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A New Age communication technique
Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, illusionists, and con artists to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do.(1) Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person's body language, age, 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.
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 make specific predictions or intuitions. While the reader will do most of the talking, it is the subject who provides the meaning. Also, subjects with a situation of grief, illness, or financial need, will tend to be much more accepting of hints, suggestions, or guesses made by the reader.
After determining that the subject is cooperative, 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 quickly abandoning or avoiding unproductive ones. In general, while revelations seem 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.
Subtle cues such as changes in facial expression or body language can indicate whether 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 obtains, while the time spent recognizing "misses" is minimized, the effect gives an impression that the cold reader knows far more about the subject than an ordinary stranger could.
According to James Underdown from CFI and IIG "In the context of a studio audience full of people, cold reading is not very impressive." Underdown explains cold-reading from a mathematical viewpoint. A typical studio audience consists of approximately 200 people, divided up into 3 sections. A conservative estimate assumes each person knows 150 people. When a psychic asks the question "Who's Margaret?" he is hoping there is a Margaret in the 10,000 people in the database of that section. If there is no answer, they open the question up to the whole audience's database of over 30,000 people! Would it be surprising for there to be a dozen Margarets in such a large sample?"(2)
"Shotgunning" is a commonly used cold reading technique. The 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:
The Forer effect (Barnum statements)
The Forer 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 statements in a number of different possible ways so as to make it apply to themselves).
"Barnum statements" (named after P.T. Barnum, the American showman) are statements that seem personal, yet apply to many people.(3) 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. 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:
Regarding the last statement, if the subject is old enough, his or her father is quite likely to have died, 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.
Warm reading is a performance tool used by professional mentalists 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 effect statements (also known as Forer effect).
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.(4)
When these psychological tricks are used properly, the statements give the impression that the mentalist, or scam artist, is intuitively perceptive and psychically gifted. In reality, the statements fit nearly all 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.(5)
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:
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.
Contrasting claims of performers
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.(6)
Some performers who use cold reading are honest about their use of the technique. Lynne Kelly, Kari Coleman(7), Ian Rowland(8), and Derren Brown(9) 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.
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.(10)
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.(11) This point of thought is known by some skeptics of the paranormal as the transcendental temptation.(12) 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.(13)
2. "They See Dead People - Or Do They? An Investigation of Television Mediums". Skeptical Inquirer. Sept/Oct 2003. Retrieved 2011-09-23.
4. 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
6. The Dance by Brad Henderson, Brad Henderson and Henderson Productions, 2007
8. Rowland, Ian (2008-04-01). The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Persuasive Psychological Manipulation Technique in the World (4 ed.). London: Ian Rowland Limited. pp. 240. ISBN 978-0955847608.
11. Paramiracles by Ted Lesley, Hermetic Press, 1994
12. The Transcendental Temptation by Paul Kurtz, Prometheus books, 1986
13. ESP, Seers & Psychics: What the Occult Really is by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 197
Article published in English on: 8-1-2012.
Last update: 8-1-2012.