions or worldview.


The American Tarot Association advocates that tarot readers deeply consider and then formulate their own Code of Ethics to be posted wherever they read. The ATA offers a minimal Code of Ethics that members are expected to adhere and add to. It includes: “I will serve the best interests of my clients, conducting my professional activities without causing or intending to cause harm.” And, “I will represent honestly my Tarot qualifications, including educational credentials, levels of certification, and experience.” Personally, I always tell a client when I am getting information (overt or unintended) from them and not the cards.

In Part 1 we heard from at least one mentalist reader who advocates pretending to be the ‘real thing’: “Who out there is really all that ethical? . . . Either you want to make money and build up a career or you don’t.”


A true tarot reader wants to help the client by offering perspectives and previously unknown, or known but unconsidered, information that ultimately will serve the client’s well-being and best interests. The intent is to help them alleviate anxiety, achieve desires and find meaning that results in an increased awareness or consciousness. We ask, “How can I be of help to this person; what should I be aware of?” Personally, it is my intention to aid a person in recognizing their own wisdom.

The pseudo tarot reader intends to make money by any means possible. He or she intends for a subject to have confidence in the tarot reader so they can be taken by a “confidence game” – a scam that deliberately exploits that confidence.


This is one of the most insidious differences. It can be seen best in the differing views that each group has regarding the person referred to variously as the subject, client, or querent.

As Penny Key explained on The Tarot Connection, “What factors do we see in them [the querent]?—the willingness to see the best they can be, to recognize suffering, to believe in them, to identify depths that others don’t see, to know that they are capable of doing things.” Some readers believe the querent has all the knowledge within him or herself and is seeking assistance in clarifying goals and recognizing alternative options. Such readers believe that acceptance emerges as a consequence of knowing the other more directly—that it naturally awakens compassion.

monster-mentalismThe first thing I noted about the perspective of both the skeptic and mentalist is the assumptions they make about the “subject.” (Don’t believe me—read on the internet their descriptions of the subjects of cold readings.) Subjects are described as compliant and willing, desperate and gullible. Ultimately they are looked down on as blind, weak and helpless victims. Unaware that general statements could apply equally true to others, they can be led to question their beliefs and easily buy into the false beliefs that are offered.

Seeing people this way reduces them to marks or prey who are not really worthy of pity as they’ve brought the deception on themselves. It is this supposed weakness among most of humanity that gives pseudopsychics a mandate to take advantage of them or, in the case of professional skeptics, to protect them, in loco parentis, from their delusions.

The Hijacking of What It Means to Be Human

My next biggest gripe with mentalists and skeptics is their hijacking of a set of ordinary modes of human communication—representative of human beings in social relations with other human beings—and labeling them as deceptive-by-design “cold reading tricks.” It’s assumed they somehow now own and have the right to define these forms of communication according to their own principles. It has gotten to the point that if anyone says they use such a method they are immediately accused of tricking or deceiving the client. If the reader isn’t aware they are “cold reading” then they are, by definition, self-deceptive shut-eye practitioners.

Illustration by Robert Place

Illustration by Robert Place

As we saw in Part 1, shut-eye readers are those “who believe they actually have some powers—when all they’ve really done is learned how to do cold reading without realizing it.” And we saw that skeptic Timothy Campbell of the Ontario Skeptics Society feels that 99 percent of psychic readers are “eyes-open”—deliberately conning people. However, in my experience that includes personally knowing thousands of tarot readers through forty years of conferences, workshops and reading venues, I would say that, among those I know, the numbers should be flipped, and we can remove the words “when all they’ve really done.”

Ninety-nine percent of readers I know believe they are tapping into some kind of energy or powers (personal and/or spiritual), and they consciously use some communication techniques and unconsciously use others. Admittedly, these are people who are interested in all tarot represents and has to offer—not just the money-making aspects.

The fact is, most tarot readers use many of the supposed “cold reading” techniques (warm reading is simply a subset in which one gains information from the subject), but so do public speakers, good mothers, psychologists, priests and ministers, doctors, etc., etc.

Guild to Cold Reading

Let’s use “Ray Hyman’s 13 Point Guide to Cold Reading”—a shortened version appears in red below.  Now imagine these points are describing an accomplished lecturer at a science conference. Google “characteristics/qualities of a good speaker” to find all the points I make below (in black).

1. The key ingredient of a successful character reading is confidence.
A good speaker is confident. If you lack confidence in yourself, the audience will perceive it and lose confidence in you, too.

2. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.
Be thoroughly prepared and familiar with your material. Do lots of research and learn as much as you can about your subject.

3. Set the stage for your reading. (Be modest; make no excessive claims.)
Arrive early and check out the sound system and introduce yourself to audience members during the networking time. Slightly self-deprecating humor is okay. It’s good to show that you can laugh at yourself.

4. Gain the subject’s cooperation in advance. (Your subject will fit your generalities to his/her specific life circumstances (Barnum Effect). If the reading doesn’t click; it’s the subject’s fault for not making sense of the statements, not yours. You will be credited with much more detail than you actually provided!)
Make sure you talk with, not at, your audience. Speak on a subject that your audience needs to hear. For each major point tell an illustrative story. A good story evokes emotion and offers a lesson. The audience members are then only a step away from their own story.

5. Use a gimmick, such as Tarot cards, crystal ball, palm reading etc. (It lends atmosphere; and manipulating them provides time to think.)
Use visual support to illustrate and clarify difficult points.

6. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue. (Use them to start.)
Practice each presentation many times, until you know it cold. Connect with your audience in the first few minutes. Know how to make your opening remarks relate to the material that follows.

7. Keep your eyes open! (Observe everything you can about the person and their reactions.)
Find a few friendly, encouraging faces in the audience and talk to them.
Check to see whether they are following you.

8. Use the technique of fishing. (Then feedback what they told you as an assertion.)
Be sure the organization of your talk is clear to the audience. When your audience brings up objections or questions, answer in a spirit of cooperation and appreciation for their point of view.

9. Learn to be a good listener. (They’ll think you were so astute and supportive.)
Make great eye contact. This makes you appear to be more heartfelt and really present for your audience.

10. Dramatise your reading. (Ham it up.)
Be passionate about what you are saying. Try to communicate to the audience your own interest in and enthusiasm for your subject; enthusiasm is contagious! Use words and body language that shows your passion and authenticity.

11. Always give the impression that you know more than you are saying.
Don’t feel the need to tell an audience everything you know.

12. Flatter your subject.
Make each person feel attended to.

13. Remember the Golden Rule – always tell the subject what he/she wants to hear!
Demonstrate how you can provide what your audience needs. Even when you point out how bad their current situation is and how much they need your solution, don’t dwell on the negative. Emphasize the positive. End with an inspiring story and a call to action.

A lot of what we call intuition (as opposed to psi) comes from subliminal clues picked up in normal human interactions including those mentioned above. This is natural.

Intersubjectivity, Empathy and Mirror Neurons

As to the Barnum or Forer Effect, in which a person creates their own meaning out of statements that could apply to anyone, consider this:

The mind strives for relational connection and communication. There is a term called intersubjectivity meaning the sharing of subjective states by two or more people. It is also a theory that everything we know is actually a consensus about knowing and experience—a working agreement that is sometimes taken for objectivity. Intersubjectivity is available to us, in part, through empathy, which involves experiencing another as subject and not just an object. In doing so, one also experiences oneself as seen by the Other, and the world in general as a shared world instead of one that is only available to oneself. neuronNeurologically empathy is developed through what are called mirror neurons in the brain. In our infancy mirror neurons are the basis for learning through mimcry. Through them we learn what facial expressions and other forms of non-verbal communication mean. They also have a lot to do with our identifying with others and with our identifying inner experiences with stories.

One thing that happens in a reading is that the stories told about the cards bring to mind images and memories that are currently “up” for us at the moment. Neurological connections have been formed linking them to a current problem or issue. A reading brings symbolically and emotionally linked patterns of connections to the fore. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, tells us that “the logic of the emotional mind is associative; it takes elements that symbolize a reality, or trigger a memory of it, to be the same as that reality.” A good reader can help a person make sense of what is triggered by the images, to see the pattern. A good reader can both support a person’s own insights and offer alternate possibilities for consideration.

Finding Meaning

Tarot readings operate through the discerning of relationships based on perception of likeness, recognition of resemblances in superfically distinct phenomena, and analogical reasoning. While the rational mind looks for cause and effect, the emotional mind looks for indiscriminate connections with similar striking features-often perceived through intuition. Readings involve the perceiving of meaningful patterns, and meaning empowers choices, giving them intent and value. Thus, in a successful reading the querent departs feeling hopeful, self-confident or simply with a better sense of direction in their life. Ironically, this can happen even when it is not the intent of a pseudo reader, because the personal connections made by the querent during the reading have helped them find meaningful patterns and recognize viable choices.

Added: Listen to a podcast interview on this subject with me and Leisa Refalo at The Tarot Connection.

Craig Browning asked me to mention that he offers an insider’s explanation of mentalists and cold reading but you have to join MySpace in order to read it – here.