Talking With the Dead
The Secrets of 'Cold Reading'
Primetime gathered a panel of volunteers
to test Ian Rowland's "cold reading" technique. (ABCNEWS.com Primetime)
Communicating with the dead has found a growing television audience in recent
years, with nationally syndicated shows like Crossing Over With John Edward
and Beyond With James Van Praagh.
The show's hosts claim to be able to connect with the deceased relatives or
friends of audience members, and often reveal family stories and details with
startling accuracy. In many cases, the audience members believe they have just
received a message from their loved one beyond the grave. But, according to
Briton Ian Rowland, you may not need psychic powers to convince people they
are communicating with the dead — just some well-chosen questions and a
sensitivity to the audience's reaction.
Rowland says he can produce a similar effect to the TV mediums' shows by using
a technique known as "cold reading." He shows how the technique works in a
demonstration he has performed around the world.
To test Rowland's claims, Primetime hired him to give his demonstration to an
audience of 20 volunteers who had indicated they were open to the possibility
of communication with the dead. The volunteers were told it was an experiment
to test Rowland's psychic abilities.
Rowland was given no personal information about the audience and had no
contact with them beforehand. Nevertheless, he was confident he would be able
to convince some of them he was in touch with the dead. "We should be able to
come up with information that people connect with which seems to describe
people who have died and moved on to the afterlife," he told Primetime's
Common Names, Common Ailments
Rowland started out by saying he was feeling the spirit of an older man with a
heart or chest condition. He said the man had a message for somebody: "I'm
being shown Michael or M," he told the audience. Sure enough, an audience
member called Michael said he had a connection with an older man with a heart
or chest condition: his father.
"This is what we call the Russian doll statement," Rowland explained to
Primetime afterward. "I start with something as vague as possible, and I'm
looking for who will bite. It's a lot like fishing ... If it's not you, your
immediate family, your extended family, then it's someone you work with, a
friend, used to know, someone you're going to know."
"I know the kind of medical symptoms that are most likely to get people to
agree," he went on. "I have lists in my head of the 18 commonest male names,
18 commonest female names that have been registered in the United States for
the last 45 years."
Casting a Wide Net
When Rowland brought up the name Karen later in the session, it resonated with
an audience member whose cousin had had a granddaughter named Karen. He also
predicted accurately that the audience member knew someone who was in the
process of moving.
Both connections were pretty general, but then, seemingly out of nowhere,
Rowland asked the audience member if she had a calendar or a wall chart at
home that was out of date. Astonished, the woman confessed that her relative
had given her a fabric calendar that she still had.
But Rowland later explained that it is not uncommon for families to have an
out-of-date calendar in the house. "There are certain things — and I have a
list of about 18 of them in my head — that tend to come up in most people's
families," he said, such as a box of old photos or a broken appliance that has
still not been thrown out.
Another technique Rowland uses is to throw out many questions and
possibilities, in the hope that one will make a hit. "It's not necessarily
about getting right, right, right, hit, hit, hit.... You capitalize off the
things that are working. And the others, you let them wither gently to one
side," he said.
Audience Members Say It's Real for Them
At the end of the session, Rowland told the audience he does not believe he
has any psychic ability, and that he was doing a cold reading to convince them
they were in touch with their relatives. "What I was doing tonight, if ... a
link was achieved, I think that's real for you. And I'm not going to say
otherwise," he said, adding, "I'm not sure it was real for me."
Some of the audience members said Rowland's display did not diminish their
faith in the readings he had just given them, or in psychic communication in
general. "To me it doesn't matter, because I believe we get the signs we need
in the way we need them," said one man. "And if you're cold reading or really
talking to the other side, as long as I got a sign to me that made it feel
real, my hope that it was real will make it real."
Rowland says his mission is to educate people about techniques like cold
reading so they can make a more informed decision on whether to believe claims
of psychic ability. "If they read about it, find out about it, it just might
change their whole view of this psychic industry," he said.