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What is Cold Reading?
The term 'cold reading' refers to strategies used by mentalists and by fraudulent psychics and mediums to give the impression that they can psychically discern personal information about a client.
The reading is 'cold' because it does not depend on any prior knowledge of the client. Instead, the 'psychic' combines careful observations of the client's characteristics and behavior with a series of guesses that are based on deduction, knowledge of probabilities, and use of general ('Barnum') statements that are readily accepted by large numbers of people as being true of themselves.
There are several key techniques that form the basis of cold reading. These are
- Setting the scene
- Observing characteristics
- Making deductions
- Pigeon-holing and focussing
- Using Barnum statements
- Observing responses
- Using verbal tricks
- Reinforcing successes
- Using 'outs'
- Clinching the deal
1. Setting the scene
The cold reader must set the scene for the client, manage client expectations, and elicit client cooperation.
It is vital that the client has full confidence in the professionalism and ability of the psychic or medium and this can be encouraged in various ways, for example:
- Through advertising.
- By displaying testmonials, photographs with celebrity clients, etc., in brochures or on the walls of the consulting room.
- By using professional props - e.g., tarot cards, crystal ball, pendulum, runes, or other "mystical" or spiritualist items.
The particular style of presentation must suit the kind of reading offered by a cold reader. For example, a tarot reader will generally present themselves very differently from a spiritualist medium or from a mentalist entertainer.
Expectations must be managed by briefly explaining to the client what they may receive from the reading, for example:
- "We will aim to contact and receive advice from the spirits of the dear departed."
- "The tarot cards will show you possibilities for your future life."
- "I will try to answer any questions you have about your past and future."
Cold reading will only succeed if the client is cooperative and actively assists the psychic. This needs to be explained to the client at the outset. For example:
- "You will need to help me to read the signs."
- "The spirits will need your cooperation."
- "It is important that you remain open and receptive."
2. Observing characteristics
The cold reader carefully observes the client. Important characteristics to note are:
- Weight, apparent health, personal hygiene and any noticeable disabilities.
- Any scars, bruises or skin blemishes.
- Evidence of smoking, drug taking, alcohol use, etc.
- Clothing, hairstyle, jewellery and badges, body decorations.
- Any transfers on the clothes (e.g., animal or human hair, grasses, mud, oil, or stains).
- Voice quality (regional accent, pitch, pace and modulation).
3. Making deductions
From these observations, the psychic will be able to make some highly probable guesses about the client. This is sometimes referred to as the "Sherlock Holmes" technique.
- An engagement ring will generally indicate an impending marriage.
- Signs that a wedding ring have been removed (e.g., by noticing lighter skin tone on the ring finger) may indicate a recent separation or divorce.
- Educational level may be inferred from voice and vocabulary.
- Affluence may be inferred from clothing and jewellery.
- Particular interests may inferred from T-shirts, badges, etc.
- If the reading is done in the client's home, much more information can be gleaned (e.g., from family photographs, bookshelves).
4. Pigeon-holing and focussing
The cold reader will generally aim to pigeon-hole (stereotype) the client into a particular category of person.
The most basic categories are based on gender and age (e.g., teenage female; middle-aged man; elderly woman).
More specific categories and stereotypes can also be useful (e.g., thirty-something, white, well-spoken, apparently affluent, female non-smoker with a New York accent). Consider, for example, what you probably could infer about such a woman.
Having pigeon-holed the client, the reading is then focussed around areas stereotypically of concern to people in this category, and also around any specific deductions that can be made based on observations of the client.
- A mid-teen female is likely to experience difficulties relating to popularity, peer pressure and boys.
- A middle-aged, poorly-dressed man who is rather overweight and wears no wedding ring, may have low self-esteem.
- An elderly person may have recently lost close friends or family, and may also have their own health concerns.
- A man wearing a wedding ring whose breath and clothes smell of alcohol is very likely to have marital problems.
5. Using Barnum statements
So-called 'Barnum statements' are named after the American showman P.T. Barnum who claimed "we've got something for everyone" and who is also often (incorrectly) credited with coining the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute".
Barnum statements (also known as Forer statements) are those that seem to relate to a particular individual but actually apply to everyone, or almost everyone. Such statements are a typical feature of horoscopes and they are used extensively in cold reading.
Research by psychologists (e.g., B.R. Forer) has shown that such statements are readily accepted by a person if led to believe that the statements apply specifically to them. Because they are easily accepted by the client, such statements also serve to enhance the client's general faith in the psychic.
Examples of Barnum statements are:
- "You have much unused potential."
- "You get a little anxious in new social situations."
- "You have sometimes told white lies to save another person's feelings."
- "You have been a victim of a theft or burglary in the past."
- "You have a strong need for approval and recognition."
Experienced cold readers will develop their own extensive list of useful Barnum statements which can also be tailored to particular categories of people.
'Fishing' refers to making some very specific, seemingly improbable, statements that may or may not be true of the client.
If the statement turns out to be true, the strength of the "hit" will greatly impress the client, and the statement will be clearly remembered.
If wrong, then the psychic can simply move on to something else and the 'miss' will very likely be forgotten by the client. Alternatively the psychic may prefer to use an 'out' to excuse the failure (see the section on Outs below).
In general (to avoid embarrassing failures) it is best to choose fishing statements that are not too improbable but which are likely to be true of many people.
Examples of fishing statements are:
- "The name Jane is significant in some way."
- "I am getting something about a car crash."
- "You were separated from your father during childhood."
- "You used to own a brown dog."
Note that, when fishing, you should generally use statements rather than questions. (e.g., "The name Jane is significant" rather than "Is the name 'Jane' significant?").
You can also go fishing using several baits in one sentence. For example: "I am hearing the name Jane, or perhaps it is Joan, or June, or John". In this way you can maximise your odds of getting a 'hit'.
Fishing is especially effective when cold reading with a large group of people (e.g., stage shows). Names make very useful collective bait. For example, "There is someone named George who has a message for a woman". It is very likely that at least one woman in the audience will know a George who has died.
Experienced cold reader often learn the popular first names for both boys and girls for different decades.
7. Observing responses
Especially when fishing, you can gauge the accuracy of your statements by observing carefully how the client responds.
In particular, watch the face and hands, and also look out for any uncomfortable shuffling in the seat.
These responses can often give away how the client is feeling about what you are saying. In this way it is generally quite easy to tell if you are on the right track, or completely wrong.
If you are right, then continue along the same line; if wrong, then subtly change track.
8. Using verbal tricks
There are certain tricks and subtleties in the way that language can be used that will greatly enhance a cold reading.
Some words have more than one meaning that can be usefully exploited by the cold reader.
"Somebody here knows George". This is a very useful trick often used by spiritualist mediums in group meetings. It is based on the ambiguity of the word "here" - it could mean either "here in the audience" or "here in the spirit world". In this way, the odds of a hit are effectively doubled.
"I am getting something about a will". This could mean either Will (the personal name) or an inheritance or legal document.
"The word 'book' is somehow relevant". This could refer, for example, to an ordinary book (of pages), or "the Book" (Bible), or the telephone book, or a reservation for a show or flight, or a police booking, or a bookmaker (betting), or a financial account, or it could even be a surname.
By observing how the client interprets an ambiguous word, the reading can then follow up that particular meaning.
Stating questions negatively
A very commonly used verbal trick in cold reading is to ask questions in the negative form.
No matter how the client responds to these questions, the psychic can interpret the response as confirming the statement made.
- "You're not married are you?"
- "You weren't brought up in the country were you?"
- "You're not an only child are you?"
- "You don't believe in reincarnation do you?"
- "You haven't had a letter from your mother recently have you?"
If the client answers "No" to such questions, the reader replies with "I thought not". If the answer is "Yes", the reader can say "I thought so". The psychic therefore wins every time.
Repeating information given by the client
The cold reader should file away in memory every bit of information that the client gives during the reading.
This not only allows further deductions to be made from the information given, but the psychic can also exploit the fact that clients will often forget that they have said certain things.
This enables the cold reader to repeat back to the client, at some later point, information that the client has given, as if this information was being received psychically.
Consider this example dialogue: