Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, 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. 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.
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.
"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:
- "I see a heart problem with a father-figure in your family, a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a cousin... I'm definitively seeing chest pain here for a father-figure in your family."
- "I see a woman that isn't a blood relative. Someone around when you were growing up, an aunt, a friend of your mother, a stepmother with blackness in the chest, lung cancer, heart disease, breast cancer..."
- "I sense an older male figure in your life, who wants you to know whilst you may have had disagreements in your life, he still loved you."
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.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:
- "I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don't know very well."
- "You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house."
- "You had an accident when you were a child involving water."
- "You're having problems with a friend or relative."
- "Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen."
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 effectstatements (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.
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.
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.
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:
- "Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset."
- "You are a very kind and considerate person, but when somebody does something to break your trust, you feel deep-seated anger."
- "I would say that you are mostly shy and quiet, but when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the center of attention."
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.
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.
Some performers who use cold reading are honest about their use of the technique. Lynne Kelly, Kari Coleman, Ian Rowland, and Derren Brown 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.
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.
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. This point of thought is known by some skeptics of the paranormal as the transcendental temptation. 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.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939). Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) utilizes both cold reading and hot reading techniques on Dorothy (Judy Garland) in an effort to urge her to return home.
- Nightmare Alley (1947). Depicted ex-carny and aspiring cult leader Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) using cold reading and other mentalisttechniques to convince people he can communicate with the dead. Although the presentation is clumsy, the technique of cold reading is referred to by name. The film was based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name.
- Leap of Faith (1992). Early in the film, revival tent evangelist and phony faith healer Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) uses cold reading on a police officer who has pulled over his tour bus, to dissuade him from writing a ticket.
- "The Biggest Douche in the Universe" (South Park episode, 2002). Stan Marsh, one of the main characters in the animated comedy series, has an encounter with self-proclaimed psychic John Edward after attending a taping of Edward's TV show Crossing Over. Stan then uses cold reading on some passers-by in an attempt to convince his friend Kyle Broflovski that Edward is a fake, only to be mistaken for a child psychic and given his own competing TV show. This leads to a "psychic showdown" between Stan and Edward that ends when aliens abduct Edward and give him the dubious honor of "The Biggest Douche in the Universe".
- Hustle (2005). BBC series about a group of grifters in London. In Series 2 Episode 1, Albert Stroller and Danny Blue mention using cold reading in order to get a mark interested in business.
- Psych (2007). Shaun Spencer, the main character in the show uses cold reading to convince detectives that he has psychic abilities, while actually using logic and reason to solve cases.
- The Mentalist (2008). The main character in The Mentalist plays someone who formerly used cold readings to pretend to be psychic, and now uses cold reading to assist him in solving criminal cases.
- Leverage (2010). In Series 2 Episode 13 "The Future Job", Dalton Rand (Luke Perry) is a conartist that uses cold reading to convince an audience that he can communicate with the dead. The cold reading methods he uses are exposed by the team.