Cold reading

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Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, fortune tellers, psychics, and mediums to determine details about another person in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than he or she actually does. Even without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by carefully analyzing the person's body language, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.


[edit] Basic procedure

Before starting the actual reading, the reader will typically try to elicit cooperation from the subject, saying something such as, "I often see images that are a bit unclear and which may sometimes mean more to you than to me; if you help, we can together uncover new things about you." One of the most crucial elements of a convincing cold reading is a subject eager to make connections or reinterpret vague statements in any way that will help the reader appear to have made specific predictions or intuitions. While the reader will do most of the talking, it is the subject who provides the meaning.

After ensuring that the subject will play along, the reader will make a number of probing statements or questions, typically using variations of the methods noted below. The subject will then reveal further information with their replies (whether verbal or non-verbal) and the cold reader can continue from there, pursuing promising lines of inquiry and very quickly abandoning or avoiding unproductive ones. In general, while much information seems to come from the reader, most of the facts and statements come from the subject, which are then refined and restated by the reader so as to reinforce the idea that the reader got something correct.

Even very subtle cues such as changes in facial expression or body language can indicate if a particular line of questioning is effective or not. Combining the techniques of cold reading with information obtained covertly (also called "hot reading") can leave a strong impression that the reader knows or has access to a great deal of information about the subject. Because the majority of time during a reading is spent dwelling on the "hits" the reader is able to obtain, while the time spent recognizing "misses" is minimized, the effect is to give an impression that the cold reader knows far more about the subject than any ordinary stranger could.

[edit] Other cold reading techniques

The most comprehensive book on the study and performance of Cold Reading techniques is The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by British illusionist Ian Rowland. In this book he discusses over twenty different techniques including The Rainbow Ruse, Fine Flattery and Barnum Statements. Making use of palm reading, tarot cards, runes, and other forms of divination can greatly help the reader and reinforce the idea the performer is not reading the client's mind but is using a magical, alternate, information gathering tool which is being interpreted a multitude of times and a variety of ways. "I am only reading the cards. I am just a channel for something else. I don't know how this works." Only by practice can a reader's skill be achieved. The best way to begin as a cold reader is to study a stranger and read them silently using your creative imagination.[1]

[edit] Shotgunning

"Shotgunning" is a commonly-used cold reading technique used, among others, by television psychics and spiritual mediums. The psychic or reader slowly offers a huge quantity of very general information, often to an entire audience (some of which is very likely to be correct, near correct or at the very least, provocative or evocative to someone present), observes their subjects' reactions (especially their body language), and then narrows the scope, acknowledging particular people or concepts and refining the original statements according to those reactions to promote an emotional response.

This technique is named after a shotgun, as it fires a cluster of small projectiles in the hope that one or more of the shots will strike the target. A majority of people in a room will, at some point for example, have lost an older relative or known at least one person with a common name like "Mike" or "John".

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] The Forer effect/Barnum statements

"Barnum statements" (named after P.T. Barnum, the American showman) are statements that seem personal, yet apply to many people.[2] And while seemingly specific, such statements are often open-ended or give the reader the maximum amount of "wiggle room" in a reading. They are designed to elicit identifying responses from people. The statements can then be developed into longer and more sophisticated paragraphs and seem to reveal great amounts of detail about a person. The effect relies in part on the eagerness of people to fill in details and make connections between what is said and some aspect of their own lives (often searching their entire life's history to find some connection, or reinterpreting the statement in any number of different possible ways so as to make it apply to themselves). A talented and charismatic reader can sometimes even bully a subject into admitting a connection, demanding over and over that they acknowledge a particular statement as having some relevance and maintaining that they just aren't thinking hard enough, or are repressing some important memory.

Statements of this type might 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."

Regarding the last statement, if the subject is old enough, his or her father is quite likely to be dead, and this statement would easily apply to a number of conditions such as heart disease, pneumonia, diabetes, most forms of cancer, and in fact to a great majority of causes of death.

[edit] Warm reading

Warm reading is a performance tool used by professional mentalism and psychic scam artists. While hot reading is the use of foreknowledge and cold reading is the use of general presumptions common to human experience, warm reading refers to the judicious use of Barnum (also known as Forer effect) statements.

Peter Huston originated this phrase in his book More Scams from the Great Beyond!: How to Make Even More Money Off of Creationism, Evolution, Environmentalism, Fringe Politics, Weird Science, the Occult, and Other Strange Beliefs.[3]

When these psychological tricks are used properly, the statements give the impression that the mentalist, or psychic scam artist, is intuitively perceptive and psychically-gifted. In reality, the statements fit nearly 99% of humanity, regardless of gender, personal opinions, age, epoch, culture or nationality.

The following passage on warm reading comes from Robert T. Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary:

Warm reading is sometimes used to refer to "utilizing known principles of psychology that apply to nearly everyone" while doing a psychic reading. Michael Shermer uses the expression this way. What Shermer gives as an example of warm reading, Ray Hyman and Ian Rowland would give as an example of cold reading. Shermer notes that many grieving people will wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to their deceased 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.[4]

[edit] The rainbow ruse

The rainbow ruse is a crafted statement which simultaneously awards the subject with a specific personality trait, as well as the opposite of that trait. With such a phrase, a cold reader can "cover all possibilities" and appear to have made an accurate deduction in the mind of the subject, despite the fact that a rainbow ruse statement is vague and contradictory. This technique is used since personality traits are not quantifiable, and also because nearly everybody has experienced both sides of a particular emotion at some time in their lives.

Statements of this type might include:

  • "Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past where 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."

A cold reader can choose from a variety of personality traits, think of its opposite, and then bind the two together in a phrase, vaguely linked by factors such as mood, time, or potential.

[edit] Contrasting claims made by performers and psychics

The mentalist branch of the magic community approves of "reading" as long as it is presented strictly as an artistic entertainment and one is not pretending to be psychic.[5]

Performers who use cold reading are honest about their use of the technique. Lynne Kelly, Kari Coleman,[6] Ian Rowland and Derren Brown have used these techniques at either private fortune-telling sessions or open forum "talking with the dead" sessions in the manner of those who claim to be genuine mediums. Only after receiving acclaim and applause from their audience do they reveal that they needed no psychic power for the performance, only a sound knowledge of psychology and cold reading.

In an episode of his Trick of the Mind series broadcast in March 2006, Derren Brown showed how easily people can be influenced through cold reading techniques by repeating Bertram Forer's famous demonstration of the personal validation fallacy, or Forer effect.

Penn Jillette detailed another attempt at debunking claims of psychic ability on his March 1, 2007 episode of his Free FM Radio program. In a sequence planned for an episode of Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular, Jillette's girlfriend at the time (unnamed) was tutored in cold reading techniques and set up at a store front at a fake book signing. There, over the course of two days she used the cold reading techniques learned (as well as improvisational skills she had acquired in acting classes) to convince 20 people she was indeed psychic. The sequence was never aired due to the emotional toll this took on his girlfriend, as well as concern by the producers that they would be exploiting the people for whom she had done the "readings".

Penn Jillette now incorporates both a cold reading and hot reading demonstration during the "Penn & Teller" show at the Rio in Las Vegas.

By contrast, many famous psychics, such as John Edward,[citation needed] Sylvia Browne,[citation needed] and Colin Fry,[citation needed] deny that they are employing cold reading techniques and claim that they have paranormal abilities.

[edit] Subconscious cold reading

Former New Age practitioner Karla McLaren said, "I didn't understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone; I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis." McLaren has further stated that since she was always very perceptive, she could easily figure out many of the issues her "readees" brought into sessions with them. In order to reduce the appearance of unusual expertise that might have created a power differential, she posed her observations as questions rather than facts. This attempt to be polite, she realized, actually invited the reader to, as McLaren has said, "lean into the reading" and give her more pertinent information.[7]

After a person has done hundreds of readings their skills may improve to the point where they may start believing they can read minds, asking themselves if their success is because of psychology, intuition or a psychic ability.[8] This point of thought is known by some skeptics of the paranormal as the transcendental temptation.[9] Magic historian and occult investigator Milbourne Christopher warned the transcendental choice may lead one unknowingly into a belief in the occult and a deterioration of reason.[10]

[edit] Cold reading in movies and on television

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939). Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) utilizes both cold reading and hot reading techniques on Dorothy (Judy Garland) in an effort to urge her to return home.
  • Nightmare Alley (1947). Depicted ex-carny and aspiring cult leader Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) using cold reading and other mentalist techniques to convince people he can communicate with the dead. Although the presentation is clumsy, the technique of cold reading is referred to by name. The film was based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name.
  • Leap of Faith (1992). Early in the film, revival tent evangelist and phony faith healer Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) uses cold reading on a police officer who has pulled over his tour bus, to dissuade him from writing a ticket.
  • Being John Malkovich (1999). The main character uses a technique similar to cold reading to guess his new coworker's first name.
  • South Park (2002). In the episode "The Biggest Douche in the Universe," the gang encounters famous medium John Edward. Stan is angered at the crowd's willingness to believe Edward has any psychic ability at all, and throughout the remainder of the episode he tries to prove that Edward merely uses cold reading to trick people by demonstrating to Kyle, only to be mistaken by passers-by for a gifted child psychic himself. Stan then faces off against Edward in a "psychic showdown" on TV to disprove him once and for all, but then Edward is taken by extraterrestrials and given the dubious award of "The Biggest Douche in the Universe."
  • Hustle (2005). BBC series about a group of grifters in London. In Series 2 Episode 1, Albert Stroller and Danny Blue mention using cold reading in order to get a mark interested in business.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2005). In the episode "Pure," a sexual predator (Martin Short) uses cold reading, as well as the Facial Action Coding System and his inside knowledge of a crime he committed, to masquerade as a psychic detective offering his services to the victim's family and the police.
  • House (2006). In the episode "House vs. God," Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) treats a teenage faith healer (Thomas Dekker) who he believes is just cold reading and exciting people into thinking they are cured until the endorphins from the experience wear off. Dr. House himself frequently uses cold reading techniques to diagnose his patients and pry into his co-workers' private lives.
  • Psych (2007). The main character in Psych uses cold reading to convince detectives that he has psychic abilities, while actually using logic and reason to solve cases.
  • The Mentalist (2008). The main character in The Mentalist plays someone who formerly used cold readings to pretend to be psychic, and now uses cold reading to assist him in solving criminal cases.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

Printed publications

  1. ^ The Dance by Brad Henderson, Brad Henderson and Henderson Productions, 2007
  2. ^
  3. ^ Huston, Peter. More Scams from the Great Beyond!: How to Make Even More Money Off the Creationism, Evolution, Environmentalism, Fringe Politics, Weird Science, the Occult, and Other Strange Beliefs. Paladin Press. 2002. ISBN 1581603541
  4. ^ warm reading
  5. ^ The Dance by Brad Henderson, Brad Henderson and Henderson Productions, 2007
  6. ^ Kari Coleman (2001). "My Psychic Adventure". Swift 2 (3&4). Retrieved on 2006-12-11. 
  7. ^ Karla McLaren (May 2004). "Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures". Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved on 2006-12-11. 
  8. ^ Paramiracles by Ted Lesley, Hermetic Press, 1994
  9. ^ The Transcendental Temptation by Paul Kurtz, Prometheus books, 1986
  10. ^ ESP, Seers & Psychics: What the Occult Really is by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970

[edit] Bibliography

  1. Austin Cline What is Cold Reading? Skeptical Perspectives
  2. Hyman, Ray. Guide to Cold Reading
  3. Colin Hunter. Cold Reading: Confessions of a "Psychic"
  4. Denis Dutton The Cold Reading Technique
  5. Dickson, D.H., & Kelly, I.W. "The 'Barnum effect' in personality assessment: A review of the literature," Psychological Reports, 57, 367-382, (1985).
  6. Stagnaro, Angelo. Something from Nothing. Manipulix Books. 2002.
  7. Stagnaro, Angelo. The Other Side. Manipulix Books. 2005.
  8. Shermer, Michael. (2001). "Deconstructing The Dead: Cross Over One Last Time To Expose Medium John Edward," Scientific American, Aug. 1.
  9. Hyman, Ray. "'Cold Reading': How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them," The Skeptical Inquirer Spring/Summer 1977.
  10. Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry : A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (Prometheus Books, 1989).
  11. Keene, M. Lamar. The Psychic Mafia (Prometheus, 1997).
  12. Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

[edit] External links

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