Cold Reading: The Psychic’s True Power

April 1997
by Robert Novella

Fortune Teller 2You have just left a psychic reading and you are amazed. The psychic knew many things about you that no one else knew and other things that couldn’t possibly have been figured out. The only explanation you can think of is that some kind of extrasensory perception was involved. What else could explain it?

If this has not happened to you then you probably know someone who has related a similar story. A perceptiveness beyond the normal human senses is not required to explain this phenomenon, however. Human psychology and a tried and true technique called cold reading could produce the same results, just as if your mind had been read and your future foretold.

Cold reading is a skill used by tarot card readers, psychics, palm readers, iridologists, astrologers, and even salesmen to gather information about a subject. The process begins with careful observation, supplemented by knowledge of statistics and the commonalties of human nature. From these starting points general statements are made, statements which are likely to be true about almost anybody. Visual and verbal feedback from the subject is then used to pursue accurate statements and abandon dead ends, all the time honing the initial guesses to more and more accurate conclusions. In the hands of an expert, the technique can be frighteningly successful, almost uncanny.

Cold reading is not one simple trick but a number of different methods for gleaning surprisingly accurate information about someone’s personality characteristics and problems, all with ostensibly little effort. By definition this information is gathered on the spot by conversation, keen observation and a good memory. In contrast, the term ‘hot reading’ has been applied to information gathering that precedes visual and physical contact, usually through special databases, directories and other resources. Cold readers, though, do not need to rely on such sources. All that is needed is interaction with the subject. Before any interaction, though, most accomplished cold readers have as an information foundation, knowledge of probability and the common denominators of the human condition.

Probability and statistics enter the picture in ways as simple as knowing that most male names in our culture begin with the letter “J,” while most female names begin with “M.” This can be translated into “I see a woman in your life, her name begins with “M.” Another example is “I see palm trees near the water.” If the subject lives in the north and appears affluent then there is a high probability of a recent or planned tropical vacation, and the reader will be judged correct, especially if there are no temporal limitations like past or future, or perhaps the image refers to a friend of the subjects.

Assumptions on the motivations and desires affecting most humans will also help cold readers in their predictions. Most people would agree therefore with the following line: “I see that you have financial issues that have to be dealt with.” Who doesn’t? The word “financial” could easily be replaced with “sexual” or “work” or “relationship” and still be valid for almost everyone.

Cold readers begin by taking in as much of the subject as they can, the clothes, manner of speech, apparent age, physical attributes, socioeconomic status, and mannerisms. Even someone’s eyes and hands can hold many clues. During this initial assessment the proficient cold reader quickly winnows all the possible classifications into those that are most likely. From these preliminary inferences alone accurate predictions can be made, but it is not yet the time for such precision. These initial guesses are tested with general statements that lightly touch possible problems, all along watching for reactions. This is the crucial step. The clients reactions guide his statements as he goes from the general to the more specific, they lead the way to more and more precise assessments of what is bothering the client, while allowing him to abandon dead ends or wrong guesses. As more accurate statements are made the client becomes increasingly convinced that the cold reader is divining the truth by some extra sensory means.

Feedback is the cold reader’s life blood, so if feedback is in short supply there are some effective methods for eliciting reactions, including ‘try-ons’ and muscle reading. Try-ons are subtle statements designed to prompt a reaction. They can include remarks like “I’m getting the feeling that…” or “I want to say that…” etc. They are not direct questions but they can be very effective in producing a response. Often the person does not even realize that he has answered these promptings. After a suitable delay the cold reader will then repeat what has just been learned to the amazement of his audience. Verbal feedback to try-ons and other ploys helps explain the phenomenal success of psychic hotlines, which is now almost a billion dollar a year industry. Visual feedback is not vital to experienced cold readers, verbal feedback alone often provides enough information so that the subjects are virtually open books. Deprived of feedback, the process of cold reading grinds to a halt.

Muscle reading is yet another tool for surreptitiously acquiring information. It involves direct contact with the person being read, either holding a hand or an arm or touching something the client is holding like a handkerchief. Contact like this permits the reading of involuntary muscle movements that can be used to gauge a client’s reaction. These reactions inform the cold reader if he is hot or cold allowing him to go from general to more specific statements.

Cold readers also know that certain aspects of human psychology itself help in their endeavors. One phenomenon, called subjective validation or selective memory, is especially important. It involves remembering significant events and forgetting the insignificant or unfavorable ones. Any assertion from the cold reader that is correct will tend to be remembered and the many that are off the mark are usually forgotten. The Forer Effect is related to selective memory but is even more apropos to the cold reading scenario. It states that in general, when people are given many general and specific claims about themselves, the inaccuracies are overlooked and the general statements are interpreted as accurate. Both these phenomenon give people a distorted memory of past events and prevents putting these events into their true context.

A classic example can be found in James Randi’s book Flim-Flam. Peter Hurkos amazed people with his ability to prognosticate. Intimate details were revealed, convincing people beyond question of his powers. Two such people were invited by Randi to watch a video tape of their sessions with Hurkos. It was “discovered by actual count that this so-called psychic had, on the average, been correct in one out of fourteen of his statements!….Selective thinking had led them to dismiss all the apparent misses and the obviously wrong guesses and remember only the ‘hits.’” So powerful is this phenomenon that even when people are confronted with this information many still believe that psychic powers alone produced the insights.

Knowledge of cold reading is essential to the skeptic. It lifts the veil of mystery from the alleged psychic and reveals the little man behind the curtain. Such knowledge focuses the harsh light of reality upon a vast array of seemingly paranormal phenomenon. It is a fundamental and powerful weapon in the skeptic’s arsenal.