Summary: Cold reading is a technique that can be used to convince complete strangers you know all about them.
Media skeptics and magicians, such as Criss Angel or James Randi, frequently put forward ‘cold reading’ as an explanation for why a fraudulent psychic, or medium, may appear more accurate than they actually are. In addition, cold reading manuals are widely available for the ‘pseudo-psychic’.
What is Cold Reading?
Cold reading is a procedure by which the client or audience is persuaded of a ‘performer’s’ apparent psychic ability, through the revealing of their personality and problems. It is not solely observing a client, or preparing readings in advance. It is, to be frank, a greatly misunderstood technique. It is true, on one level the effectiveness of cold reading can be accomplished by delivering a stock spiel (a prepared script) which is done by using information found in the latest polls and surveys and being aware of stereotypes. This is base-rate information or high probability statements disguised to appear as though it is obtained through some extraordinary means. Additionally, however, the use of vagueness and ambiguity within a reading ensures the willing cooperation of the client in its interpretation, much like the Barnum Effect. Essentially the client ‘fills in the gaps’ when such information is given to them or they search intensely in their memory for mention of a single name (e.g. “I’m getting a John”) and how its related to them.
The key element to cold reading, however, is providing information through cues given by the client. Think of a cold reader as a Sherlock Holmes type character using inductive and deductive reasoning and observing the clothing, physical features, body language and reactions of the client. The information provided by such observations is then fed back to the client. The dramatic way the information is delivered helps to convince the listener of its apparent accuracy.
In Ray Hyman’s book The Elusive Quarry, a ground breaking chapter on cold reading lists a number of tips which form part of the cold reading technique. Aside from those mentioned above, they include ‘dramatise the reading’, ‘show confidence’, ‘use gimmicks’, and also the use of ‘staging’ and a questioning technique known as ‘fishing’.
Frequently psychics profess modesty about their talents and even the most reputable psychics use this technique. In a book entitled The Psychology of the Psychic, David Marks and Richard Kammann recount an incident with the Israeli psychic, Uri Geller, when, in a recorded experiment in New Zealand, he stated, “...today, I’m not in the exact mood to do it, so it’ll take longer…” and then proceeded to complete four apparent ESP feats in less than 20 minutes.
This is an element of getting information from a client that, on a very simplistic level, entails pure interrogation. A major component in a good cold reading, however, consists of feeding back information to the client, usually in a different form, so there are more subtle ruses to accomplish this than merely direct questioning. For example, a psychic may say, “I see the letter R.” The client may indicate some reaction, a body or verbal cue, in which case the psychic will say, “Robert…or Roger,” at which point the client may say, “It must be Rodney Smith!”
Cold reading, therefore, relies heavily on cues given by the listener and is simply an alternative explanation for psychic readings. In a private sitting, however, a psychic or medium may provide information about the future, and even past, that the client may not be aware of. The client simply may not provide cues. In addition, there are circumstances where the reader (psychic or medium) does not have access to the client (e.g. online psychic reading). It is these situations, leaving aside the Barnum Effect, where a psychic is free to speculate, or use their ‘genuine’ psychic ability, that has us searching for alternative explanations, one of which may just be a paranormal one.
The Cold Reading Technique
Guide to Cold Reading
The Elusive Quarry: a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research, Ray Hyman (Prometheus Books, 1989).
The Psychology of the Psychic, David Marks and Richard Kammann (Prometheus, 1980).
The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, Ian Rowland (Ian Rowland Limited, 2002).
© Ciaran O’Keeffe 2012