Physics 3333 / Cold Reading

Cold Reading - A Deception

"Cold reading is a deceptive psychological strategy. Among other things, it can be used by someone who is not psychic to give what seem to be a (sic) very convincing psychic readings." (Ian Rowland)

"They tell the subjects nothing, but make guesses, put out suggestions, and ask questions. This is a very deceptive art, and the unwary observer may come away believing that unknown data was developed by some wondrous means. Not so" (James Randi)

These descriptions by well-known magicians James Randi (US) and Ian Rowland (UK) say it pretty well. Cold reading is used by many magicians in their performances. Done well by a skilled magician it can be very convincing.

Impressive as it can be, cold reading does have properties by which it can be identified. It will be to your advantage to know these properties.

Your best defense would be to spring for a copy of Ian Rowland's book The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading. It is published in the UK and is available only there. The book will be shipped from London. It is highly recommended by everyone. Prof. Cotton has a copy and agrees. You will enjoy Rowland's writing style.

The Art of Cold Reading

Anyone can try the technique of cold reading. Being good at it requires some stage presence, steel nerves, ability to speak ad lib, good listening skills, knowledge of people and demographics, fast thinking, and a good memory. You do not have to be psychic to do it, but if you are good at it you can certainly put on the appearance of being psychic. On page 134 of his book, Ian Rowland describes how some people ask him for help with things in their lives like where a missing pet went, or questions on an exam. He says "I cannot help with any of these things, since I am as psychic as a coffee pot. Maybe less." He can, however, deliver an amazing reading.

Cold reading involves getting the subject to tell you everything you need to know to carry out the reading. The number of ways for doing this will surprise you.

Psychic Techniques in Cold Reading

You can actually find out a lot about cold reading; just ask Google for "cold reading" and you'll get more than enough. The very best source is Ian Rowland's The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading. Anyway, here are some components of cold reading, synthesized from web sources and Ian Rowland. These will help you in knowing what to look for. Maybe also tell you how to do the cold reading yourself.

Rowland divides the techniques into four categories.

  • Personal Character. These methods are an exploitation of the Barnum Effect. A cynical Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) is credited with the statement that "There's a sucker born every minute" although there is no evidence that he really said this. Some references note that the comment actually came from one David Hannum, who was involved in the Cardiff Giant affair/hoax. The meaning of the statement is not dependent upon who made it. The Barnum Effect works. It means that it is possible to make a personality statement so general and trivial that essentially everyone will "recognize" it as applying to them. Newspaper and magazine horoscopes provide excellent examples of Barnum Statements. This concept was the subject of research done in 1949 (Forer).
    • Both Sides of Story. This is a description which plays both sides.
      You are normally a shy person, but there are times when you act confidently and accomplish a lot.
      The subject supposedly is shy and not shy, which violates non-contradiction (you cannot have a property and not have it at the same time). The psychic may detect shyness (or something else) by direct observation and formulate the statement accordingly.
    • Rewards. Comments about how honest, hard-working, lovable, etc. the subject is will go a long way toward receptiveness.
  • Facts. Here you will try for details about the subject by using demographics and statistics or descriptions that apply to LOTS of people. These items are obtained both via study and experience.
    • Special Thing or Event. This shot is based on a near-certainty. It is almost guaranteed to succeed.
      You have an electronic dingbat which quit working years ago. It's still lying around your house, but you somehow never got it repaired.
      In this era, who doesn't have such a defunct gadget lying around?
    • WAG (Wild-Ass Guess). The reader will take a wild shot, such as "Who died in a crash?" Other guesses will have multiple parts and be non-specific enough that someone is likely to make them fit. When a reaction is obtained, you go with the information the subject provides.
    • Not-so-WAG. This is a guess which is based on some knowledge of what is quite likely. If you are looking at someone who is obviously sixty-ish in age, the guess "Your father has passed" is usually safe. Fast thinking will be required in the few cases where Dad is still around.
    • Seasonal Guess. There are many activities that are associated with the calendar. Calendar as used here refers to more than just the 12-month wall calendar; it includes financial, religious, sports, and other calendars. Knowledge of these calendars allows guesses tied to the current date.
    • Cultural Guess. This technique requires detailed knowledge of current pop culture, fads, trends, etc. Such knowledge, coupled with a little Sherlocking (see below), can produce some astoundingly "accurate" statements.
  • Getting Information. All these methods obtain information by asking for it. A good performer can disguise this so that the subject will not remember supplying the information. Really!
    • Asking. What better way to get information than to simply ask for it? This brings up a problem: why is a psychic asking questions?
    • Indirect Question. It is possible to make the question sound like an insignificant end to a block of patter. You can finish a long statement (line of BS) with something like "... does all this make sense to you?" This will prompt the subject to fill in details. It could also sound like "Do you understand why the cards are telling me this?" Listen carefully.
    • Delayed Question. This involves getting a bit of key information and storing it in the brain till later. It can then be used in conjunction with some Sherlocking and knowledge of people to weave a bit of analysis that is uncannily accurate.
    • Sherlocking. This requires being hyper-observant like Conan Doyle's famous detective Sherlock Holmes. If you are familiar with any Holmes stories, you know that he noticed everything, down to the smallest details that others might miss. It was this power, along with excellent inductive skills, that allowed Holmes to solve those baffling cases. The technique also requires extensive knowledge of what those little details might mean. Observe the subject carefully and formulate a small set of reasonable assumptions about the person (this may take practice). Some of them will be wrong, but if you can think fast this is not serious. Use the assumptions at opportune times.
    • Yes/No. This one gives you the opportunity to go either way. Consider asking "You don't like sports do you?" If the subject answers "No, I really don't care for sports" you can then go on with "I didn't think so. The cards/planets/etc were saying that." If the subject says "Yes - I watch them a lot on TV and play some xxx myself" you follow with "Ah yes. I thought so. The cards/planets/etc indicated that you could be a sports fan." It can't miss - the reader can go with either a YES or NO answer.
    • Snow Job. This part of a reading mixes personality statements (remember Barnum) with loads of psychic jargon. The statement/jargon mixture is ended with something like "Is this making sense to you?" Ian Rowland plainly says that, as long as the reader looks/sounds competent and performs well, the actual divinatory system being used (Tarot, tea leaves, palm reading, astrology, etc) really doesn't matter. That hook at the end will get the response needed. It isn't even necessary to actually understand the divinatory system. Faking it competently is perfectly satisfactory. You will need to study the psychic jargon so the line of BS will at least sound authentic.
  • Various Predictions. Wouldn't it be nice if fortune-tellers could really predict the future. Well, there are ways to do it, although psychic abilities are not required for the job.
    • Things will Get Better. This wonderful type of prediction can be applied to almost any part of life; think of relationships, financial matters, job prospects, social status, etc.
      "I can see in the cards that your job, while satisfactory, does not utilize your full potential. It looks like this situation will change for the better in the near future."
      You can't lose:
      • The prediction can't be verified at the time of the reading.
      • If it does not come to pass it will be forgotten.
      • If, by chance, it does work out, the subject will be amazed at your ability to see the future. Maybe a repeat customer.
    • Even Chance Prediction. There are many events and things in life which really do have 50/50 chances. Your child will be a boy or a girl (let us know if anything else comes out). Your stock will go up or down. Your favorite team will or won't win the championship. Statistically, half of such predictions (guesses!) will be right. The subjects will forget the wrong guesses.
    • Long Shots. Based upon something observed or suspected, you may make a really off-the-wall prediction. Most of the time these will be wrong and the client will forget. If, however, the prediction is realized, the subject will be astonished and will tell their friends how well you saw into the future. Great PR and very good for business.
    • Unverifiable Prediction. This is a very interesting tactic. The prediction is carefully worded so that it cannot be verified. Also - notice the vagueness.

      "At your office there will be some activities which affect your career path. You won't be aware of them, but you will benefit from them."

      You can't lose. And a psychic who can't lose has won.
    • Verifiable ONLY if True. This is an even more elegant prediction. If it comes true the subject can verify it. If it doesn't come true the prediction failure cannot be proved. Here's one from Rowland.

      "A friend will be inclined to telephone you with news that has an effect on your career, but may decide at the last minute not to do so. (Ian Rowland)"

      This is the same trick as Both Sides of the Story above. If the event actually happens (a coincidence), you think the psychic was right (Wow!). You cannot ever prove that the psychic missed because that possibility was covered.

Mediums' Techniques

Mediums claim to be able to communicate with the deceased. An examination of their performances suggests otherwise. One can identify various methods they use to give the appearance of communicating with the dead, but this "communication" is so crude and obvious that their claims are suspect. The methods are easily identifiable (see These performances are usually done before an audience of a number of people, compared to the usual one-on-one psychic readings.

  • Talk FAST. Watch a John Edward performance. Just try to keep your mind focussed on comprehending everything he says. Edward is able to make something like one guess every two seconds! The guesses come in such number and so fast that, if one guess comes close and generates a response, the other wrong guesses are quickly forgotten.
  • Blunderbuss (shotgun) technique. Fire out general statements and watch the reactions in the audience. Body language will reveal a hit. Keep shooting, with the statements being more narrowly focussed based on what got the reaction but still ambiguous enough to work.
  • "I'm getting a J sound" (or D or M or R or S). These letters are the most frequent initial letters of names in the U.S. In an audience the size that mediums tend to play to, these initials have a very high probability of a hit. If the audience has a significant number of older women, "M" is a good guess. Notice that the medium reports getting a "J" (or one of the others) and waits for someone in the audience to respond. This technique can still work in a one-on-one session, although a miss is possible.
  • Someone dies of cancer or something in the "chest area." Consider that deaths from cancer are common and that "chest area" covers ALL heart problems as ALL lung problems. This guess casts a very broad net that SOMEONE in the audience will relate to and respond to. Even in a one-on-one reading this guess is likely to work.
  • "I see a father figure; an older male." Who can't relate to this? The subject(s) will supply the name of a father, grandfather, uncle, etc. The medium then recites this back as if obtained from the deceased. This probing approach is much safer than the more direct approach of saying "I'm getting something from your father," which backfires if the subject's father is still living. With any luck, someone will respond that their father has passed.
  • "Did so-and-so have a toy/dog/cat they loved?" What kid didn't? This is an extremely safe shot. Also emotionally manipulative. Note that this is a question - fishing for information. The subject will respond with what the thing was and the medium will feed that back in a statement that the deceased is showing them that thing.
  • The deceased friend/relative is "OK" and "in a good place." Of course they are! This makes the subject feel good AND is totally and completely unverifiable. It is absolutely safe and absolutely worthless.
  • A miss is a hit. This one is like shooting 10 feet to the side of the target but hitting it anyway.
    Reader: "Is there a Margaret or Mary close to you?"

    Subject: "My brother's name is Martin."

    Reader: "Yes. I see him clearly...."
    The subject will accept the wrong guess, particularly if the reader adroitly follows the obvious lead about the subject's brother.

If you want to have some fun, go to the website and print out some copies of Cold Reader Bingo cards. Then watch a TV performance by some prominent medium. See how many of the techniques you can mark on your bingo cards.


From reading the above methods you may have gotten the idea that the subject of a reading gives the reader a LOT of information. If you thought this, you are correct. Feedback is extremely important. Rowland devotes 5 pages to the subject. A psychic reading is a dialogue, although the subject might not realize it.

  • Observation. Useful feedback can be obtained by careful observation (remember Sherlock Holmes). For example, if a subject is reacting favorably to psychic techniques, the pupils of the eyes will usually show this by enlarging. This unconscious physical reaction can be seen by the observant psychic.

Forer's Article

The earliest (as far as we know) scientific work on what makes Barnum statements work was done in 1949. The January 1949 issue of The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology has a short article (page 118) be Bertram B. Forer titled The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility. Forer was concerned with assessing the validity if personality interpretations and measurement methods. He recognized the problems with having individuals validate inferences about themselves.

"Testing the correctness of inferences about a client by requesting his evaluation of them may be called 'personal validation.' When the inferences are universally valid, as they often are, the confirmation is useless."
Forer's result explains how people can accept generally true statements as applying to them, not realizing that the statements are general. This paper is (as you might guess) aimed at clinical psychologists.