|Putting the psycho in
|Men who stare at goats
|By the powers of tinfoil
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.
Cold reading techniques
The Barnum effect
Probably one of the most pervasive techniques in cold reading, horoscopes, and the likes is the Barnum effect. Named after P. T. Barnum, it 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 at least one of the following:
- pretty much true for everyone ("You can be stubborn at times")
- vague enough to be interpreted many ways ("I sense you desire positive energy")
- are all encompassing, often including two seemingly contradictory qualities that most people have simply by being humans with complex emotions, and by making this nuance seem special (such as "while you sometimes spend hours talking to people, on other days, you can be quite content with your own company").
- are straight-out contradictory, allowing people to pick and choose what to believe ("Tauruses are known to enjoy the finer things in life, and often have high attention to detail" ... "Tauruses are known to be unpretentious and can sometimes seem slobbish or uncouth to those who don't know them 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, in fact, assembled this text from various conflicting 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.
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.
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.)
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."
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 fisher will say "oh yes, he is pointing at his heart."
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."
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.
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.
The Vanishing Negative
This technique uses tag questions, such as "You don't work in healthcare, do you?," "You're not left-handed, are you?", or "You haven't been out of the country, have you?"
If the reader asks "You're not self-employed, are you?" and the subject says they are, the reader can say "I thought so. I see you as an entrepreneur who's not cut out for 9-to-5 living." If they answer with a no, it can be "I thought so. You value stability. You're not the wishy-washy type who thinks they're above real work."
This sleight of tongue can create the illusion of reading a person, but in reality, the reader is just asking a question. 
Warm reading is a method used by psychics, spiritualists, mediums, and other charlatans which falls between cold reading and hot reading. Where a "cold" reading means they go in with no information, and a "hot" reading means they go in with information from other sources, a "warm" reading means they go in with a vague idea of where to aim for and use cold reading techniques to expand on it. Instead of fishing for a response from their "victim" they utilize known techniques of psychology and statistics which apply to nearly everyone, or at least the majority of people.
For example, most people in the western world will have a box with old photographs, or, if grieving for a loved one, will have kept a memento which belonged to the deceased such as a watch or piece of jewelry. Additionally, common causes of death such as stroke, heart attack, cancer, falls, or car-crashes often affect or damage the head or chest as these are where most vital organs are situated, so the reader will suggest this area of the body for how somebody died.
Similarly, people will have both introverted and extroverted sides to their nature which the reader will amazingly identify as two different aspects of their personality.
At some time in their lives, most people will have dabbled with an artistic, musical, or literary endeavour, but the reader will make this seem like a special insight. This is an example of style over substance.
Hot reading refers to giving a seance or other exhibition of psychic powers in which the psychic has actively researched beforehand the details he or she is expected to supply. This is usually by researching the dead relatives of prospective suckers, studying newspaper obituaries and other public documentation on the recently deceased, examining graveyards for recent tombstones, and exchanging information with other mediums, or even buying it. Nowadays, presumably, the Internet is also a useful tool for this purpose. This can be contrasted with cold reading where the purported psychic does not gather information before hand but instead relies on vague readings and generalizations that are universally true.
One interesting modern technique of hot reading, suited to the television age, is breathtaking in its simplicity. This is to ask audience members, before the show, for details of the person they wish to communicate with — this can be done by either an agent/researcher or, even more gallingly, by the medium themselves. During the show the medium can repeat the information: "You want to talk to a lady called Daisy? Your grandmother? Passed over within the last six months or so? Her message is 'Susan,' — your name is Susan, isn't it? — 'Susan, I'm very happy here'." From the point of view of the audience member, the medium is merely confirming that she's got the right person, and has done nothing special (occasionally, they can be taken in if they don't quite realise that this was the information that they volunteered earlier). From the viewpoint of the television or live audience, however, the psychic is getting "hits" at a rate which cannot be explained by cold reading. This is often used to turn around failing shows where a medium isn't getting many positive hits.
List of people who use cold reading to con people
- Edgar Cayce (well, he used to. Isn't he dead now?)
- Sylvia Browne (ditto! Has permanently joined her spirit guide Francine)
- John Edward
- Uri Geller
- Derek Ogilvie
- James Van Praagh
- Lisa Williams
- Doris Stokes
- Theresa Caputo
- Rosemary Altea
- Sally Morgan
- Joe Power
- Your typical country fair "psychic"
List of people who use the same methods to expose the con
- Derren Brown
- Orson Welles — An enthusiast of magic, Welles went on television and exposed how the trick is done.
- Denis Dutton on Cold Reading
- Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins discuss cold reading. For an hour of your life.
- Psychic Cold Reading Courtesy of Mind Control Wiki
- Forer, B.R. The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 44 (1949): 118-121.
- Ian Rowland: The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.