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cold reading

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Psychics, Mediums, Mentalists, Palm Readers, tarot-cards, astrology all use this technique. Some believe it themselves, some know what they're doing.

cold reading

"In the course of a successful reading, the psychic may provide most of the words, but it is the client that provides most of the meaning and all of the significance." --Ian Rowland (2000: 60)

Note: to understand cold reading you must also understand subjective validation. I recommend you read the subjective validation entry before continuing.

Cold reading refers to a set of techniques used by professional manipulators to get a subject to behave in a certain way or to think that the cold reader has some sort of special ability that allows him to "mysteriously" know things about the subject. Cold reading goes beyond the usual tools of manipulation: suggestion and flattery. In cold reading, salespersons, hypnotists, advertising pros, faith healers, con men, and some therapists bank on their subject's inclination to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is. The desire to make sense out of experience can lead us to many wonderful discoveries, but it can also lead us to many follies. The manipulator knows that his mark will be inclined to try to make sense out of whatever he is told, no matter how farfetched or improbable. He knows, too, that people are generally self-centered, that we tend to have unrealistic views of ourselves, and that we will generally accept claims about ourselves that reflect not how we are or even how we really think we are but how we wish we were or think we should be. He also knows that for every several claims he makes about you that you reject as being inaccurate, he will make one that meets with your approval; and he knows that you are likely to remember the hits he makes and forget the misses.

Thus, a good manipulator can provide a reading of a total stranger, which will make the stranger feel that the manipulator possesses some special power. For example, Bertram Forer has never met you, yet he offers the following cold reading of you:

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 reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not 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.

Here's another reading that you might find fairly accurate about you:

People close to you have been taking advantage of you. Your basic honesty has been getting in your way. Many opportunities that you have had offered to you in the past have had to be surrendered because you refuse to take advantage of others. You like to read books and articles to improve your mind. In fact, if you're not already in some sort of personal service business, you should be. You have an infinite capacity for understanding people's problems and you can sympathize with them. But you are firm when confronted with obstinacy or outright stupidity. Law enforcement would be another field you understand. Your sense of justice is quite strong.

The last one was from astrologer Sidney Omarr. He's never even met you and yet he knows so much about you (Flim-Flam!, 61). The first one was taken by Forer from a newsstand astrology book.

The selectivity of the human mind is always at work. We pick and choose what data we will remember and what we will give significance to. In part, we do so because of what we already believe or want to believe. In part, we do so in order to make sense out of what we are experiencing. We are not manipulated simply because we are gullible or suggestible, or just because the signs and symbols of the manipulator are vague or ambiguous. Even when the signs are clear and we are skeptical, we can still be manipulated. In fact, it may even be the case that particularly bright persons are more likely to be manipulated when the language is clear and they are thinking logically. To make the connections that the manipulator wants you to make, you must be thinking logically.

Not all cold readings are done by malicious manipulators. Some readings are done by astrologers, graphologists, tarot readers, and psychics who genuinely believe they have paranormal powers. They are as impressed by their correct predictions or "insights" as are their clients. We should remember, however, that just as scientists can be wrong in their predictions, so pseudoscientists and quacks can sometimes be right in theirs.

There seem to be three common factors in these kinds of readings. One factor involves fishing for details. The psychic says something at once vague and suggestive, e.g., "I'm getting a strong feeling about January here." If the subject responds, positively or negatively, the psychic's next move is to play off the response. E.g., if the subject says, "I was born in January" or my mother died in January" then the psychic says something like "Yes, I can see that," anything to reinforce the idea that the psychic was more precise that he or she really was. If the subject responds negatively, e.g., "I can't think of anything particularly special about January," the psychic might reply, "Yes, I see that you've suppressed a memory about it. You don't want to be reminded of it. Something painful in January. Yes, I feel it. It's in the lower back [fishing]...oh, now it's in the heart [fishing]...umm, there seems to be a sharp pain in the head [fishing]...or the neck [fishing]." If the subject gives no response, the psychic can leave the area, having firmly implanted in everybody's mind that the psychic really did 'see' something but the subject's suppression of the event hinders both the psychic and the subject from realizing the specifics of it. If the subject gives a positive response to any of the fishing expeditions, the psychic follows up with more of "I see that very clearly, now. Yes, the feeling in the heart is getting stronger."

Fishing is a real art and a good mentalist carries a variety of bait in his memory. For example, professional mentalist and author of one of the best books on cold reading, Ian Rowland (2002), says that he has committed to memory such things as the most common male and female names and a list of items likely to be lying about the house such as an old calendar, a photo album, newspaper clippings, and so on. Rowland also works on certain themes that are likely to resonate with most people who consult psychics: love, money, career, health, and travel. Since cold reading can occur in many contexts, there are several tactics Rowland covers. But whether one is working with astrology, graphology, palmistry, psychometry, rumpology, or Tarot cards, or whether one is channeling messages from the dead as many mediums claim to be doing, there are specific techniques one can use to impress clients with ones ability to know things that seem to require paranormal powers.

Another characteristic of these readings is that many claims are put in vague statement form ("I'm getting a warm feeling in the crotch area") or in the form of a question ("I sense that you have strong feelings about someone in this room. Am I right?") Most, but not all, of the specific claims are provided by the subject himself.

Some experts on cold reading emphasize paying attention to body language and such things as the dress of the client.

The reader begins with generalities which are applicable to large segments of the population. He or she pays careful attention to reactions: words, body language, skin color, breathing patterns, dilation or contraction of the pupils of the eye, and more. The subject of the reading will usually convey important information to the reader: sometimes in words, and sometimes in bodily reactions to the reading.

From observation, the reader will feed back to the subject what the latter wants to hear. That is the overwhelming guiding principle of the mystics: Tell 'em what they want to hear. That will keep them coming back for more (Steiner 1989: 21).

Also, those occasions where the psychic has guessed wrongly about the subject are likely to be forgotten by the subject and the audience. What will be remembered are the seeming hits, giving the overall impression of "wow, how else could she have known all this stuff unless she is psychic." This same phenomenon of suppression of contrary evidence and selective thinking is so predominant in every form of psychic demonstration that it seems to be related to the old psychological principle: a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.

cold reading and contacting the dead

Many cold readings do not involve fishing, vagueness, or wild guessing. The key to a successful cold reading is the willingness, ability, and effort of the client to find meaning and significance in the words of the psychic, astrologer, palm reader, medium, or the like. A medium claiming to get messages from the dead might throw out a string of ambiguous images to the client. Father figure, the month of May, the Big-H, and H with an N sound, Henna, Henry, M, maybe Michael, teaching, books, maybe something published. This list could mean different things to different people. To some people it probably has no meaning. The client will either connect these dots or she won't. Clients of mediums who claim to get messages from the dead are very highly motivated clients. Not only do they have an implicit desire for immortality, they have an explicit desire to contact a dear loved one who has died. The odds are in favor of the medium that the client will find meaning in many different sets of ambiguous words and phrases. If she connects just a couple of them, she may be satisfied that the medium has made a connection to a dead relative. If she doesn't find any meaning or significance in the string, the medium still wins. He can try another string. He can insist that there's meaning here but the client just isn't trying hard enough to figure it out. He can suggest that some uninvited spirit guests are confusing the issue. It's a win-win situation for the medium because the burden is not on him but on the client to find the meaning and significance of the words.

Successful cold readings are sometimes a testament to the skills of the reader, but they are always a testament to the ability of human beings to make sense out of the most disparate of data. The skill of cold reading can be honed and turned into an art, as it is by professionals who work as mediums, palm readers, astrologers, and the like. Many of these professionals may not even realize what they are doing and attribute their high rate of client satisfaction to the truth of astrology or palmistry or to their own psychic powers. They may come to believe in the reality of the spirit world by becoming convinced that meaningful signals from beyond sometimes rise above the noise of daily life and are detected by skilled mediums. Some of these professionals know what they are doing and they deceive the public, if not themselves. Other professionals (mentalists) know what they are doing but they tell their clients or audiences after their performances that they need no paranormal or supernatural powers to accomplish their feats.

In evaluating cold reading, it is a common mistake to focus mainly on the reader rather than the sitter (the one for whom the reading is done). Gary Schwartz seems to have done this in his work that led up to the book The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death. He seems to think that if he can eliminate trickery, deceit, and fraud on the part of the mediums in his experiments, then he has eliminated cold or hot reading as a viable explanation for the validation by sitters of their readings. He makes this point throughout his book and emphasizes it in a paper he and others published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research:

Because the sitter-silent condition provides no verbal/semantic feedback to the mediums as well as minimal non-verbal feedback (save for possible sighs or breathing information from the sitters), the sitter-silent condition eliminates the plausibility of 'cold reading' as a probable explanation for the findings. For this reason, the paper reports the data from the sitter-silent condition. These form the most compelling evidence for anomalous information retrieval.*

The sitter-silent condition (a.k.a. the Russek Protocol) lets the medium do a reading within hearing distance of the sitter but does not permit the medium to ask any questions or the sitter to make any responses during the reading.

It is evident from Forer's work and from tests done on college students who are given personality or astrological readings that it is not necessary to interrogate the client to get him or her to find meaning and significance in complete sentences that were not generated on the basis of any personal knowledge. It also seems evident that many people should be able to find meaning and significance in various strings of initials, names, descriptions of places, and so on. And, while it is true that some mediums use trickery, such as having accomplices in the audience or having detective work done on the sitter, it is not necessary. What many saw Rosemary Althea do at a "psychic reading" in a Penn & Teller Bullshit! episode, for example, is not required for a successful reading. Her agent brought two couples to the reading, both of whom had lost a child to suicide (guess what came through in their readings) and she chatted up a young man before the reading began who told her that he wanted to connect with his mother (guess who she connected to during the reading). (Watch it here on YouTube.) In the same Bullshit! episode, Mark Edward (no relation to John Edward) did a successful reading for a woman without using any hot reading tricks. But even his method of fishing around for something the sitter can connect to isn't necessary for a successful reading. The sitter is the key to the success of a reading by a medium and different mediums use different methods.

Successful readings that involve contact with dead loved ones are a testament to the wonderful capacity of our species to find meaning in just about any image, word, phrase, or string of such items. We can find Jesus in a burnt tortilla, Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun, the Virgin Mary in a water stain or in the discoloration on the bark of a tree, or Vladimir Lenin in the soap scum on a shower curtain (pareidolia). We can see the devil in a puddle of water and hear him tempting us (apophenia). It is the same complex human brain that makes it possible for us to find these illusory meanings that allows us to write and appreciate multifaceted poetry and to discover real patterns in nature. This wonderful brain of ours, the product of tens of thousands of years of evolution, also makes it possible for us to deceive ourselves and others. Even more wonderful is the fact that this brain of ours can be used to try to understand the many ways we go right and wrong in our attempts to make sense out of life and death.

[Note: Some people use the expression warm reading to refer to using Barnum statements or the like, e.g., Peter Huston. Ian Rowland, Bob Steiner, and Ray Hyman consider such statements as part of a cold reading. Others use warm reading to refer to "utilizing known principles of psychology that apply to nearly everyone," e.g., Michael Shermer. What Shermer gives as an example of warm reading, Ray Hyman and Ian Rowland would give as an example of cold reading. Many grieving people will wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to their loved one. To claim to get some sort of message about a piece of jewelry belonging to the deceased while doing a reading will often shock a client, who will make the connection and take your message as a sign you have made contact with the other side.]

See also apophenia, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, hot reading, medium, pareidolia, psychic, selective thinking, self-deception, subjective validation, warm reading, and wishful thinking.


further reading

Dickson, D.H., & Kelly, I.W. "The 'Barnum effect' in personality assessment: A review of the literature," Psychological Reports, 57, 367-382, (1985).

Hyman, Ray. "'Cold Reading': How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them," The Skeptical Inquirer Spring/Summer 1977.

Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry : A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (Prometheus Books, 1989).

Marks, David and Richard Kammann, The Psychology of the Psychic. 2nd ed. (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Randi, James. Video. "Secrets of the Psychics." James Randi reveals the secrets of the psychics and self-deceptive workings of the human mind.

Rowland, Ian. The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, 3rd. ed (2000).

Steiner, Robert A. Don't Get Taken! - Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself (Wide-Awake Books 1989).

Note: If you really want to learn about cold reading do not buy Basil Hoffman's Cold Reading and How to Be Good at It. As one disappointed buyer at Amazon.com notes: "this book is an instructional for actors who are going to auditions." Read Hyman, Rowland, or Steiner. ©copyright 2005
Robert Todd Carroll

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cold reading Psychics, Mediums, Mentalists, Palm Readers, tarot-cards, astrology all use this technique. Some believe it themselves, some know what they're doing.

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