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Situational Awareness: Lessons from a Professional Mentalist

Professional mentalist Mark Edward talks about situational awareness, critical thinking, and the differences between psychics, magicians, and mentalists.

Many of us had a time when we were interested in magic tricks, or have seen a really good magic trick performed. But an understanding of magic, misdirection, and the psychology behind the tricks can provide more skills than just pulling rabbits out of hats. Learning the underlying principles behind psychics, mentalism, and magic tricks can help improve your situational awareness and critical thinking. As it turns out, once you know how the trick is done, you become much more aware of the other tricks that are out there.


See A Mentalist Psychic and a Magician Walk Into a Bar with Mark Edward for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Mark Edward is a professional psychic entertainer, also called a mentalist. He has specialized in the magic of the mind for over thirty-five years. He also travels internationally as a skeptical activist, using his mentalist skills to teach and promote critical thinking.

A Journey into Magic and Mentalism

Mark’s grandfather was a magician. When he went over to his grandfather’s house, he loved to examine his cigar box full of magic tricks, wire puzzles, and other curious things. He was engrossed by the colors, objects, and vanishing and disappearing. It was entertaining. But he also got to learn some skepticism. No matter how magical the trick seemed, there was always misdirection or verbal deception behind it.

By entertaining me, [my grandfather] inoculated a skepticism that things are not always the way you think they are.

Mark Edward

Mark stuck with magic six or seven years, trying to become a magician. But it didn’t work out very well. When you’re nine or ten years old and trying to convince other kids you have magic powers, you get a lot of resistance. And he was too young to be any good at managing an audience. He learned quickly that magic was not for him.

A Detour Through Art School

After leaving magic, Mark tried rock ‘n’ roll and art. He went to art school at CalArts and got involved in a group called Post Studio Art. They were involved in performance art, going out in the street, doing weird stuff, and attracting attention. Mark discovered he loved being out performing in the street.

Along with some theater students, Mark formed a group called Rainbow Magic Theater. Across the freeway from CalArts was a place called Magic Mountain. Mark and the Rainbow Magic Theater approached them and said, “This place is called Magic Mountain, why don’t you have any magic?” They convinced management that they needed street performers doing magic.

For the first time, Mark found he could make good money performing and doing magic. He learned to juggle, how to get crowds and work them, and how to work when surrounded by people on all sides. Though he still did art, most of his money came from this street magic and entertaining.

Moving Into Mentalism

The biggest difference between magic and mentalism is that in mentalism, people want to believe it. If you’re doing magic tricks, you can put a green handkerchief into your hand and it comes out red. It’s pretty and clever, but everyone knows it’s slight of hand. Nobody wants to truly be convinced that you can do real magic. But with mentalism, telepathy, clairvoyance, mediums, and other psychic things, people really want to believe it.

Mark was accepted as a performing member at Magic Castle in 1975. His job was in the Houdini séance room. At first, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. But he listened to old radio shows, watched old movies, and started to develop his medium character.

And he had a great time with it. It was his own room, and he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. Each “séance” was like performing a fifty-minute play. As he worked the room, he realized that when you’re a medium, people expect you to do certain things. When chatting with people before or after the show, they would ask if he read palms or read tarot cards. He didn’t want to say no, because he wanted to stay in character.

Becoming a professional medium helped develop Mark's situational awareness skills.

He started spending time in occult shops and learned how to do readings. It took him even further from standard magic and more into human nature and the need to believe wacky things. Mark liked it because he could say just about anything. If you could phrase answers so that you could be right or wrong at the same time, people would go away happy. More than that, they would tell others how accurate your readings were. Mark was just making things up, but after a while, he learned the right things to say.

Telephone Psychic

When Mark got married, he needed more money. There used to be a company called Psychic Friends Network. They did infomercials on late-night TV, and people could dial a 1-800 number to speak to a psychic. Mark started doing that to make extra money. In his book, Psychic Blues, there’s a very thick chapter about this section of his life. It taught him a lot about being a psychic and about human psychology.

The service cost callers $3.99 per minute. Mark made twenty-five cents a minute, so it wasn’t a big moneymaker. But when people were paying four dollars a minute, they cut to the chase. Over the phone, you can’t get any tells from clothes, shoes, jewelry, or other things. And people don’t want to pay more than necessary, so there wasn’t much opportunity to ask questions to try to get a hook into them. Mark learned to be quick on his metaphorical feet. Many times people would call for a standard reading, then a few minutes in ask for advice on something totally different. It was definitely poor man’s therapy.

What Mark found fascinating – and the reason he stayed at that job longer than he should have – was that they had the option for psychics to change professions. One week you could be a tarot reader, the next week a rune stone reader, the week after that a ghost hunter. The last one interested him especially. People would call in and tell him stories of encountering ghosts. They would spend twenty minutes telling him this story at $3.99 per minute. Mark thought they had to believe what they were saying. Why would they pay that much money to lie to him, unless they were crazy? Most of them didn’t sound crazy at all.

Joining the Skeptics

Mark’s grandfather had instilled skepticism, critical thinking, and situational awareness into him at a young age. But he didn’t start getting deep into the skeptic community until he started talking to Randi. It bothered most skeptics that Mark was a skeptic and also a mentalist. But that didn’t bother Randi, and Mark could talk magic with him. The Amazing Randi was an escape artist who had gotten interested in psychics and exposed faith healer Peter Popoff. He decided he’d had enough of scoundrels and charlatans and started JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Talking with Randi opened doors that Mark hadn’t known were there. He was suddenly able to rub shoulders with science. All magic is science. Once you deal with optical illusions, sensory things, and misdirection and start looking at magic through the lens of science, everything opens up. The main thing Mark’s grandfather taught him was that when you see something in one hand, you look at what the other hand is doing. Once you learn that situational awareness, you see the world differently. It becomes a way of life.

Scams, psychics, all of it is just a performance. There’s no supernatural element. If it was, that person would be the most dangerous person on the planet. Mark has always said that if psychics really had the powers they claimed, the NSA or CIA would have their brains wired up to figure out how. It’s all a big performance. Mark doesn’t pretend to know everything and he keeps an open mind, but he needs to see evidence before he will believe any claims of supernatural powers. And anecdotes aren’t evidence.

The Three Types of Psychics

Ninety-five percent of people claiming to be psychic are charlatans. They know they’re lying to you. They make their living from your superstition by using situational awareness and clever tricks. It has nothing to do with anything paranormal or spiritual.

Of the other five percent, half of them genuinely believe they have powers. This could be for a variety of reasons. They may be off their medication, or demented, or just plain crazy. For most of them, it’s just a big blind spot. They’re fairly normal people with this one weird belief.

The other half of that five percent are people who are kind, compassionate, intuitive, and sensitive. They’ve learned to listen to their intuition, developed a higher sense of situational awareness, or found a unique way of coping with the world that lets them dip into things most people don’t think about. If you go to a sideshow and sit down with an old lady telling fortunes, she’s going to start telling you amazing things about yourself. You’ll wonder how she knew all of that. But it’s a skill that she probably learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, who learned from her mother. When someone has learned those observation and situational awareness skills and been practicing them for so long, why are we surprised that they notice things most people don’t?

Hot and Cold Reading

There are two types of “reading” psychics use on people. With cold reading, they know nothing about you but use little cues like what you’re wearing and how you move to make their amazing predictions. Hot reading, on the other hand, is when they know something about you that you don’t know they know. When doing shows for big audiences, psychics found ways to target particular people in the audience. They might have a compatriot somewhere in the line of people waiting to get in talking to people. The psychic gets up on stage and gives the gentleman in the red sweater a message from his recently-departed grandmother. The man is impressed and thinks it must be real. But in reality, the conversation he had with that person in line got reported straight to the psychic.

With Zoom, unethical psychics don't even need situational awareness - they can just Google you.

Mark is now working on stinging the most egregious psychics. They have moved to Zoom for multiple reasons. One is, of course, covid. The other is that they can make more money. Previously they would have had to rent a hotel ballroom or something for their events. Now they can do it much cheaper through Zoom. In addition, Zoom has your name in the bottom corner of the screen. A charlatan can take your name from Zoom, search you on Google or Facebook, and all the sudden they’re “seeing” your dog.

The Dark Side of Psychics

Tickets for some psychics’ events can be hundreds of dollars. These people are willing to pay that much for a single ticket because they think it’s real. If they thought it was fake, they would go see a movie or something.

I do not like mediumship at all for what it does to people, but I love the tricks.

Mark Edward

The sad part to Mark – and the reason his book is called Psychic Blues – is that he really likes the artifice and learned magic elements of psychic entertainment. Magic is tricks and sleight-of-hand and he enjoys that. But people mix the tricks of magic with claiming real supernatural powers and taking advantage of people, and that’s frustrating.

A mentalist is an entertainer. They get up on stage and put on a fun performance, but when they walk off the stage, it’s over. That’s the end of it. A psychic will tell you that if you liked the show, you should go to the person in the back and sign up for a reading. The point of a psychic’s show is to hook people. The performance isn’t the point – the performance is advertising. Psychics want to get you to the private readings because that’s where they can really get you and keep you coming back.

Situational Awareness Skills in the Real World

Mark’s skills of reading people and their mannerisms and body language are an always-on skill set. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, that knowledge is giving him clues about other people. It’s a situational awareness that becomes a mindset. Once you have that awareness, you can’t flip it on and off. It’s always there.

But just because he has strong situational awareness skills doesn’t mean Mark is perfect. He can generally tell when people are lying to him, but the true sociopaths can still slip by. And he still falls for scams. Just recently he fell for a fake product. It was a charger that claims to charge your phone in less than fifteen minutes. He fell for it for the same reason people fall for psychics – he wanted to believe it.

The Difficulty of Being a Skeptic

Mark’s job as a skeptic trying to educate people is difficult. People want to believe in psychics and their connection with the supernatural. They don’t want to learn the situational awareness skills or to be told their wrong. That’s why there are no good skeptic TV shows. People don’t want to hear the truth.

People don’t want the truth. They want to believe, they want to be left alone.

Mark Edward

When you take away people’s belief, they don’t like you. In many other countries Mark has presented in, they are more athiest. They love the debunking. But Americans especially love their supernatural beliefs. When Mark tries to teach them these critical thinking and situational awareness skills, he’s destroying their illusion. Even though it is the reality, it’s very painful. And it makes people resist learning the truth and cling to their beliefs even harder.

You can buy Mark’s book Psychic Blues on Amazon or from his website, themarkedward.com. You can also get the audiobook from Audible – Mark narrated it himself and prefers the audiobook version as it’s funnier and darker. Mark can also be found on his Facebook page, where he’s on every day posting weird things. To learn more about skeptic efforts and exposures, visit abouttimeproject.org. There you can also read about Operation Onion Ring, where they busted a medium doing a Zoom spirit circle for children between the ages of 5 and 12.

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