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Cold Reading

By filthy
Posted on: 2/4/2005

SFN member filthy gives us an overview of the ubiquity of the practice of cold reading, including some words on some famous cold readers.

We all do it, you know. We are all cold readers and we’re very good at it. For example, we meet someone and want to find out a little more about him/her without seeming pushy, so, completely without conscious thought, we begin to cold read. Watch on left arm: right handed. Ring on left ring finger: married, and if the person is middle aged, children are probable. Middle age with broken facial capillaries: possible heavy drinker. Voice inflections will tell us about mood, and accents can give away region of birth. See a blue fingernail and calluses, and we know that he works with his hands. Soft and well-kept hands: probably white-collar in an office, or perhaps a small business man or storekeeper. A writer, artist, or a clerk is also possible.

With this background, we might ask a few leading questions, such as what the person does to put bread and beans on his table. His occupation and status within that occupation will tell us a great deal about how wealthy or not he might be. And so forth.

So in short, our new friend has told us a lot about himself without realizing that he has told us much of anything, and we didn’t realize we were pumping him.

But that’s amateur stuff, indeed, merely something we find necessary to do to better fit into society ourselves. The pros have raised it to a fine and profitable art.
Cold reading refers to a set of techniques used by professional manipulators to get a subject to behave in a certain way or to think that the cold reader has some sort of special ability that allows him to “mysteriously” know things about the subject. Cold reading goes beyond the usual tools of manipulation: suggestion and flattery.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
A staggering number of professions rely on cold reading, other than mentalist acts. A good salesman will be a good cold reader, as will a good therapist. A politician or a lobbyist must know something of what his subject is thinking in order to pander to him or perhaps change that thought. Faith healers, advertisers and other grifters must also be able to spot their subjects’ desires without necessarily being told outright.

And it is all so very easy. Our minds force us to try and make sense out of whatever happens around us, thus we often ‘see’ much more than is actually there. The cold reader takes advantage of this to trap the unwary.
The manipulator knows that his mark will be inclined to try to make sense out of whatever he is told, no matter how farfetched or improbable. He knows, too, that people are generally self-centered, that we tend to have unrealistic views of ourselves and that we will generally accept claims about us that reflect, not how we are, or even how we really think we are, but how we wish we were or think we should be. He also knows that for every several claims he makes about you which you reject as being inaccurate, he will make one that meets with your approval; and he knows that you will remember the hits he makes and forget the misses.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
When observing a mentalist act such as John Edward’s pay attention the hit/miss count rather than the questions themselves. It will be a revelation.

If I may digress for a moment, here’s a pretty much standard, psychic ‘reading’ It will give a small insight as to how these performers (that’s what they are of course — performers; actors) work:
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.

Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

Bertram Forer
Now, I wonder how many of us would that fit like a catfish fits a skillet? All of us, you say! Who’da thunk it…?

Like most if not all dowsers, many professional cold readers actually think that they have some sort of psychic powers. These are really acting in all good, if misguided, faith. They are as deluded as their subjects.
Not all cold readings are done by malicious manipulators. Some readings are done by astrologers, graphologists, tarot readers, and psychics who genuinely believe they have paranormal powers. They are as impressed by their correct predictions or “insights” as are their clients.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
The big-name, cold readers are so expert at fishing for information that their subjects will inadvertently, indeed often eagerly, give them all they need to know to make whatever amazing point they are after. Here is an excellent example about a professional mentalist:
Ian Rowland (2002), says that he has committed to memory such things as the most common male and female names and a list of items likely to be lying about the house such as an old calendar, a photo album, newspaper clippings, and so on. Rowland also works on certain themes that are likely to resonate with most people who consult psychics: love, money, career, health, and travel. Since cold reading can occur in many contexts, there are several tactics Rowland covers. But whether one is working with astrology, graphology, palmistry, psychometry or tarot cards, or whether one is channeling messages from the dead à la van Praagh, there are specific techniques one can use to impress clients with one’s ability to know things that seem to require paranormal powers.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Rowland is an entertainer and is capable of dazzling an audience with his skills at cold reading. However, he is an honest entertainer and he doesn’t try to rip them off, although I’ve no doubt that he could.

Body language is very important to the cold reader, pro or otherwise. Our posture, facial expressions, hand movements while speaking, all tell him something about us, as well as how we speak. Following is a pretty much typical method of ‘reading’ a subject:
The reader begins with generalities which are applicable to large segments of the population. He or she pays careful attention to reactions: words, body language, skin color, breathing patterns, dilation or contraction of the pupils of the eye, and more. The subject of the reading will usually convey important information to the reader: sometimes in words, and sometimes in bodily reactions to the reading.

From observation, the reader will feed back to the subject what the latter wants to hear. That is the overwhelming guiding principle of the mystics: Tell ’em what they want to hear. That will keep them coming back for more.

— Robert Steiner quoted from The Skeptic’s Dictionary
All the cold reader really needs are a few good hits. The misses will usually be quickly forgotten by the subject in a blur of other questions which might or might not score hits. As the conversation continues, the reader will score more hits simply because even his misses give him information and he knows more about his subject with each one.

Add to all this is the fact that virtually all of the reader’s subjects want him to be successful. Why else would they be talking to him in the first place? It takes two to tango, yes?

Here are a few well known cold readers:

James van Praagh:
Van Praagh is a ‘medium,’ that is, he speaks to the dead. According to him, all of the billions of the deceased are just waiting to have their names called. He is a master of cold reading, one of the best, and his fishing expeditions are rapid-fire and can cover a lot of ground in a short time. Rare is the spirit that once lived in it’s corpus that escapes him.

He was once debunked by Michael Shermer, and a lady in the audience berated Shermer for “taking away the hope.”

There is something like a three year waiting list for a private reading with Van Praagh.
John Edward:
My own favorite psychic scoundrel is Edward, probably because I’ve caught his act on the toob a few times. Watched carefully, his technique will be seen to be simple, but highly effective. Like the best of fishermen, he casts his bait and works it along until his quarry hits it. Then he skillfully brings his now-benighted but delighted catch to the landing.

He’ll skip over a miss, then a little later he might come back to it in different context and get a hit. His TV show is little more than advertising for private readings, which are very expensive if figured by the hour. In these readings, it is really too easy for him. Here, all of his fish already firmly believe in him and will tell him anything he might want to know in order that he might tell them all that they want to believe.
George Anderson:
Anderson, lesser known than Edward and van Praagh, plays heavily upon beliefs in heaven. He also casts horoscopes. The link above will show an interview with him where he explains all, or rather, explains nothing but it sounds good, anyway. I think he is, like Edward, casting bait for more clients.
Sylvia Browne:
All of us, even those who only occasionally visit the James Randi Educational Foundation are well acquainted with dear Sylvie. She is a prolific, articulate, intelligent quack with a high profile. She appears to be almost obsessive about appearing on TV shows such as Larry King and Montel Williams. Here is an excerpt (included in the link to her name) from one appearance that included James Randi:
Caller: Sylvia and Larry, I enjoy you so very, very much. I
listened to you for years and I just wanted to get on for a
long time. Randi, I feel sorry for you as well, because we
have to believe in something. My question is, Sylvia, I never
had a chance to say good-bye to my husband. And I am wondering
if he knows how much I loved him. 

Browne: Not only did he know that, but what was the -- clot or
whatever that let loose? Because it looks like there was
something about a clot. 

Caller: Yes, he had a severe brain hemorrhage at the very last

Browne: Because it looks likes it was, not only that, but this
was massive. 

Caller: Yes, it was. 

Browne: Yeah. 

Caller: Right through the top of his head. 

Browne: And he really -- you know, there are so many times,
like when I lost so many people. I don't care how many times
if you can say good-bye, you never have enough good-byes. But
see, aside from Randi, he hears everything you say, especially
when you talk to him. 

Caller: Well, I don't really know whether I can say anything
to him. There are people like that. But I feel sorry for them.
Because we have to believe. 

King: I thank you, ma'am. (Turning to Sylvia): Now, help me
with something. 

Browne: Yes? 

King: Did you see that clot? 

Browne: I saw the clot letting loose. 

King: How do you explain? . . . . 

Browne: I don't know. It's like Randi said one time to one of
the psychics, a lot of psychics just say chest. Of course,
because a lot of people have chest problem. But not everybody
has a massive embolism. 

King: How would you explain that. A massive... 

Browne: I know what he is going to say, it's a guess. 

Randi: Larry, you're asking me to explain specific things. I
don't know who this woman is who called. I don't know whether
she is a ringer. I'm not saying she is, and I'm not suggesting

Browne: Oh. 

Randi: But it is possible. There are many possibilities here.
We have made a lucky guess, and we have hit. An embolism. A

King: There are many possibilities. Is one of them, Randi -- is
one of the possibilities Sylvia is right. 

Randi: Absolutely.
Browne was wrong. A clot is exactly the opposite of a hemorrhage. But, she used ‘clot’ because that is a very common, fatal ailment of elderly people.

“We have to believe something,” the lady said, and that simple sentence explains why cold readers are so successful.

I was a bit disappointed in Randi’s performance on that show, that part of it at least. I think he missed a chance to seriously burn Browne, and King as well.

What about cold readers of the past? Doubtless, among the first professional cold readers were those stirring up animal entrails to get predictions to satisfy ancient kings. Or holy hermits living in caves might also have been, telling their supplicants what they want to hear, or fear, and get a few coppers in their begging bowls.

Gypsy fortunetellers were and still are expert cold readers, and others, of higher estate, were truly remarkable. They often ingratiated themselves with the royal courts of Europe and became wealthy, and even influential. And sometimes became dead. Here is a bit of the story of one of the latter:
Rasputin was born in the Tyumen district of Siberia, far away from the glittering salons in the Imperial Capital of St. Petersburg. Even today he is a shadowy and mysterious character; a person of contradictory personality traits. Was he a miracle worker or just a crafty manipulator of the Imperial Family? While he was alive, witnesses, including doctors and skeptics, concluded he possessed some inexplicable power over the Tsarevich and his deadly episodes of bleeding. This mysterious ability to heal her son was enough to convince Aleksandra that Rasputin, whatever people said of him, must have been sent by God. In her mind he was the answer to her fervent prayers for God to save her son. It was impossible for her to believe that he could have been a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His influence over politics has been greatly exaggerated. Rasputin was a convenient scapegoat for those who wanted to attack the Tsar’s appointments and decisions, but who wouldn’t confront Nicholas directly.

— Bob Atchison
There can be little doubt that Rasputin was a cold reader of extraordinary skills. Even as a holy man, it is unlikely that he could have gotten so close to the Russian royal family due to his humble, peasant origins. He would had to have shown ‘powers of prediction’ as well as having a very good gift of gab. Here’s another link for more on Rasputin.

It is not easy to find a good link for Michael d’Notredame. Most are filled with fanciful nonsense. But this one will pretty much do and it will tell a part of the story of the most successful cold reader in history. His words haunt and make us crazy yet today:
It is extraordinary how quickly the fame of Nostradamus spread across France and Europe on the strength of the Prophecies, published in their incomplete form of 1555. The book contained only the first three Centuries and part of the fourth. The prophecies became all the rage at Court, the Queen, Catherine de Medici, sent for Nostradamus to come to Court, and he set out for Paris on 14th July 1556. On 15th August, Nostradamus booked a room at the Inn of St. Michel, and the next day the queen sent for him.

One could only wish that there had been a witness to record their meeting.

Nostradamus and the Queen spoke together for two hours. She is reputed to have asked him about the quatrain concerning the king’s death and to have been satisfied with Nostradamus’ answer. Certainly she continued to believe in Nostradamus’ predictions until her death. The king, Henri II, granted Nostradamus only a brief audience and was obviously not greatly interested.

Two weeks later the queen sent for him a second time and now Nostradamus was faced with the delicate and difficult task of drawing up the horoscopes of the seven Valois children, whose tragic fates he had already revealed in the centuries. All he would tell Catherine was that all of her sons would be kings, which is slightly inaccurate since one of them, Francois, died before he could inherit.

Soon afterwards Nostradamus was warned that the Justices of Paris were inquiring about his magic practices, and he swiftly returned to Salon. From this time on, suffering from gout and arthritis, he seems to have done little except draw up horoscopes for his many distinguished visitors and complete the writing of the Prophecies. Apparently he allowed a few manuscript copies to circulate before publication, because many of the predictions were understood and quoted before the completed book came off the printing press in 1568, two years after his death.

— Ellie Crystal
Anyone who has ever read a translation of the Centuries (I have; they gave me a migraine) will readily see how a seer works and a believer might respond. Only a True Believer could buy into gibberish that can mean anything or nothing.

But Nostradamus was, and is, believed. In his interview with Catherine de Medici, he must have told her what she wanted to hear and had to quickly find out what that was. King Henri, as noted, was not impressed. Perhaps he’d seen it too often already. In his later years, the skill served Nostradamus well enough in casting personal horoscopes for the wealthy.

It is a pity that Nostradamus is well known only as a seer. His backbreaking work as a healer during the Plague was far more impressive and noteworthy than his ridiculous prognostications.

There were, of course, many others hanging out in royal courts all over the world, ever alert to what the king might want to hear in the guise of advice; ever alert to those signs and words that will hint at what that might be — today, we call many of these toadies, ‘yes-men.’

So, be they seers or mages, wizards or fortunetellers, a shaman or a medicine man, a stage mentalist or a used car salesman, all are cold readers who have traded off their amateur standings in favor of astounding us with their insights, to their worldly profit.

Little, I fear, will ever change our beliefs in the cold reading flim-flams. Indeed, we are reminded that the Reagans regularly consulted an astrologer; another cold reader in the courts of the mighty.

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