The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception

NOTE: The following article was written by Maria Popova and was taken from

“It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.”


“Reality is what we take to be true,” physicist David Bohm observed in a 1977 lecture. “What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.” That’s why nothing is more reality-warping than the shock of having come to believe something untrue — an experience so disorienting yet so universal that it doesn’t spare even the most intelligent and self-aware of us, for it springs from the most elemental tendencies of human psychology. “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence,” Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserted in examining how our minds mislead us, “but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

The machinery of that construction is what New Yorker columnist and science writer extraordinaire Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (public library) — a thrilling psychological detective story investigating how con artists, the supreme masterminds of malevolent reality-manipulation, prey on our propensity for believing what we wish were true and how this illuminates the inner workings of trust and deception in our everyday lives.

Art by Edward Gorey for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit — and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova demonstrates that a con artist simply takes advantage of this hubris by finding the beliefs in which we are most confident — those we’re least likely to question — and enlisting them in advancing his or her agenda.

To be sure, we all perform micro-cons on a daily basis. White lies are the ink of the social contract — the insincere compliment to a friend who needs a confidence boost, the unaddressed email that “somehow went to spam,” the affinity fib that gives you common ground with a stranger at a party even though you aren’t really a “huge Leonard Cohen fan too.”

We even con ourselves. Every act of falling in love requires a necessary self-con — as Adam Phillips has written in his terrific piece on the paradox of romance, “the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams”; we dream the lover up, we construct a fantasy of who she is based on the paltry morsels of information seeded by early impressions, we fall for that fantasy and then, as we immerse ourselves in a real relationship with a real person, we must convince ourselves that the reality corresponds to enough of the fantasy to feel satisfying.

But what sets the con artist apart from the mundane white-liar is the nefarious intent and the deliberate deftness with which he or she goes about executing that reality-manipulation.

Konnikova begins with the story of a lifelong impostor named Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who successfully passed himself off as a psychologist, a professor, a monk, a surgeon, a prison warden, the founder of a religious college, and even his own biographer.

Ferdinand Waldo Demara (Photograph: Corbis)

Considering the perplexity of his astonishing ability to deceive, Konnikova — whose previous book examined the positive counterpart to the con, the psychology of thinking like Sherlock Holmes — writes:

“How was he so effective? Was it that he preyed on particularly soft, credulous targets? I’m not sure the Texas prison system, one of the toughest in the United States, could be described as such. Was it that he presented an especially compelling, trustworthy figure? Not likely, at six foot one and over 250 pounds, square linebacker’s jaw framed by small eyes that seemed to sit on the border between amusement and chicanery, an expression that made [his] four-year-old daughter Sarah cry and shrink in fear the first time she ever saw it. Or was it something else, something deeper and more fundamental — something that says more about ourselves and how we see the world?

It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it… For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Konnikova describes the basic elements of the con and the psychological susceptibility into which each of them plays:

“The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.”

What makes the book especially pleasurable is that Konnikova’s intellectual rigor comes with a side of warm wit. She writes:

“Religion,” Voltaire is said to have remarked, “began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.” It certainly sounds like something he would have said. Voltaire was no fan of the religious establishment. But versions of the exact same words have been attributed to Mark Twain, to Carl Sagan, to Geoffrey Chaucer. It seems so accurate that someone, somewhere, sometime, must certainly have said it.

The invocation of Mark Twain is especially apt — one of America’s first great national celebrities, he was the recipient of some outrageous con attempts. That, in fact, is one of Konnikova’s most disquieting yet strangely assuring points — that although our technologies of deception have changed, the technologies of thought undergirding the art of the con are perennially bound to our basic humanity. She writes:

“The con is the oldest game there is. But it’s also one that is remarkably well suited to the modern age. If anything, the whirlwind advance of technology heralds a new golden age of the grift. Cons thrive in times of transition and fast change, when new things are happening and old ways of looking at the world no longer suffice. That’s why they flourished during the gold rush and spread with manic fury in the days of westward expansion. That’s why they thrive during revolutions, wars, and political upheavals. Transition is the confidence game’s great ally, because transition breeds uncertainty. There’s nothing a con artist likes better than exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change. We may cling cautiously to the past, but we also find ourselves open to things that are new and not quite expected.


No amount of technological sophistication or growing scientific knowledge or other markers we like to point to as signs of societal progress will — or can — make cons any less likely. The same schemes that were playing out in the big stores of the Wild West are now being run via your in-box; the same demands that were being made over the wire are hitting your cell phone. A text from a family member. A frantic call from the hospital. A Facebook message from a cousin who seems to have been stranded in a foreign country.


Technology doesn’t make us more worldly or knowledgeable. It doesn’t protect us. It’s just a change of venue for the same old principles of confidence. What are you confident in? The con artist will find those things where your belief is unshakeable and will build on that foundation to subtly change the world around you. But you will be so confident in the starting point that you won’t even notice what’s happened.”

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Green Book by Robert Graves.

In a sense, the con is a more extreme and elaborate version of the principles of persuasion that Blaise Pascal outlined half a millennium ago — it is ultimately an art not of coercion but of complicity. Konnikova writes:

“The confidence game — the con — is an exercise in soft skills. Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want — money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support — and we don’t realize what is happening until it is too late. Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong. Given the right cues, we’re willing to go along with just about anything and put our confidence in just about anyone.”

So what makes you more susceptible to the confidence game? Not necessarily what you might expect:

“When it comes to predicting who will fall, personality generalities tend to go out the window. Instead, one of the factors that emerges is circumstance: it’s not who you are, but where you happen to be at this particular moment in your life.”

People whose willpower and emotional resilience resources are strained — the lonely, the financially downtrodden, those dealing with the trauma of divorce, injury, or job loss, those undergoing major life changes — are particularly vulnerable. But these, Konnikova reminds us, are states rather than character qualities, circumstances that might and likely will befall each one of us at different points in life for reasons largely outside our control. (One is reminded of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s excellent work on agency and victimhood: “The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching…”) Konnikova writes:

“The more you look, the more you realize that, even with certain markers, like life changes, and certain tendencies in tow, a reliably stable overarching victim profile is simply not there. Marks vary as much as, and perhaps even more than, the grifters who fool them.”

Therein lies the book’s most sobering point — Konnikova demonstrates over and over again, through historical anecdotes and decades of studies, that no one is immune to the art of the con. And yet there is something wonderfully optimistic in this. Konnikova writes:

“The simple truth is that most people aren’t out to get you. We are so bad at spotting deception because it’s better for us to be more trusting. Trust, and not adeptness at spotting deception, is the more evolutionarily beneficial path. People are trusting by nature. We have to be. As infants, we need to trust that the big person holding us will take care of our needs and desires until we’re old enough to do it ourselves. And we never quite let go of that expectation.”

Trust, it turns out, is advantageous in the grand scheme of things. Konnikova cites a number of studies indicating that people who score higher on generalized trust tend to be healthier physically, more psychoemotionally content, likelier to be entrepreneurs, and likelier to volunteer. (The most generous woman I know, who is also a tremendously successful self-made entrepreneur, once reflected: “I’ve never once regretted being generous, I’ve only ever regretted holding back generosity.”) But the greater risk-tolerance necessary for reaping greater rewards also comes with the inevitable downside of greater potential for exploitation — the most trusting among us are also the perfect marks for the player of the confidence game.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Green Book by Robert Graves.

But the paradox of trust, Konnikova argues, is only part of our susceptibility to being conned. Another major factor is our sheer human solipsism. She explains:

“We are our own prototype of being, of motivation, of behavior. People, however, are far from being a homogeneous mass. And so, when we depart from our own perspective, as we inevitably must, we often make errors, sometimes significant ones. [Psychologists call this] “egocentric anchoring”: we are our own point of departure. We assume that others know what we know, believe what we believe, and like what we like.”

She cites an extensive study, the results of which were published in a paper cleverly titled “How to Seem Telepathic.” (One ought to appreciate the scientists’ wry sarcasm in poking fun at our clickbait culture.) Konnikova writes:

“Many of our errors, the researchers found, stem from a basic mismatch between how we analyze ourselves and how we analyze others. When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail. When we think about others, however, we operate at a much higher, more generalized and abstract level. For instance, when answering the same question about ourselves or others — how attractive are you? — we use very different cues. For our own appearance, we think about how our hair is looking that morning, whether we got enough sleep, how well that shirt matches our complexion. For that of others, we form a surface judgment based on overall gist. So, there are two mismatches: we aren’t quite sure how others are seeing us, and we are incorrectly judging how they see themselves.”

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

The skilled con artist, Konnikova points out, mediates for this mismatch by making an active effort to discern which cues the other person is using to form judgments and which don’t register at all. The result is a practical, non-paranormal exercise in mind-reading, which creates an illusion of greater affinity, which in turn becomes the foundation of greater trust — we tend to trust those similar to us more than the dissimilar, for we intuit that the habits and preferences we have in common stem from shared values.

And yet, once again, we are reminded that the tricks of the con artist’s exploitive game are different only by degree rather than kind from the everyday micro-deceptions of which our social fabric is woven. Konnikova writes:

“Both similarity and familiarity can be faked, as the con artist can easily tell you — and the more you can fake it, the more real information will be forthcoming. Similarity is easy enough. When we like someone or feel an affinity for them, we tend to mimic their behavior, facial expressions, and gestures, a phenomenon known as the chameleon effect. But the effect works the other way, too. If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the natural liking process quite well. We perpetuate minor cons every day, often without realizing it, and sometimes knowing what we do all too well, when we mirror back someone’s words or interests, feign a shared affinity for a sports team or a mutual hatred of a brand. The signs that usually serve us reliably can easily be massaged, especially in the short term — all a good con artist needs.”

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Confidence Game, Konnikova goes on to explore the role of storytelling in reality-manipulation, what various psychological models reveal about the art of persuasion, and how the two dramatically different systems that govern our perception of reality — emotion and the intellect — conspire in the machinery of trust. Complement it with Adrienne Rich on lying and what “truth” really means, David deSteno on the psychology of trust in work and love, and Alice Walker on what her father taught her about the love-expanding capacity of truth-telling.


Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them (Ray Hyman, 1977)

NOTE: Cold reading is a set of techniques used by elders, mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists to determine or express details about another person, often to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does. Without prior knowledge, a practiced cold-reader can quickly obtain a great deal of information by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readings commonly employ high-probability guesses, quickly picking up on signals as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses.

The more a Geronda confesses people, the more developed this practice becomes. The longer a Geronda confesses an individual, the more easier they become to read [not to mention some father confessors keep files of notes on individuals which they briefly scan before they visit the monastery]. Monastics also develop this technique over time, though it will never become as perfected as an elder’s because they do not hear the intimate details of an individual’s private life and secret sins through the sacrament of confession.

The following article is taken from Paranormal Borderlands of Science:


Over twenty years ago I taught a course at Harvard University called “Applications of Social Psychology.”  The sort of applications that I covered were the various ways in which people were manipulated. I invited various manipulators to demonstrate their techniques– pitchmen, encyclopedia salesmen, hypnotists, advertising experts, evangelists, confidence men, and a variety of individuals who dealt with personal problems. The techniques which we discussed, especially those concerned with helping people with their personal problems, seem to involve the client’s tendency to find more meaning in any situation than is actually there. Students readily accepted this explanation when it was pointed out to them. But I did not feel that they fully realized just how pervasive and powerful this human tendency to make sense out of nonsense really is.

Consequently, in 1955 I wrote a paper entitled “The Psychological Reading: An Infallible Technique For Winning Admiration and Popularity.” Over the years I have distributed copies of this paper to my students. The paper begins as follows:

So you want to be admired! You want people to seek your company, to talk about you, to praise your talents. This manuscript tells you how to satisfy that want.  Herein you will find a sure-fire gimmick for the achievement of fame and popularity.  Just follow the advice that I give you, and, even if you are the most incompetent social bungler, you cannot fail to become the life of the party. What is the secret that underlies this infallible system! The secret, my friend, is a simple and obvious one.  It has been tried and proven by practitioners since the beginnings of mankind. Here is the gist of the secret: To be popular with your fellow man, tell him what he wants to hear. He wants to hear about himself. So tell him about himself. But [do not tell him] what you know to be true about him.

Oh, no! Never tell him the truth. Rather, tell him what he would like to hear about himself.  And there you have it. Simple and obvious, yet so powerful.  This manuscript details the way in which you can exploit this golden rule by assuming the role of a character reader.

I will include essentially the same recipe for character reading in this paper that I give to my students. In addition I will bring the material up to date, describe some relevant research, and indicate some theoretical reasons why the technique “works.” My purpose is not to enable you to enhance your personal magnetism, nor is it to increase the number of character readers. I give you these rules for reading character because I want you to experience how the method works. I want you to see what a powerful technique the psychological reading is, how convincing it is to the psychologist and layman alike.


When you see how easy it is to convince a person that you can read his character on sight, you will better appreciate why fortune tellers and psychologists are frequently lulled into placing credence in techniques which have not been validated by acceptable scientific methods. The recent controversy in The Humanist magazine and The Zetetic over the scientific status of astrology probably is irrelevant to the reasons that individuals believe in astrology. Almost without exception. the defenders of astrology with whom I have contact do not refer to the evidence relating to the underlying theory. They are convinced of astrology’s value because it “works.” By this they mean that it supplies them with feedback that “feels right”–that convinces them that the horoscope provides a basis for understanding themselves and ordering their lives. It has personal meaning for them.

Some philosophers distinguish between “persuasion” and “conviction.” The distinction is subtle. But for our purposes we can think of subjective experiences that persuade us that something is so and of logical and scientific procedures that convince, or ought to convince, us that something is or is not so. Quite frequently a scientist commits time and resources toward generating scientific evidence for a proposition because he has already been persuaded, on nonscientific grounds, that the proposition is true. Such intuitive persuasion plays an important motivational role in science as well as in the arts. Pathological science and false beliefs come about when such intuitive persuasion overrides or colors the evidence from objective procedures for establishing conviction.

The field of personality assessment has always been plagued by this confusion between persuasion and conviction. In contrast to intelligence and aptitude tests the scientific validation of personality tests, even under ideal conditions, rarely results in unequivocal or satisfactory results. In fact some of the most widely used personality inventories have repeatedly failed to pass validity checks. One of the reasons for this messy state of affairs is the lack of reliable and objective criteria against which to check the results of an assessment.

But the lack of adequate validation has not prevented the use of, and reliance on, such instruments. Assessment psychologists have always placed more reliance on their instruments than is warranted by the scientific evidence. Both psychologist and client are invariably persuaded by the results that the assessment “works.”

Geronda Paisios, Geronda Ephraim & Bishop Panteleimon of Verroias.

This state of affairs, of course, is even more true when we consider divination systems beyond those of the academic and professional psychologist. Every system be it based on the position of the stars, the pattern of lines in the hand, the shape of the face or skull, the fall of the cards or the dice, the accidents of nature, or the intuitions of a “psychic”–claims its quota of satisfied customers. The client invariably feels satisfied with the results. He is convinced that the reader and the system have penetrated to the core of his “true” self. Such satisfaction on the part of the client also feeds back upon the reader. Even if the reader began his career with little belief in his method, the inevitable reinforcement of persuaded clients increases his confidence in himself and his system. In this way a “vicious circle” is established. The reader and his clients become more and more persuaded that they have hold of a direct pipeline to the “truth.”

The state of affairs in which the evaluation of an assessment instrument depends upon the satisfaction of the client is known as “personal validation.” Personal validation is, for all practical purposes, the major reason for the persistence of divinatory and assessment procedures. If the client is not persuaded, then the system will not survive. Personal validation, of course, is the basis for the acceptance of more than just assessment instruments. The widespread acceptance of myths about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, ghosts, the validity of meditation and consciousness-raising schemes, and a host of other beliefs are based on persuasion through personal validation rather than scientific conviction.


“People have always confused us with them, but we have no connection,” Geronda Dositheos

“Cold reading” is a procedure by which a “reader” is able to persuade a client, whom he has never before met, that he knows all about the client’s personality and problems. At one extreme this can be accomplished by delivering a stock spiel, or “psychological reading,” that consists of highly general statements that can fit any individual. A reader who relies on psychological readings will usually have memorized a set of stock spiels. He then can select a reading to deliver which is relatively more appropriate in the general category that the client fits- a young unmarried girl, a senior citizen, and so on. Such an attempt to fit the reading to the client makes the psychological reading a closer approximation to the true cold reading.

The cold reading, at its best, provides the client with a character assessment that is uniquely tailored to fit him or her. The reader begins with the same assumptions that guide the psychological reader who relies on the stock spiel. These assumptions are (1) that we all are basically more alike than different; (2) that our problems are generated by the same major transitions of birth, puberty, work, marriage, children, old age, and death; (3) that, with the exception of curiosity seekers and troublemakers, people come to a character reader because they need someone to listen to their conflicts involving love, money, and health.

The cold reader goes beyond these common denominators by gathering as much additional information about the client as possible. Sometimes such information is obtained in advance of the reading.  If the reading is through appointment, the reader can use directories and other sources to gather information. When the client enters the consulting room, an assistant can examine the coat left behind (and often the purse as well) for papers, notes, labels, and other such cues about socioeconomic status, and so on. Most cold readers, however do not need such advance information. Geronda Joseph (formerly Ioannis Voutsas, now Abbot and father-Confessor at St. Nektarios Monastery, Roscoe, NY).

The cold reader basically relies on a good memory and acute observation. The client is carefully studied. The clothing- for example, style, neatness, cost, age- provides a host of cues for helping the reader make shrewd guesses about socioeconomic level, conservatism or extroversion, and other characteristics. The client’s physical features–weight, posture, looks, eyes, and hands provide further cues. The hands are especially revealing to the good reader. The manner of speech, use of grammar, gestures, and eye contact are also good sources. To the good reader the huge amount of information coming from an initial sizing-up of the client greatly narrows the possible categories into which he classifies clients. His knowledge of actual and statistical data about various subcultures in the population already provides him the basis for making an uncanny and strikingly accurate assessment of the client.

But the skilled reader can go much further in particularizing his reading.  He wants to zero in as quickly as possible on the precise problem that is bothering the client. On the basis of his initial assessment he makes some tentative hypotheses. He tests these out by beginning his assessment in general terms, touching upon general categories of problems and watching the reaction of the client.  If he is on the wrong track the client’s reactions, eye movements, pupillary dilation, other bodily mannerisms—will warn him. When he is on the right track other reactions will tell him so. By watching the client’s reactions as he tests out different hypotheses during his spiel, the good reader quickly hits upon what is bothering the customer and begins to adjust the reading to the situation. By this time, the client has usually been persuaded that the reader, by some uncanny means, has gained insights into the client’s innermost thoughts. His guard is now down. Often he opens up and actually tells the reader, who is also a good listener, the details of his situation. The reader, after a suitable interval, will usually feedback the information that the client has given him in such a way that the client will be further amazed at how much the reader “knows” about him. Invariably the client leaves the reader without realizing that everything he has been told is simply what he himself has unwittingly revealed to the reader.


Geronda Joseph Mammis, Abbot of Holy Trinity monastery, Michigan.

The preceding paragraphs indicate that the cold reader is a highly skilled and talented individual. And this is true. But what is amazing about this area of human assessment is how successfully even an unskilled and incompetent reader can persuade a client that he has fathomed the client’s true nature.  It is probably a tribute to the creativeness of the human mind that a client can, under the right circumstances, make sense out of almost any reading and manage to fit it to his own unique situation. All that is necessary is that the reader make out a plausible case for why the reading ought to fit. The client will do the rest.

You can achieve a surprisingly high degree of success as a character reader even if you merely use a stock spiel which you give to every client. Sundberg (1955), for example, found that if you deliver the following character sketch to a college male, he will usually accept it as a reasonably accurate description of himself:

“You are a person who is very normal in his attitudes, behavior and relationships with people. You get along well without effort. People naturally like you, and you are not overly critical of them or yourself. You are neither overly conventional nor overly individualistic. Your prevailing mood is one of optimism and constructive effort, and you are not troubled by periods of depression, psychosomatic illness or nervous symptoms.”

Sundberg found that the college female will respond with even more pleasure to the following sketch:

“You appear to be a cheerful, well-balanced person. You may have some alternation of happy and unhappy moods, but they are not extreme now. You have few or no problems with your health. You are sociable and mix well with others. You are adaptable to social situations. You tend to be adventurous. Your interests are wide. You are fairly self-confident and usually think clearly.”

Sundberg conducted his study over 20 years ago. But the sketches still work well today. Either will tend to work well with both sexes. More recently, several laboratory studies have had excellent success with the following stock spiel (Snyder and Shenkel 1975)

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and resented. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do nor accept others’ 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 worrisome and insecure on the inside.

Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.  You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

IL Papa Pavlos (2013) Synthronon

Interestingly enough, the statements in this stock spiel were first used in 1943 by Bertram Forer (1948) in a classroom demonstration of personal validation. He obtained most of them from a newsstand astrology book. Forer’s students, who thought the sketch was uniquely intended for them as a result of a personality test, gave the sketch an average rating of 4.26 on a scale of O (poor) to 5 (perfect). As many as 16 our of his 39 students (41 percent) rated it as a perfect fit to their personality. Only five gave it a rating below 4 (the worst being a rating of 2, meaning “average”). Almost 30 years later students give the same sketch an almost identical rating as a unique description of themselves.



Geronda Ephraim and Geronda Nektarios

The acceptability of the stock spiel depends upon the method and circumstances of its delivery. As we shall later see, laboratory studies have isolated many of the factors that contribute to persuading clients that the sketch is a unique description of themselves. A great deal of the success of the spiel depends upon “setting the stage.”  The reader tries to persuade the client that the sketch is tailored especially for him or her. The reader also creates the impression that it is based on a reliable and proven assessment procedure. The way the sketch is delivered and dramatized also helps. And many of the rules that I give for the cold reading also apply to the delivery of the stock spiel.

The stock spiel, when properly delivered, can be quite effective. In fact, with the right combination of circumstances the stock spiel is often accepted as a perfect and unique description by the client. But, in general, one can achieve even greater success as a character analyst if one uses the more flexible technique of the cold reader. In this method one plays a sort of detective role in which one takes on the role of a Sherlock Holmes. (See the “Case of the Cardboard Box” for an excellent example of cold reading.)  One observes the jewelry, prices the clothing, evaluates the speech mannerisms, and studies the reactions of the subject. Then whatever information these observations provide is pieced together into a character reading which is aimed more specifically at the particular client.

A good illustration of the cold reader in action occurs in a story told by the well-known magician John Mulholland. The incident took place in the 1930s. A young lady in her late twenties or early thirties visited a character reader. She was wearing expensive jewelry, a wedding band, and a black dress of cheap material. The observant reader noted that she was wearing shoes which were currently being advertised for people with foot trouble. (Pause at this point and imagine that you are the reader; see what you would make of these clues.)

By means of just these observations the reader proceeded to amaze his client with his insights. He assumed that this client came to see him, as did most of his female customers, because of a love or financial problem. The black dress and the wedding band led him to reason that her husband had died recently. The expensive jewelry suggested that she had been financially comfortable during marriage, but the cheap dress indicated that her husband’s death had left her penniless. The therapeutic shoes signified that she was now standing on her feet more than she was used to, implying that she was working to support herself since her husband’s death.

The reader’s shrewdness led him to the following conclusion, which turned out to be correct: The lady had met a man who had proposed to her. She wanted to marry the man to end her economic hardship. But she felt guilty about marrying so soon after her husband’s death. The reader told her what she had come to hear–  that it was all right to marry without further delay.


 NOTE: The remainder of the 15 page article can be read here:

Filotheou Monastery Fruit Harvest

Astrology Debunked (Georges Charpak, 2004)

The following article is taken from the book Debunked!: ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience, pp. 1-10. Astrology and horoscopes are banned for Orthodox Christians by the canons. Many first time pilgrims to Elder Ephraim’s monasteries are surprised when they receive canons of “no holy communion” after confessing that they read the daily horoscopes in newspapers or have used astrology apps on their phones. Anything involving “reading” (cards: tarot or regular deck; coffee grinds, tea leaves, etc.) all have various canons of “no holy communion” attached to them.


Truth is Drawn from a Well

“The proof that astrology works, and that it works well, is that my horoscope has accurately predicted things that actually happened to me.” How many times have we heard such remarks? How many personal experiences of this type get presented as evidence of the validity of astrology?

Well, let’s be clear on the subject: Yes, horoscopes work—they work well, in fact. But the validity of the horoscope does not imply the validity of astrology. Many people are convinced of the validity of astrology because their horoscope “works.” These people believe that the occurrence of predicted events, which they have witnessed, justifies the validity that they ascribe to the “Science of Signs.” They are especially convinced that their horoscope gives them a solid foundation for an understanding of themselves and provides guidance for how to act and on their destiny.

For such people, their horoscopes are meaningful, but in truth, the horoscopes take on meaning from the believers, not for believers. It is difficult to get this point across, since it runs contrary to personal experience—“You can’t say it’s not true, because it’s happened to me.” The individual who reads his horoscope is convinced that he is dealing with his horoscope, that that horoscope is destined for him, and that it was created specifically for him by a supernatural force. There’s no recognition that the satisfaction of the client is a source of feedback, adding to the credibility that the fortune-teller can claim for himself and his “science” and consequently for his motives and his effect on the client.


A Convincing Demonstration

Twenty years ago, during a class on paranormal phenomena and the occult, one of us asked the students to write the following information on a piece of paper: their first and last names; the date, time, and place of their birth, and the theme of their latest dream. All of this was handwritten. The request implied that some kind of star-based calculation would be made using the birth data or that a handwriting analysis would be made based on the written material, in either case possibly augmented by interpretation of the most recent dream.

A week later, each student received an individualized description of his or her personality followed by the question, “How good is this description of your personality?” The concordance of the description with the student’s real personality (or self-perception of it, anyway) was rated as excellent, good, fair, poor, bad, or none. Overall, 69% of the students judged the description of their personality to be excellent, good, or fairly good.

The result is especially convincing because I had been introduced to the students as a “scientific demystifier”—a pretty lousy introduction, by the way—and not as an astrologer or other supernatural leader, which would have certainly enhanced the believability of the personality descriptions and thus the percentage of “successful matches.” It’s also a particularly good demonstration when you consider that, when we asked one of the students to read aloud the personality description that we had prepared for him, the others all thought it was theirs. They couldn’t have been more similar—in fact, the much-touted “individualized” descriptions were prepared before the students’ data were collected, and they were exactly identical for all the students! This was a simple but enlightening demonstration of one of the many “effects” that occur so often when it comes to “paranormal” phenomena. If you ever want to try this illuminating experience, use the model personality description below; simply adding a name to complete the “personalization.”

  • You need others to like and admire you, yet you are apt to be critical of yourself.
  • Although you have certain character flaws, you are generally able to make up for them.
  • You possess substantial untapped potential that you haven’t exploited for your own benefit.
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  • You are outwardly disciplined and you display self-control but inside you tend to worry and be insecure.
  • Sometimes you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision.
  • You prefer a bit of change and variety and are annoyed when you encounter restrictions or limitations.
  • Sometimes you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, cautious, and reserved.
  • You are proud of being an independent thinker and don’t accept the statements of others without satisfactory proof.
  • You find it unwise to reveal too much about yourself to others.

Similar descriptions were used and tested for the first time by the psychologist Bertram Forer, who based his wording on an astrology book. The effectiveness of such wording in a real-life setting demonstrates clearly the power of what some have called the “well effect.”

Forer effect

The Well Effect

The well effect can be summed up as follows: The vaguer a statement is, the more numerous are the people who will recognize themselves in it—and the more completely the description will be seen to “fit” them. The descriptive statements may be profound, all right, but they are only deep in the sense that a well is deep—deeply hollowed out, that is, empty. In fact, experience has shown that vague, general statements are more convincing than specific descriptions made by professional psychologists because of what sociologists might call the Barnum effect. Barnum’s circus shows were constructed so that there was something for everyone so that everyone would find their way there, which created the shows’ success. Moreover, studies have shown that, when it comes to analysis of serious personal problems, “yes” and “no” answers picked in advance completely at random are perceived as very encouraging answers to specific questions by the people posing them! (You can read more about this phenomenon in Ray Hyman’s “Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All about Them,” in Paranormal Borderlands of Science [Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981]).


The well effect explains, in large measure, the success of horoscopes. “In some ways, you are one of the stronger people”: this is a statement that is empty and void of meaning, yet it will be accepted as fundamentally true in a horoscope, as each reader interprets it in the context that gives it meaning for him. the reader will think, “My knowledge of foreign languages is strong,” “I have a great ability when it comes to fixing things,” “My muscles are strong,” or any of so many other possibilities. And this is without even taking into account that the elementary principles that can improve the receptivity of the readers. For example, don’t tell people what you know (or think you know) to be true about them, just tell them what you wish were true about them.

Of course, astrologers count on the fact that the public quickly forgets the predictions. The supermarket tabloids print dramatic predictions at the end of every year, often involving such events as a presidential assassination or the second coming of Christ in the following year or two, and people have been reading similar predictions for decades. In France, a prediction concerning a former prime minister is little remembered: “Despite a generally positive picture for the year [1993], the first fifteen days of January and of September as well may pose serious problems for Pierre Beregovoy.” For this prediction we are indebted to a famous astrologer, Elizabeth Teissier, writing in Your Horoscope for 1993. For those unacquainted with subsequent events, Pierre Beregovoy killed himself on May 1, 1993, by a gunshot wound to the head. In the United States, thousands died in the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001. The horoscopes of any number of the victims contain predictions supposedly useful for guiding behavior that day—“a good day for a fresh start in your love life”—and the next day! Individual deaths on that day were not predicted, let alone a mass disaster; if astrology can’t unambiguously predict an event of that magnitude in your life—and still makes further predictions for the next day—what good is it?  Yet no one remembers that predictions of good days and bad days for the rest of the year were cast for these victims.

Clearly, astrologers make full use of the well effect. A prediction from Elizabeth Teissier again: “Populations in the world will suffer violence in the following month, given that Venus and Pluto…” But they also use other tricks to lend credence to their pronouncements, always centered on the big three—Love, Money, and Health. And intellectual honesty does not have to be the foremost characteristic in the star charts that predict the traits of the astrologers themselves. Skill and craftiness are often plainly evident. For example, Darah was one of the four sons of a great Moghul emperor, and he was obsessed by astrology. A soothsayer predicted that he would stake his own life on his prediction that Darah would be crowned the heir to the emperor. When someone expressed astonishment at the temerity of the prediction, the astrologer said, “One of two things will happen: either Darah will ascend the throne and my fortune is assured, or he will lose his bid and be assassinated, and then I will have nothing further to fear from him.” Beyond the well effect, astrologers don’t hesitate to have two irons in the fire or, more subtly, one iron with two different sides.

Let’s not leave out that astrologers also count on the fact that “to err is human” but constant fallibility is not. Neither perpetual fallibility nor perpetual infallibility is characteristic of anybody. People readily accept one side of this and disregard a claim of infallibility because errors inevitably appear. But people are a lot less aware that a few instances of “getting it right” are inevitable. The contrary—always being wrong—would be extraordinary. Even an astrologer will sometimes make predictions that turn out to be true. So, predict merrily along—some of your statements will always pan out.

Élizabeth Teissier, astrologer.
Élizabeth Teissier, astrologer.

Astrology in a Vacuum

Astrologers actually know very little about what goes on in the skies. In Your Horoscope in 1993, Elizabeth Teissier asked, “How does such a horoscope [for a group readership] work, and how can it be justified? How can it be conceivable that a Capricorn born January 9, 1960, should be under the same planetary influences as another born January 9, 1924, for example? Here is the answer to such questions: In its apparent travels around Earth, the Sun ends up in the same place in the sky on the same date each year” (italics added). This is totally false! On two identical dates in different years, the Sun is not in the same spot in the sky at all.

On a given date in different years, our planet is not at the same point in its orbit around the Sun. As we will explain more fully later, the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes causes a shift in position. To put it in numbers, as an approximation, we can say that there is a difference of about 22,000 miles between Earth’s location on any specific date in two successive years, which is a distance of about three times the diameter of our planet. Thus, contrary to the astrologer’s statements about the same planetary influences on January 9th of 1960 and 1924, the earth would not occupy the same place in its orbit around the Sun, at all. Between those two dates there would be a shift of about 780,000 miles!

For the most part, astrological soothsayers work with what is called the “tropical zodiac.” This is based on the sun and has nothing to do with the stars, which are the basis for the “sidereal zodiac.” When astrologers put together an astral analysis, they generally use the twelve signs of the tropical zodiac, defined as the twelve equal rectangles into which the celestial sphere is divided. The starting point for this division is called “gamma,” which is the intersection of the ecliptic with the celestial equator, corresponding to the spring equinox.

At one time, a bit before the birth of Christ, calculations based on the tropical zodiac would have been about the same as those based on the stars and constellations that originally determined the characteristics of the various signs of the sidereal zodiac. This is no longer the case because the precession of the equinoxes has mixed things up by displacing the gamma point with respect to the starry background of the celestial sphere. This displacement has dragged along the astrological signs, which nowadays don’t correspond at all to their original stars. Today’s “tropically based” astrologers just blindly apply rectangular sign-zones, empty boxes that have nothing to do with anything and are devoid of any consistency or correspondence with the stars. If you want to know your real zodiac birth sign, rather than one fobbed off on you by the usual (tropical) astrologers, investigate Astronomic Zodiac. This resource is found on the Internet site Your true sign is simply the location of the Sun in the celestial sphere, as seen from Earth at the instant of your birth. This can be calculated rigorously from an astronomical point of view. But most astrologers, relying on the vacant rectangles of the tropical zodiac, really don’t practice astrology at all, but rather something we’ve got to call the study of emptiness—voidology, or astrology in a vacuum.

The 3 Magi
The 3 Magi

The Navel Gazers

Horoscopes are popular today because ours is a narcissistic civilization. Science makes only global or collective forecasts, while lots of people are interested only in their own personal destiny. For most people, it’s not hard to choose between the distant scientists who speak of generalities and the accessible astrologer who speaks exclusively to the individual about himself. The aura of exclusivity and uniqueness is certainly enhanced by the astrologer’s request for the complete details of the client’s birth. Exact spot, date, hour, and minute—all pertain to a single person, all pertain to me—so it must be that there’s a good correspondence between the results of the astrologer’s study and my own personality.

Our observations and perceptions depend in part upon what we are thinking at the moment we observe something. Our deepest desires and motivations, modified by our past experiences, are reinforced, whether consciously or not, by selection bias. Selection bias is a well-documented psychological principle. It means that we choose our magazines, newspapers, radio stations, television shows—all of our information sources—in such a way that our opinions are, for the most part, reinforced rather than challenged. And if, despite all that, we receive challenging information, we can always use subjective validation. Subjective validation is a psychological principle that allows us to absorb incorrectly any information that is contrary to our preferences and to interpret it in a different light. Subjective validation causes two events to be perceived as linked, when they are not, simply because a desire, a hypothesis, or a belief requires such a linkage. In the case of astrology, events are perceived as linked simply because the horoscope says the linkage exists. This perception of linkage, in turn, induces superstitious behavior founded upon the belief that one’s own actions determine the course of events, even when  this is not so in reality.

If the influence of the planets over our destiny is completely nil, however, it doesn’t follow that the horoscope is without effect. And the well effect, in particular, allows us to see why the horoscope holds such a sway over so many people.

The Precession of the Equinoxes

The precession of the equinoxes was discovered by Hipparchus of Nicea in the second century B.C.E. Earth is not perfectly spherical but flattened a bit at the poles and bulging a bit at the equator. Gravitational effects of the Sun and the Moon on the equatorial bulge cause the axis of the Earth’s rotation to shift. That is, the axis—the line between the poles—moves around. It pivots, a bit like a spinning top, very slowly, taking about 25, 790 years to go around completely. The picture is actually a bit more complicated, though. An additional phenomenon, called “nutation,” creates a little wave around the main circular motion of the axis, with a period of about 18.6 years.

In about 12,000 years, Earth’s axis will point to a new “North Star,” Vega, and today’s “North Star,” Polaris, will no longer mark the northerly direction.

The plane of the celestial equator—that is, the plane that includes Earth’s equator—obviously follows this pivoting of Earth’s axis. Therefore, its intersection with the ecliptic, which is the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, must also move. But the location of that intersection determines the gamma point, the spring equinox. (Remember that the spring and autumnal equinoxes correspond to the two positions of Earth when the line from the Sun to Earth is perpendicular to the axis of Earth’s rotation. That’s why, at the equinoxes, day and night are of equal length all over the world.)

The problem is that the spring equinox serves as the reference point for the tropical zodiac. In other words, the gamma point moves slowly but surely through the celestial sphere and pulls along with it the signs of the tropical astrologers, who consequently are not working from the original constellations at all and who continue to be farther and farther away from them.

Here’s just one example among many: Those born when the Sun (as seen from the Earth) is in the constellation Leo are said to be “courageous, proud, and dominating.” But if that were true in Hipparchus’ day, two thousand years ago, it’s really difficult to understand what that sign has to do with us today. People born at the end of July are “Leos” according to the astrologers, but today’s Sun is not then in Leo at all but in Cancer.

The well effect is not limited to astrology. One can easily find many applications of this principle in every aspect of life.

Also see St. John Damascene, On Astrology.