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Bronze-level articleCold reading

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Putting the psycho in


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Men who stare at goats

Cold reading is the ability to gain information about someone without that person realizing that they are actually giving up the information themselves. This is achieved using a series of tricks and psychological manipulations to coax information out of the interviewee, and then to pass it off as being generated by psychic powers or other means. These tricks are combined with selective reporting or clever editing (of televised readings) to give the appearance that the reading was very successful, and almost magical. If done right, a cold reading leaves a person, or at least most of the audience, completely unaware that they revealed the information themselves. The trick is used mostly by psychics who claim supernatural powers and faith healers, but also by con artists, mentalists, and, ironically, debunkers.

The term "cold reading" refers specifically to a situation where no information is known to the reader beforehand, and so the appropriate facts are extracted during the reading only. This is in contrast to a "hot reading" where information has been actively gathered beforehand by the reader and their accomplices, or a "warm reading" where only some information or a few pointers are known to the reader.


[edit] Cold reading techniques

[edit] The Barnum effect

Probably one of the most pervasive techniques in cold reading is the Barnum effect. It is named after P. T. Barnum, but is also known as the Forer effect, after the psychologist who first described it experimentally. The Barnum effect relies on the natural tendency of people to assign detail and specific meaning to generalized statements or events. Ideas can be presented in such a way that they are pretty much true for everyone or are all encompassing (such as "you are an extrovert but often introverted as well"). Sometimes the effect can be made to be more pronounced by tailoring it to a particular demographic, such as students, who would be more responsive to specifics, such as intellectual insecurities or academic issues, that may not apply to the wider public. The power of the Barnum effect lies in the tendency for people to not view these statements as generalizations. They instead seek out specific examples in their lives that match the generalization, and project the knowledge about this specific to the reader. With respect to cold reading, this allows a reader to start with vague statements to get their target comfortable and more willing to divulge the specifics needed for later.

In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer gave a personality test to his students, and then gave them a personality analysis supposedly based on the test's results. He invited each of them to rate the analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) as it applied to themselves: the average was 4.26. He then revealed that each student had been given the same analysis:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

Forer had assembled this text from horoscopes.

Criss Angel (of the TV show Mindfreak) used a similar method to give the exact same tarot card reading to five different people, all of whom said it described them perfectly. Derren Brown recalls repeating the experiment in Tricks of the Mind where each person who received the "reading" rated how accurate it was and all rated it at least above 50% accurate. Many scored the reading as above 90% percent - one respondent was seriously freaked out by how accurate it was and refused to continue because of it.

Specific statements that are often used in cold reading techniques that rely on the Barnum effect include:

  • "I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don't know very well."
  • "You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house."
  • "You had an accident when you were a child involving water."
  • "You're having problems with a friend or relative."
  • "Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen."

The Barnum effect is one of the few techniques that really does not require any feedback at all from the victim person being read. This lack of a need for feedback leads to the Barnum effect being the most common technique used in written cold readings such as horoscopes.

[edit] Deliberately invoking the effect

As a side note, the Barnum/Forer effect isn't exclusively a tactic of deceit. Some use divination systems (tarot, I Ching, etc.) personally, taking advantage of their vague interpretations as a sort of machine that generates random sweeping generalities. It's a way for the brain to relax and perhaps learn a different way to look at a question. (And in the case of tarot, admire some pretty art.)

[edit] Shotgunning

Shotgunning is a technique that relies on quickly dumping a huge amount of information and being able to read the victim's response; this is often done early in a reading. Like a 19th-century artilleryman, the reader will start off by making a "ranging shot" (a more or less accurate guess) then rapidly refining and calibrating in a practiced pattern based on the subject's reactions. As soon as he does get a reaction he focuses on that. One of the most famous users of shotgunning is charlatan John Edward who pretends he can talk to the dead. Using the fact that he has a large number of people assembled before him, many of whom have had someone they know die (and practically all of whom will have at least one dead friend or relative), Edward can start targeting more or less at random, rattling off possible relationships: "Someone here wants to talk to you . . . it's a friend, no family member, your uncle, no aunt, sister, grandmother. . . yes, your grandmother." By carefully judging responses to each attempt in turn the cold reader can zero in on a specific relationship. There is a certain art in this - you must focus on successful matches quickly so that everyone ignores your many previous unsuccessful guesses. It helps, of course, to be dealing with people who are often in various states of grief, desperate for wanting contact and reassurance from someone they've lost. A successful use of shotgunning links the reader and the subject alike in an act of selective reporting, where both, either deliberately or subconsciously, will over-emphasize vaguely successful guesses and forget to mention the failures.

The shotgun technique, almost by definition, results in many misses but experienced readers can turn such misses into hits with some clever reversals. For instance, if the reader describes the person they claim to be contacting as "nervous" and this doesn't get a response, they can quickly add "but this is weird because it is so unlike them", and get the response they needed: smiles and nods. Suddenly this "miss" gives the reader a lot of information, and no one cares to remember that they actually got it wrong the first time. If given the right opportunity and enough subsequent information, they can return to a wrong guess later on and explain away why it was wrong, like "oh, that thing about the old chair explains why I thought it was your grandmother, not your brother", making it appear as if they are, at least, talking with someone from the "other side".

Shotgunning might include a series of vague statements such as:

  • "I see a heart problem with a father-figure in your family, a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a cousin... I'm definitively seeing chest pain here for a father-figure in your family."
  • "I see a woman that isn't a blood relative. Someone around when you were growing up, an aunt, a friend of your mother, a stepmother with blackness in the chest, lung cancer, heart disease, breast cancer..."
  • "I sense an older male figure in your life, who wants you to know whilst you may have had disagreements in your life, he still loved you."

[edit] Fishing

Fishing can feel similar to shotgunning but is more methodical and slow but still revolves around reading the victim. Sylvia Browne made a lot of use of fishing. Fishing starts by taking an educated guess about situations in your victim's life. How old are they? Are they likely to be going through a transition such as graduating college or retirement? Are they old enough to have parents or grandparents that have died? Do they have a wedding ring on? With a few basic observations the "reader" can move in slowly and drop some bait such as "I see someone behind you, an older person who has passed on, your father maybe?" The reader waits and sees the response. The victim will almost never sit there in silence, but will reveal some information. If the victim appears hesitant the fisher will quickly move on using the shotgun technique till they hit on something. Once something is hit on, the fisher can use common statistical information to really appear to be psychic, such as the fact that most people die involving something in their chest or gut or throat. "He is pointing towards his chest, maybe stomach or throat even, did he die of some complications involving any of those regions?" Whenever the victim gives information, the fisher will respond as if he knew it all along. For example if the victim had said "yes, he died of a heart attack" the fish will say "oh yes, he is pointing at his heart."

[edit] Rainbow ruse

As mentioned earlier, cold readers can twist their statements around when they note that the response isn't positive. Using the Barnum effect with personality traits, the "rainbow ruse" covers all bases by providing a statement that contains both a character trait (usually positive) combined with its exact opposite. As a result, the reader can produce a seemingly accurate statement that is, in reality, nonsense. These statements often take the general form of "you are mostly x, but sometimes you are y" - these, of course, can apply practically to anyone.

Statements of this type might include:

  • "Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset."
  • "You are a very kind and considerate person, but when somebody does something to break your trust, you feel deep-seated anger."
  • "I would say that you are mostly shy and quiet, but when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the center of attention."

[edit] Fine Flattery and Psychic Credit

Banking on the fact that most people have a positive self-image, the reader may include subtle compliments to the client in his reading that are likely to elicit agreement. This is often done by ascribing a greater-than-average capacity for honesty, compassion or diligence to the client. Commending the client for his or her open-mindedness has the additional effect of subtly encouraging acceptance of the method used for delivering the reading itself. Sometimes, readers employ a special variant of this technique by crediting clients with some psychic ability of their own in an attempt to bolster the belief system supporting the reading. This is usually done by offering anecdotes experienced by many people (such as receiving a phone call from someone you just thought about), which the reader will interpret as evidence of a sixth sense[1].

[edit] Fuzzy Facts

This technique consists of the reader offering an initial statement about the client that is intentionally vague and generic (and therefore likely to be accepted), but can be easily refined into a much more specific one depending on the client's reaction. For example, the reader might initially claim that the client has an unspecified geographical connection to a vast area (such as Europe), or that a relative of the client died due to problems in the chest (heart and lungs) area, which includes a large number of common causes of death. If there is any connection at all, no matter how slight, the client will reveal more specific information by himself when trying to make sense of the statement. Using this information, the reader can develop the initial vague description into something much more accurate, with the client remembering the latter and being impressed by the reader's performance[1].

[edit] List of people who use cold reading to con people

[edit] List of people who use the same methods to expose the con

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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