How Mediums Are Ripping off the Grieving

October 31st 2015

Laura Donovan

The hardest part about a loved one dying is never being able to communicate with him or her again. That's why some people seek the help of mediums to contact spirits beyond the grave.

But can mediums actually do this?

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How mediums fool people into thinking they're talking to the dead

Harry Houdini

"Fifty percent of the world wants to be fooled," wrote magician Harry Houdini in a 1925 issue of Liberty magazine. "Fake mediums prey upon the unfortunate and the bereaved, taking their money, duping them with lies, and often driving them to insanity."

Houdini wrote this 90 years ago, but his message remains true in 2015. It may be impossible to say for certain that all mediums are fake, but many have been called out for using misleading techniques and deceiving those trying to reach out to deceased loved ones.

Mediums already have an advantage: They work with people desperate to get answers and to communicate with those who are no longer around. They want to believe.

The problem with "cold readings"

Theresa Caputo

Theresa Caputo, star of popular TLC reality show "Long Island Medium," is one of the more controversial mediums around today. Investigator Ron Tebo accused her of fraud in 2014 after spending more than a year working with her clients and associates. Tebo told Nancy Grace in a TV appearance last year that there's "no scientific proof" that mediums or psychics have special powers.

Rather, Caputo, like many other mediums, does so-called "cold readings." She studies a person's body language and appearance to come to conclusions about the individual with a high degree of accuracy, Tebo said.

Working with a large group, she will pose a vague question about a common scenario and wait for someone to answer with a story that fits from his or her life.

“She schmoozes with the audience, and wins them over with her big hair, designer shoes, and comedy," he told RadarOnline last year. "She’ll ask the group a question like, ‘Who lost an older male relative to heart problems?’ It’s the oldest trick in the medium’s book.”

In his conversation with Nancy Grace, Tebo elaborated on Caputo and cold readings: "She shoots out shotgun questions like, you know, a crowd of 250 to 300 people, who just died? Who lost a father? Who lost a son? Who lost a dog? Out of 300 people, apparently someone did. So those are shotgun questions. She's firing away."

Austin Kline, author of "What Is Cold Reading? Skeptical Perspectives," made similar comments last year in a Daily Mail piece about cold reading:

"Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals ... as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge, while quickly moving on from missed guesses."

Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a TED Talk speaker, has done a lot of research on why people believe in the supernatural and also wrote a paper about techniques uses by psychics and mediums for the University of Colorado. In researching famous medium James Van Praagh's life, Shermer learned that he grew up with aspirations of becoming a performer and that it's likely that he did find work as an actor. That is, acting as a medium.

"He hung around Hollywood types in hopes of finding work," Shermer said in the video below. "He finally found work as an actor playing the role of a medium, and he's now very successful."

"[W]e should not underestimate [Van Praagh's] genuine theatrical talents and his understanding, gained through years of experience speaking with real people, of what touches off some of the deepest human emotions," Shermer wrote in his University of Colorado paper. "[During cold readings], he asks lots of questions and makes numerous statements, some general and some specific, and sees what sticks. Most of the time he is wrong. His subjects visibly [shake] their heads 'no.' But he only needs an occasional strike to convince his clientele he is genuine."

Shermer added that mediums on TV can also obtain information about people when shooting isn't going on and use that information on camera to appear legitimate.

"Human behavior is enormously complex, so I suppose it is possible that Van Praagh is both deceiving and self-deceiving, but over the years I have observed much more of the former than the latter," Shermer wrote. "During the 'Unsolved Mysteries' shoot, which lasted 10 hours and was filled with numerous breaks, Van Praagh would routinely make small talk with us, asking lots of questions and obtaining information, which he subsequently used to his advantage when the cameras were rolling."

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