Cold Reading is a technique used by stage performers (mentalists), psychics, and mediums, to give the impression that they “know” things about the subject that they could not possibly know.
In a cold reading, the reader will apply high-probability guesses in an attempt to find truths that resonate with the subject. Any guesses that hit the target are reinforced, and developed further, whilst any that are in the wrong direction are instantly discarded.
This maximising of the correct guesses, and instant dropping of the wrong ones, creates an impression in the subject’s mind that the reader is right more often then they are wrong.
The reader is usually aided in this by the subject’s own desire for the reading to work.
Anybody who goes to see a medium, or a psychic, clairvoyant, or even a stage performance, actually wants it to work.
If they didn’t want it to work, why would they go in the first place?
The subject is then, subconsciously predisposed to believing the reading. They will actually collaborate by discarding the ‘wrong’ parts themselves and concentrating on the ‘right’ parts, just like the reader does.
The subject’s desire for a successful outcome leads them to build on chance connections and coincidences, and to ignore mismatches, in order to get the result they were hoping for.
Cold reading techniques
The reader will normally begin by trying to elicit cooperation from the subject. It is crucial that the subject is in a receptive frame of mind, and is ready to make connections, and interpret things in a way that will make the reader look as if they do indeed know things about the subject.
The reader will typically enlist the person’s cooperation by saying something like “the messages I receive may be unclear, and they may mean more to you than they do to me, so you may need to help untangle them”.
The reader may do most of the talking, but the meaning is provided by the subject, who is already predisposed to fill in the gaps and make a favourable interpretation
Once the atmosphere of cooperation has been established, the reader will then ask questions or make statements that are likely to be true, so-called ‘Barnum statements‘.
The reader looks for cues such as facial expression, body language, and subtle changes in physiology (skin colour, respiration, pupil dilation etc.), as well as verbal responses, to see if they are on the right track. If they are on the right track, they keep going, and if on the wrong track they drop it instantly and try something else.
Barnum statements, named after American impresario P T Barnum (who incidentally never did say “there’s a sucker born every minute”), are statements that appear to be personal, but in fact apply to many people.
Examples of Barnum statements are:
- “You’ve faced some major difficulties in your life, but you’ve overcome them very well.”
- “You’ve lost somebody close to you. Somebody who meant a lot.”
- “You generally get on very well with people, but there are some people you find challenging.”
These statements, of course, apply to pretty much everybody, but if somebody is already looking out for connections and keen to interpret things favourably, they may appear to resonate with them personally.
The subject’s responses to the Barnum statements give the cold reader further lines of enquiry which they can pursue if promising or drop immediately if they are unproductive.
The Barnum statements give the reader a starting point from which they can tease out further information. By obtaining successive agreements from the subject, the reader is building more trust, and more predisposition to interpret things favourably. This is a technique used in NLP (neuro linguistic programming), which can be used to influence people.
Barnum statements work because of a phenomenon known as the Forer effect.
Forer effect and subjective validation
Subjective validation refers to the tendency of people to rate statements as being highly accurate for them personally even though the statements could apply to many people.
This was demonstrated in 1948 by psychologist Bertram Forer who gave his students a ‘personality test’. He ignored their answers, and gave each student the same personality profile, taken from an astrology column in a newspaper!
The students were then asked to grade how accurate they thought ‘their’ personality profile was.
The average response was ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ — 84% accuracy, even though it actually had nothing to do with them personally!
This tendency is very helpful to the cold reader, and the sitter will be convinced that the accuracy of the reading was due to the powers of the reader, rather than their own willingness to cooperate.
Selective memory is also involved in subjective validation. The sitter will not be able to find meaning in every statement the reader makes, but fortunately, the sitter will usually forget the misses and remember only the hits.
Cold reading v genuine psychics
Although cold reading is a manipulation technique that can be used to give the appearance of divining information about a sitter without actually doing so, that is not to say that all psychics, clairvoyants, and mediums use this technique, or that they are not genuine.
There may well be people who can genuinely channel information from the spirit world, without using these techniques. In fact, there almost certainly are, but they are probably rare.
It is possible for a psychic or medium, to fall for the same psychological traps, and convince themselves that they are receiving specific and accurate messages, when in fact they are just experiencing their own subjective validation.
Cold reading tends to be used in stage shows, entertainment, and illusion, where it is expected that it is all a trick anyway.
References and further reading
Dickson, D. H. and I. W. Kelly. “The ‘Barnum Effect’ in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature,” Psychological Reports
Forer, B. R.. (1949) “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A classroom Demonstration of Gullibility,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology
See our books page for the most popular and recommended books on cold reading.