Are all mentalists frauds?

As readers know, I do not believe that supernatural forces exist because there has been no convincing evidence for them. Hence things like psychic phenomena must have some natural explanation, even if we cannot provide one for every case that people present to us. As I discussed in an earlier post, Ian Rowland, who does ‘psychic’ readings for people by using cold reading techniques, says that trying to provide explanations for the various phenomena that believers challenge you with is a mug’s game because when someone supposedly tells you of some astounding thing that happened to them or that they heard of from someone else, such accounts are utterly unreliable because people in general are hopeless at observing events and later remembering and describing them, coupled with the fact that they tend to subtly simplify the story to conform to their beliefs. Magicians know that their biggest allies in deception are the audience members who will deceive themselves about what they saw and later claim features of the trick that did not happen.

Psychics usually use ‘cold reading’ techniques where they extract a lot of detailed information by words and gestures and expressions from the client and by asking leading questions. The clients think that they did not give any clues or information, but they have and they don’t realize it and then their story gets highly modified when they recount it later to others. Rowland’s book The Full Facts About Cold Reading explains how easy it is to make people think that he has psychic powers because he can tell them things about their lives that they felt he could not possibly know. He said that when people are interviewed later, what they recall even immediately afterwards is quite different form what the actual video recording shows, even if they started out somewhat skeptical. Rowland would always tell them afterwards that he was not a psychic, a process known in the trade as ‘dumbing them down’.

Entertainers like Rowland and James Randi and Penn and Teller are quick to let you know that what they do is simply trickery and involve no magical powers. But what about those who do not provide similar disclaimers? Are they all frauds, deliberately deceiving others? That need not be the case for every one of them, though I suspect that most are. It is known in the trade that some start out using various cold reading techniques but become so successful in using them intuitively that they start to believe that they actually have at least some psychic powers.

It may be that some people develop quite good powers of observation and inference quite naturally and find that they can detect things about people without conscious effort and the result can astound bystanders. One could excuse Dr. Watson for thinking that his friend Sherlock Holmes had psychic powers because of his astonishment at what Holmes could tell about people whom he had just met. Of course, Holmes would usually ‘dumb him down’.

Having some success with this kind of unconscious observational reasoning could lead some people to think that they may actually have some form of psychic powers. In an interview, psychologist Ray Hyman spoke about his own early career as a palm reader where he started to believe that he had special powers. He says that, “most magicians are skeptics (unlike most mentalists, who tend to believe in the paranormal)”. He also realized that “I only needed to get one little fact about them and they would attribute all kinds of powers to me.” One can see how having people repeatedly tell you that you had psychic powers might cause you to end up actually believing it, and overlook the ways you arrived at that knowledge.

Hyman describes the process by which he became a believer in having special powers and then what disillusioned him.

Going back in time, I did palm readings for years, and for awhile I had become a gung ho believer. I started as a skeptic but as I added things to my repertoire I became a believer. I couldn’t travel as a young magician so I was forced to play at the same places and had to come up with new things for them. This is when I took up palm reading. I watched people in the carnies and got to know them and picked up a lot of things from them. I didn’t want to do sword swallowing or anything like that, but with palm reading you could tell people all sorts of detailed things about them, like what point they had a heart attack, what age they were when they had a problem with their head, and so on. By high school, even though I was a skeptic about most things, I believed in palm reading because it seemed plausible to me since the palm is physically connected with the body.

[T]he late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example, I said, “well, you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. In this particular case, though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback, and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself. This was one of the reasons I went into psychology—I wanted to find out how it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived.

Hyman ended up as a skeptic, getting a PhD in psychology and studying paranormal phenomena to try and figure out how it could be that people, including himself, could be so easily deceived.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    All of which leads your title question unanswered: do we call the sincere but deluded “frauds”?

  2. Jeff_Hess says

    To answer Mano’s question: “Are all mentalists frauds?”

    Only the ones who claim to have supernatural powers. The rest are simply good/clever illusionists.

    Jeff Hess

  3. jaxkayaker says

    You might find a small amount of the tv show The Mentalist interesting. It’s a fictional police procedural with a twist.

  4. Mano Singham says


    I did watch a few episodes of The Mentalist. The premise was interesting but I found that I lost interest when it began to focus less on how he made his deductions and became more some kind of adventure story.

  5. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Derren Brown is one of the best cold-readers I’ve seen, and is also skilled at implanting ideas in others. He once took an atheist to a church, spoke with her a little then left her on her own. Within minutes she was weeping and apologising to Jesus for not believing. She actually developed an instant belief until Brown came back in and explained what he’d done and how.
    He also toured America as a psychic and was very successful, convincing even ‘genuine’ psychics of his abilities before revealing the truth. Even then, many were convinced that he was genuinely psychic but in denial!

  6. says

    There was a really good short piece on youtube about the inner monologue of a cold reader as he fleeces a pair of ageing sisters. I wish I could find it.

    If they are taking money -- even donations -- they are frauds.

  7. Owlmirror says

    Calling mentalists who sincerely believe that they have paranormal powers “frauds” strikes me as being problematic because “fraud” usually implies deliberate awareness of deceit, and the whole point is that they aren’t aware of what they’re doing.

    It’s similar to how creationist parents are called “liars”, or are said to “lie”, rather than “passing on lies (of more knowing, and thus more deliberately deceitful, creationists)”.

    The famous Feynman quote — “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool” — can be used to emphasize that self-deceit happens to everyone, without it being deliberate.

  8. RationalismRules says

    @Pierce R. Butler
    Fraud requires intent to deceive. Misguided / self-deluded is different from fraudulent.

    @Marcus Ranum
    …even when money is exchanged.

  9. RationalismRules says

    @Mano Singham
    I remember seeing a program where a bunch of people who believed in their own ‘psychic abilities’ were tested and, of course, failed utterly. What was most interesting / alarming was seeing most of them immediately begin to rationalize why they failed that particular test, rather than even considering the possibility that they might be wrong about their ‘abilities’.

    I second Acolyte of Sagan (#6) regarding Derren Brown. The special in America is called “Messiah” and is definitely worth watching. “Brown travels to the United States and convinces five leading figures that he has powers in their particular field of expertise: Christian evangelism, alien abduction, psychic powers, New Age theories and contacting the dead.”
    Here’s a link:

    He also did a 3-part series called “Derren Brown Investigates”, investigating a psychic medium (clearly fraudulent), a proponent of ‘eyeless vision’ (clearly fraudulent) and a ‘ghosthunter’ (deluded, but genuine). These are all available on his official YouTube channel:

  10. sonofrojblake says

    It’s frustrating that the law tiptoes around these charlatans. If you can do a good enough impression of believing it yourself, you’re free to fleece willing (stupid, deluded) punters in a way that would get you locked up if what you were doing was a Ponzi scheme or other proven fraud technique. Yet another way in which religion, in the general sense, poisons public life.


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