How to Read Tarot Cards, an Experiment.

Introduction: I finally plucked up the courage to try out a theory of mine concerning Tarot Cards and other "cold reading accessories". The theory is as follows:

Accessories are very useful in cold reading because they allow very controversial gambits to be made, increasing the hit rate at no cost to the reader's credibility.

To give an example of a controversial gambit, saying to someone at a party "You have an experience with infidelity, don't you?" is likely to earn one no more than a punch on the nose or a slap to the face. However, put into a "reading" situation one can, apropos of a message from the spirits, say "Hmmm, the Queen of Swords card is telling me you've had an experience with infidelity." And people usually react in a way that is a goldmine for the cold reader. Likely results from an infidelity type gambit are either strong denials, or strong associations. Examples:

  • Denial: "No I never have, I think people who cheat are filth" Think: moralistic. Bring up "private person" or "right and wrong" later.
  • Association: "Well, I've always been very jealous" or "My mother had an affair when I was 12" Think: jackpot! Follow these giveaways up later.
No offence can be taken because of course it's not "me" that's saying these things, it's the cards.

So how did the experiment go? I can only answer frighteningly well. Frightening that some people, even after it being explained to them exactly what I am doing, still maintain to this day that I must have some kind of "power" that works without my conscious knowledge and certainly without me wanting it to. Nothing beats wanting to believe I guess.

Experimental Method: I bought a pack of "standard" Rider-Waite Tarot cards. I made very sure that I wasn't "contaminated" by any instruction manuals or "how to read Tarot" books. I have never read one. The little booklet that came with the deck describing each card I never read or even opened until much later. Then, by observing street-corner fortune tellers, I noticed the way they laid out the cards and had a couple of "readings" done so I could mimic the "standard phrases" used if I was lost for words. By the way, according to the readings I had, I am either going to die young or very old in a state of wealth or poverty, surrounded by my friends and loved ones at home or alone in a foreign land. So forewarned is forearmed, I guess.

Then, having realized that most people who read Tarot are actually not very "good" at showmanship, I threw out everything I had seen and developed my own spiel from scratch. Here's a portion:

Me: "First we place your RIGHT hand above the deck and your LEFT hand below it to charge the cards with your energy. Close your eyes and whisper to yourself the object of your questions tonight." (Handy Hint Arbitrary instructions seem to increase the sense in the subject that you "know what you're doing")

Subject: "mumble mumble mumble." (Handy Hint Most people when requested to whisper something to themselves in a theatrical setting like a Tarot reading will move their lips, and often many intelligible key words can be gleaned simply by listening closely.)

Me: "Now I lay out the cards in the ancient Druidic (Roman, Kabbalah, insert anachronism here) formation, reflecting the WORLD ABOVE and the WORLD BELOW." (Handy Hint Despite the temptation of an appeal to tradition, I find using a well-known card configuration decreases your chance of "success". People regard you as more of a "visionary" if you show them something they haven't seen.)

And so on.

Results: It was utterly amazing the effect on people of a simple cold read, coupled with a little showmanship, a dollop of pop psychology, and my "controversial statements" technique outlined above. "Best reading ever" "Really felt I got something out of that" "You really have a gift" All these and more! Not that I want to boast. Of course always at the end and sometimes at the beginning I made sure to explain what I had done or was going to do, including explaining how I "knew" what I knew, what they had told me inadvertently (usually a lot) and what I had told them (usually nothing).

Conclusion: As I said in my introduction I was quite disturbed at the credulity of many folk. And of course once you start doing these things, even with the explanation, you get a reputation for being a "great tarot reader" and people approach you offering money. Did I ever take any? No, of course not. The most disquieting aspect was folk who really "needed" something, anything, from someone. Turning them down, quite bluntly, by saying that it had all been an experiment, begging them to go look at James Randi's website, and telling them I thought Tarot a load of hookum and that they should probably see a real professional was difficult. People want to believe, they really really do.

Disclosure: I am a well-known debunker for my friends. If anyone who knows me wants to know how a magic trick is done or some such, they usually come ask me, which is flattering in one sense I guess. I have never seen a magic trick I cannot immediately see through. I have (rightly, some would say) been eternally banned from accompanying almost everyone I know to things like David Copperfield performances. As this writeup contains debunking terms like cold reading and hit, I apologise to any believers for offence caused.

Disclosure Example: I once convinced some friends that their Ouija board (sometimes called a weegie board) would stop working if I joined the circle, because of my sceptical aura. That and strong downward pressure, but I didn't explain that bit. I have strong, long fingers and it's easy for me to appear to be applying just fingertip pressure whilst actually pressing very hard. Needless to say, the more credulous in the group were "amazed" that my prediction proved true. All I had to do was take my hand away and it would start "working" again! Also, if you are not concentrating on "lightly placing your finger in the indentation" and "allowing the spirit to take control", you can easily feel who is steering the cup. Make that person take their hand off, and it stops working again. It's a kind of magic.