The exact meaning of cold reading varies depending on the circumstance:
- Cold readings are a common technique of fraudulent psychics, astrologers, tarot and palm readers, etc.
- The exact same techniques are used by mentalists (performers who appear to have psychic powers but admit to being fake).
- In personal and business relations, a cold reading is used to assess the situation when meeting a new person. The idea is that by quickly learning and adapting to the new person you should be able to control the developing relationship.
- In film and stage production, cold reading has a completely different meaning—it refers to an unprepared reading of a script.
Cognitive Bias - the heart of cold reading
Before learning about cold reading it is useful to understand what is meant by cognitive bias. This is a term used in psychology to describe common flaws in human perception, memory and decision-making. There are dozens of well-documented types of cognitive bias, and most people are susceptible to most types (though they may deny it, which itself is a form of cognitive bias).
Some common examples:
- Self-relevance effect: In which memories that are personally relevant are better recalled than other, similar information.
- Suggestibility: In which ideas suggested by another person are mistaken for memory.
- Confirmation bias: The tendency to seek and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
By understanding cognitive bias, frauds can manipulate cold readings so the subject perceives (and later recalls) events inaccurately, i.e. in the way the reader dictates.
How Cold Readings Work
A good cold reader calls upon an array of skills. There is no short answer to "how it works" because there are so many different techniques involved. This is one reason that cold reading is so powerful—by using a combination of techniques it is much more difficult to spot the underlying methodology.
Let us begin with a simple example of one technique. A typical cold reading might include the following conversation:
- Reader: "I'm sensing the the letter m or n".
- Subject: "My friend Mark passed away a few years ago".
- Reader: "It was a tragic death".
- Subject: "Well yes, he'd had cancer for a long time. It was very sad."
After the reading the subject is likely to recall that the reader "knew about Mark", when in fact the reader had simply guessed a couple of common letters. The reader didn't even mention anything about a person's name—the subject naturally assumed that the letter would apply to a person. If this didn't work out and there had been no response from the subject, the reader could have continued with something like "I think it's a place name, or maybe some significant event...". In most cases the subject will unwittingly cooperate until a match is found. Note that the subject supplies all the information, the reader just guesses and guides the conversation accordingly.
In the example above, the reader was probably hoping to score an extra "hit" by identifying the death as sudden or accidental ("tragic"), which would be a reasonable guess if the subject was fairly young and the deceased was a friend. If the guess was right, it would be interpreted as a significant hit ("she knew about the accident"). In our example the guess was wrong but the subject simply overlooked it. In this way the reader can continue making subtle guesses without the subject realizing how many misses are happening.
Even when the subject does recognize a miss, cognitive bias means the miss has a good chance of being forgotten quickly. Facts which the brain interprets as less relevant are less likely to be committed to memory. People tend to forget misses and remember hits because the hits are subconsciously deemed to be the "relevant" part of the conversation. This is why subjects almost always rate readings as being far more accurate than they really were.
20 Questions: From General to Specific
Cold readings are essentially a sophisticated form of the game "20 Questions", in which a person must guess an answer by beginning with general questions and gradually narrowing down the possibilities. For example:
- Questioner: Is it an animal, vegetable or mineral?
- Subject: Animal.
- Questioner: Does it have four legs?
- Subject: Yes.
Obviously a cold reading should not seem like a guessing game, so the questions are phrased differently. The subject supplies answers without realizing. For example:
- Reader: This spirit presence I'm sensing... it's someone who was important to you. I'm sensing a connection to music...
- Subject: That sounds like Aunty Beth.
- Reader: I feel that could be who it is. Music meant a lot to her, I think.
- Subject: She had a collection of old records and she loved playing them for us.
- Reader: Yes, I'm sensing a lot of happy memories with music as the backdrop. She treasured the times you spent together.
- Subject: They were always short visits, we were too rushed. I wish we'd spent more time with her.
- Reader: She understands, in fact she wants you to know that she's grateful. In spite of being busy you still took some time to spend with her and she'll always appreciate that.
In this way the reader begins with a very generic starting point (music) and narrows the conversation down to a specific memory. Most people know someone who plays an instrument or has a strong appreciation of music. Once someone is identified, it's just a case of extracting a couple of key facts and expanding on them.
Turning Misses to Hits
Another popular tactic is to take a miss but make it seem like it was a hit all along. For example, if the reader says "I sense an upcoming vacation", the subject may respond negatively and recognize the miss. To avoid this, the statement is put in such a way that it could be either positive or negative. For example:
- Reader: You're not going on a vacation any time soon are you?
- Subject: No, we can't afford a vacation at the moment.
- Reader: I thought not. I'm sensing a lot of frustration in your life.
The alternative would be:
- Reader: You're not going on a vacation any time soon are you?
- Subject: Yes, as a matter of fact we're going to New Zealand in a couple of months.
- Reader: Right, I'm sensing a lot of anticipation and excitement.
The opposite of a cold reading is a hot reading. In this case the reader has discovered information about the subject in advance. Using Google, all the reader really needs to know is the subject's name and they can have a wealth of information before the reading takes place.
Cold reading is not an easy skill, but once mastered it is very powerful. It utilizes known weaknesses in the way almost all people think. It works equally well on intelligent people (in fact it arguably works better on them) and above all, it is remarkably simple in its concept. Just like stage magic, cold readings rely on the fact that the truth is so simple it is usually overlooked as a possibility.
Remember, to conduct a successful cold reading:
- Ask lots of questions but make few statements. Statements should be general and flexible to allow for differing responses.
- Throw out lots of guesses but don't make them seem like guesses. The subject will pounce on the correct ones and ignore the false ones.
- Start with general guesses, then wait for feedback before getting specific.
- Body language is essential—reading facial reactions provides valuable information.