COLD READING by Jim Lippard On the evening of May 27th, 1987, the Amazing David Newman was
by Jim Lippard
On the evening of May 27th, 1987, the Amazing David Newman was a guest on a KTAR talk show. Callers were given psychic readings: Newman told them what sort of people they were, what was troubling them, and what the future held for them in their work, romantic lives, finances, and travel. Judging from the responses of the callers, Newman was quite accurate.
But after about half an hour of readings, one caller asked how readings are done. Newman's response was this: "Learning to do readings is a skill. You study it, and you learn a skill -- like burglary and bank robbery." He went on to say, "My name is Bob Steiner, I am a professional magician. I am a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. I am chair of the national Occult Committee of the Society of American Magicians, and I study this nonsense."
What Bob Steiner was doing is known as "cold reading", a method for convincing people that you know all about them. This technique is commonly used by palmists, psychics, astrologers, channelers, and fortune tellers. By using stock phrases and fishing for information, cold readers can give the impression that they are obtaining information in a paranormal manner.
The cold reader begins with the assumptions that people are more alike than different and tend to have more or less the same sorts of problems and fears. This information is built upon by careful observation of the client's appearance (such as age, style, cost and neatness of clothing), mannerisms (grammar, accent, gestures, eye contact), and so on.
Ray Hyman (1977) reports the following case of a cold reader in action:
A young lady in her late twenties or early thirties
visited a character reader. She was wearing expensive
jewelry, a wedding band, and a black dress of cheap
material. The observant reader noted that she was
wearing shoes which were currently being advertised
for people with foot trouble. ...
[The reader] assumed that this client came to see him,
as did most of his female customers, because of a love
or financial problem. The black dress and wedding band
led him to reason that her husband had died recently.
The expensive jewelry suggested that she had been
financially comfortable during marriage, but the cheap
dress indicated that her husband's death had left her
penniless. The therapeutic shoes signified that she was
now standing on her feet more than she was used to,
implying that she was working to support herself since
her husband's death.
From this the reader went further to correctly deduce that the woman had met a man who had proposed marriage, but felt guilty about marrying so soon after her husband's death. The reader told her what she wanted to hear: that it was OK to go ahead and marry.
Yet even without information of that detail it is possible to perform a successful cold read. The cold reader can cover all the bases by reinterpreting statements which fail to be on target. If a statement is not accepted, the reader can claim it is about something that will happen rather than something that has already happened. An example of this is a case in which a psychic told a friend that she saw her taking a vacation in the summer, that she saw her in the mountains. When the client responded negatively, the psychic claimed that the mountain scene was simply figurative, not a literal vacation in the mountains. She could equally well (probably better, in fact) have claimed that it was either a vacation in the past or more distant in the future.
The technique of "fishing" also is quite successful. The reader phrases statements in the form of questions, to which the subject will often supply more information than is necessary to answer. The reader can then rephrase the question as a positive statement and use the additional information later.
By familiarizing oneself with the techniques of cold reading, one can learn to recognize them when used by alleged psychics. The following articles are recommended for more detailed descriptions of cold reading, with examples:
Feder, Kenneth 1987. "The Cold Reading of Writing", _The Skeptical Inquirer_,
11:4 (Summer 1987) pp. 346-348
Hyman, Ray 1977. "Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All
About Them", _The Zetetic_ (Now the _Skeptical Inquirer_), 1:2 (Spring/Summer 1977), pp. 18-37. Reprinted in _Paranormal Borderlands of Science_ (1981, Prometheus Books, edited by Kendrick Frazier).
Randi, James 1979. "Cold Reading Revisited", _The Skeptical Inquirer_, 3:4
(Summer 1979). Reprinted in _Paranormal Borderlands of Science_.
Schwartz, Ronald A. 1978. "Sleight of Tongue", _The Skeptical Inquirer, 3:1
(Fall 1978). Reprinted in _Paranormal Borderlands of Science_.
Copyright 1987 Phoenix Skeptics. Reprinted from Phoenix Skeptics News by permission.
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