At the weekends I like to get out of the house and go for a long, leisurely walk around the village in which I live. I put on my ipod, call up the latest episode of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and saunter down the road lost in my own little relaxing world. Only this weekend something strange happened, something that is almost beyond my ability to explain. There I was walking along when all of a sudden this irresistible urge to veer from my normal route overcame me. Forces beyond my control caused me to cross the road and head in a direction I normally would not travel. It was as though my actions were not my own, as if some cosmic force were guiding my every step, propelling me on an unalterable course to a destination known only to the fickle whims of fate. I felt a pull on my non-existent soul drawing me on, across another road and inextricably to the window of our local electronics store where, behind the glass like a gift from a higher power or an ancestral spirit, I found the subject of my next blog post. For before me I read these words:
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Oh goody, the perfect excuse to talk about cold reading.
Cold Reading is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of different techniques that someone can use to determine details about another person, often for the purpose of convincing them that they have knowledge about them that they could not possibly know by natural means. These techniques are often used by mentalists, fortune tellers, psychics, mediums and the like and with practice will enable them to get a great deal of information about their subject simply by analysing things such as the person’s body language, clothing, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, speech patterns, etc. This, combined with open questions that seem to imply knowledge where none actually exists and high probability guesses, enables the reader to create the illusion of being able to read the subject’s mind, communicate with their dead loved ones or what every other theatrics they choose to wrap around these clever, but purely natural, psychological tricks.
Before we look at some of the specific techniques used let’s cover the basics. All cold reading techniques are designed pretty much to do just two things. Firstly, as I said above, they create the illusion that the reader knows more about you than they actually do and secondly they are ways of getting you to provide the reader with information without knowing that you are doing so. In fact without input from the subject cold reading simply doesn’t work. The reader relies on the feedback, whether verbal or non-verbal, conscious or otherwise, from the subject in order to craft the things they say. In order to get the subject in the right frame of mind the reader will often start by saying something along the lines of “Often the messages I get and the images I see are a bit unclear and may mean more to you than they do to me. So if something jumps out at you let me know so that together we can get to the truth.” Though they probably won’t put it as bluntly as that. The point is that they will put the subject in a position where they expect to have to provide the reader with information.
From there the reader will usually start by making a number of probing statements or questions, of the kind we will cover in a moment, and gauging from the subject’s response, again both verbal and non-verbal, choose which paths to follow and which to drop. If the reader makes a statement that elicits no reaction from the subject they will quickly move on until they say something that does get a response. They will then focus on this “hit” in order to get the subject to forget the “miss”. This relies on something called confirmation bias, which is the tendency that we all have to remember those things that enforce what we already believe and forget those that don’t fit with out pre-existing views. And let’s be honest, you probably aren’t going to go to a psychic unless part of you already believes in what they are going to say. The important thing is that most of the information comes from the subject not the reader. A crude example of this could be the reader saying something like “I’m getting a man with a name beginning with an A.” The subject then could reply with “My father’s name was Alan.” to which the reader simply responds “Yes, that’s right it’s Alan.” This makes it appear as if the reader knew about Alan all along when in fact all they did was throw out a letter and let the subject fill in the gaps. Also by wording the statement in that way they leave various paths open to them. If Alan turns out to be dead then they can say the message is from them. However if Alan is still alive then they can simply say the message is for or about him. They can’t loose.
Even if the reader makes a mistake they can still turn it to their advantage. Let’s say that the reader says something about you being on the verge of making a big decision. You think about it for a moment but can’t think of anything that would fit with what they have just told you. The reader has made a “miss”. Rather than just moving on however and hoping that you will just forget this miss and focus on the things that they said that did makes sense they can do a number of things to turn this miss into a hit. For example they could simply just change the time frame. They could say something like “but you faced a big decision in the past” or go the other way with “I’m sensing something big on the horizon, something new that is about to come into your life.” The other thing they could do is remind you that the messages are not always clear and then appear to clarify this miss by stating that the spirits are talking about someone else, someone you know that is facing a big decision. Suddenly the miss doesn’t sound like a miss at all. Another thing they might do is simply not say anything at all. In fact most readers will do this numerous times during a reading. Most people are very uncomfortable with silence and will try to fill it, often by offering up a piece of information or, if they feel embarrassed that the reader seems to be heading in the wrong direction, by trying extra hard to fit what the reader said to something in their lives. Pauses like this also give the reader a chance to think and to study their subjects reactions to see if they are on the right track or not
One more thing before we look at specific techniques. As well as cold reading there is the flip side of the coin that is called, unsurprisingly, hot reading. Hot reading is where the reader actually does know something about you in advance and simply presents that information to you as if they were given it by some supernatural means. Hot reading methods are often surprisingly simple. The reader could simply ask you a question before they start the reading, something simple such as who you hope to get a message from, or they could have associates who do it for them so that they don’t seem involved. Alternatively if the reading is for someone famous they can simply google them. There was recently a show on Channel 4 in which presenter Tony Robinson investigated various paranormal claims. On one of the shows they looked at psychics and Tony went for a reading. Afterwards he stated that nothing the reader had said about him couldn’t have been discovered in five minutes on the internet. He did then annoyingly state that it could just as likely have been actual psychic ability. Just as likely? Really Tony? Psychic ability is just as likely as an ability to use google? Anyway let’s move on shall we.
Barnum statements, named after American showman P.T. Barnum, are statements that seem personal, yet apply to many people. They often seem specific but are designed to be as open as possible. These are your basic high probability hits. Most people, simple due to the fact that we are all human, share some experiences and tendencies in common. Combine this with the subject’s willingness to fill in the details then the reader is practically guaranteed a hit. And even with a miss it still tells the reader something about you. For example the reader may say things such as:
“You’re facing a big decision in your life.”
“You really want other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be overly critical of yourself.”
“You’re having some problems with a family member or a close friend.”
“You have a drawer in your house that is stuck or doesn’t slide properly.”
“Some of your aspirations and goals tend to be rather unrealistic.”
“You have a collection of old photographs, some of them in albums but most of them not.”
“You’ve got a number of old electronic gadget laying around that no longer work.”
“Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen.”
With the last example if the subject is over a certain age then the chance that their father is deceased is pretty high, though the reader will probably have used other methods to confirm this before making the statement. As for the part about the death being related to the chest or abdomen this covers a large variety of possible causes such as heart disease, pneumonia, diabetes and most forms of cancer. And even if the subject disagrees and says there father died of a stroke the reader can simply turn it around by saying something like “Yes, but the stroke was caused by a problem with his heart.” Once more a practiced reader can turn almost any response from the subject into a hit.
The rainbow ruse
The rainbow ruse is where the reader makes a statement that appears to award the subject with a specific personality trait but includes the opposite of that trait at the same time. The name comes from the fact that the reader can cover a whole spectrum of possibilities at the same time. This can make it appears as though the reader has made an accurate statement about the mind of the subject, even though the actual statement is in fact vague and contradictory. This works because very few people sit at the extremes of any particular personality type or emotion and because, again, most people have experienced both sides of a particular emotion at some time in their lives simply due to the fact that they are human. Examples of this could include:
“Generally you’re a positive and cheerful person, but there have been times in the past where you were very upset.”
“You enjoy a challenge, something to peak your interest, but you are also happy with the comfortable regular aspects of life.”
“For the most part you tend to be shy, quiet, a little reserved, a yet I get the feeling that when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the life of the party.”
“I sense that you’re a very kind and considerate person, but if somebody does something to break your trust, then you can feel real deep-seated anger.”
The reader can pick almost any personality trait as well as it’s opposite and combine them both into a sentence and it will apply to the vast majority of people.
I’ve already kind of mentioned this one. This is a technique that the reader will often use at the start of a reading or if they are performing in front of a crowd rather than an individual. As the name implies this basically involves throwing out a large number of vague open statements and hoping for a hit, such as my example of getting a man whose name begins with an A. Again it is the subject that fills in the meaning and all the reader has to do is pretend that this is what they meant all along. The statements are worded in a way that they are pretty much guaranteed to apply to someone and score the reader a hit.
“I’m sensing someone here who has a long lost friend who desperately wants a visit or a call.’
“I’m sensing someone who has had some marital problems recently,”
“I see a heart problem with a father-figure, a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a cousin… I’m definitively seeing chest pain here for a father-figure.”
“There’s someone named Bill, or Billy that’s asking to communicate with his granddaughter”
“I see someone who is still grieving from a loss of a loved-one or someone dear that passed away a year or two ago.’
Hopefully so far I’ve made it clear that cold reading relies on the subject providing information to the reader, that the reader can then feed back to them as though they got it through some supernatural means, and upon the reader making statements that apply to large numbers of people. As well as the more complex methods mentioned above a reader will often use what Ian Rowland calls incidental questions. Incidental questions are fairly direct ways in which the reader can see if they are on the right track and yet make it appear as if they are simply trying to understand the messages they are getting from “the other side”. In fact they may remind the subject that the messages they get from the spirits will make more sense to them than they do to the reader, thus re-enforcing the need for feed back from the subject. These kind of questions are used through out the reading as a way of affirm the information gathered by the other techniques mentioned. For example the reader may say things like:
“Is this making sense to you?”
“Does this sound right?”
“So who might this refer to?”
“What might this link to in your life?”
“This is significant to you, isn’t it?”
“Can you see why this might be the impression I’m getting?”
“You can connect with this can’t you?”
By using these, and other, methods the reader can come up with a statement about you that seems incredibly detailed and specific but which in fact could apply to many people. For example the following statement was written by Bertram Forer. Now it is highly unlikely that any of you have ever met Mr Forer and yet you might find that his statement seems unnervingly accurate.
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.
How about this one from astrologer Sidney Omarr, I’m guessing none of you know him either:
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.
Ooooooo spooky. There are definitely parts of both of those that could apply to me and no doubt to you as well. Anyway I have only covered a few of the techniques of cold reading, there are many, many more out there. At the end of the day cold reading is a trick and the vast majority of people who advertise themselves as a “psychic” know this. If they still present themselves as the genuine article and really in touch with paranormal powers then, to my mind, they are being inherently dishonest. The more people who know about cold reading then the harder job these con artists will have of taking their money.