Psychic Reading Bingo

Skeptics here in the nation’s capital recently heard that Sylvia Browne is to appear in May at a popular entertainment venue.  Browne is well known to skeptics as the “psychic” who agreed on national television to prove herself by winning JREF’s $1 Million Dollar Challenge.  That was in 2001; since then she has made many excuses, but has never followed through.

Inspired by the John Edward/James van Praagh bingo cards cleverly created by Richard Rockley, aka Skeptico, the National Capital Area Skeptics asked permission to adapt the idea for Sylvia Browne.  Richard kindly agreed.

Skeptico’s original cards drew attention to catchphrases unique to Edward and van Praagh, along with some general cold-reading tricks.  Rather than slogging through painful videos of Browne on Montel Williams in hopes of finding signature quirks of hers, we present here an all-purpose cold-reading card. Watch, listen to, or read a transcript of a reading, and see how many tricks you can mark off on the card.  
“J” (or “J-sounding”—includes “G”) NAME
Guess is wrong but turned into a hit anyway.
“WHO IS...?” “WHAT IS...?”
Leading questions that can be interpreted as statements.
FREE PASS: Sylvia still refuses to be tested for JREF’s $1M
“R” NAME (Includes “Bob”)
Asks about CHILD or TOYS
Repeats back subject’s words, as if they had been known all along.
“Barnum” statements that anyone could believe
Asks about
Accentuate the positive.
Dead relative or friend is OK, has reassuring message.
Wild-ass guess!

Of course, spotting these tricks doesn’t prove that Browne couldn’t be psychic.  But this thorough article by Ryan Shaffer and Agatha Jadwiszczok -- with contributions from JREF forum members -- speaks to to her personal record:

A search of will also find plenty of other good references and ways to confront cold readers, such as:

How does it all work?

J, M, R and S names

Guessing initials is the bread and butter of the cold reader. (Why the dead can only remember initials, and not full names, is never adequately explained.) J, M, R and S are common initials in America. And they’re flexible—for example R includes Bob as well as Robert. A “G” will count as a hit for the “J” guess, and so on. M is common especially among older women. Also Mike is a fairly common male name. “M” can also be “Mom.” Notice how rarely they guess other initials.

Miss turned into hit

A confident cold reader can convince an audience that a miss is really a hit. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe something has been forgotten. And often the subject will WANT to help and will find a way to accommodate a hit.

Father Figure / Older Male
Mother Figure / Older Female

This is sufficiently vague that it covers a multitude of possible dead people, including older brothers/sisters, aunts/uncles as well as parents and grandparents. The subject will supply the actual answer that the cold reader can then pretend to get. This approach is so much more likely to produce a hit than, say, “I can see your Father” (who might not actually be dead).

“WHO IS...?” “WHAT IS...?”

Ask, don’t tell. It lets the cold reader more easily cover a miss.  And asking something general, such as “Who is Mike or Michael?” sounds specific enough if someone in the room speaks up to answer.

Chest Area / Head Area / Cancer

Most deaths can be assigned to either the “head area” or the “chest area,” so either of these guesses has good chance of being correct for somebody the subject knows. “Chest area” covers all heart disease as well as lung cancer. Either head or chest could include car accidents and the like. Also asking about “Breathing Trouble” will usually result in a hit - what person didn’t have “breathing trouble” when they were dying?

Also, look for several guesses of “Cancer,” because who doesn’t know someone who died from cancer?

Birthday / Wedding / Child / Toys / Dog / Cat

Questions such as “who had a birthday recently” will usually result in a hit – who doesn’t know someone who recently had (or soon will have) a birthday? Likewise, “Wedding” is likely to be a correct guess for someone the subject knows.

Asking about a dead child may be less reliable, but will be an strongly emotional hit if the guess is correct. Asking about toys amounts to the same as asking about a child, but is much more emotionally manipulative in that it conjures up an image of a child “on the other side” still playing with her toys.  

Most families had a loved pet that died, sometime, and so asking about the dog is a reliable standby. Fish—not so much.

Numbers from 1 to 12

Numbers, like initials, are often guessed but always in an ambiguous context. The number chosen will usually be from 1 to 12. That way, if the number is (say) the actual month the relative died, (or was born, graduated—anything will do), the reader can claim a great hit. If not, then someone will have a birthday, death (etc) in the numbered month. So when the number guessed is between 1 and 12, there is always the fallback to claim it relates to a month. The guess is therefore much more likely to be a “hit” than a number over 12. 

Leading questions

Repeats back subject’s words
When a subject responds positively, the  cold reader can turn the question into a declaration. And if they volunteer even a little more information, repeating back those words can let the reader claim them for his or her own.

Boxes / Cartons

“Is someone moving?” is a safe bet. If someone takes the bait, the cold reader can say something like “I thought so because they’re showing me boxes.” It’s a way of taking a rather obvious guess and selling it as a message from beyond.  Boxes can also be a hit for any other kind of gift, such as a birthday (coming soon or just gone).

“Barnum” statements

Early in a reading when it’s important to establish trust, cold readers use general statements that most people would say describe themselves specifically and accurately. Here is a classic stock reading:

You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept other’s opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times, you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be insecure on the inside. 
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times, you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are wary and reserved. While you have a few weaknesses, you are generally able to overcome them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your full advantage.


Most elderly relatives will have left some jewelry, or perhaps a watch to their children or grandchildren.  The subject will supply the details.  It is, of course very manipulative to remind the subject of precious items their dead relatives left them.

“Do you understand?”

Getting verification from a reluctant or quiet person is important when fishing. This can also be used to turn a miss into an apparent hit—a reply of “yes” sounds positive to the audience, but isn’t necessarily the same as “yes, you are correct.”

The deceased is “OK”

The sum total of most of these exchanges is usually that the dead relative is “OK.” There’s never any useful actual information given, such as: “the gold coins are buried ...”, or “the number of the Swiss bank account that you didn’t know I had is ...”, or “the name and address of the person who murdered me is ...”. Instead we always hear that the dead people are “OK.” Worthless. And totally unverifiable. See also above regarding reassuring messages.

Accentuate the positive

A successful reader usually wraps up with a generally positive message, maybe seasoned with just a little something about challenges ahead to keep things real. Make the person feel good—and it is even better if there is something said about the future that can’t be verified right away.

Wild-ass guess!

Every once in a while, a cold reader will take a chance with something outlandish, always in the form of a question: who died in a plane or car crash? who has a leg or arm missing? suicide? shot in a robbery? It’s usually a miss—and quickly forgotten.  But on those rare occasions when someone speaks up to claim the hit, it is a miracle!