How Cold Reading Works

Ever been to a fortune-teller who sized you up pretty accurately the very first time he met you? Well, the technique he used to make all those apparently correct guesses is known as cold reading. Read ahead to find out all about the art of cold reading and how it works.
Fortune Teller
The best of seers is he who guesses well. ~ Euripides

Indeed! Predicting someone's future or making guesses about the personality and lifestyle of a complete stranger involves more observational skills than spiritual mumbo-jumbo or psychic talent. That's right, I just said it! Now, before my spiritually inclined, occult-loving readers give me the brickbats, let me lift the veil off the art of cold reading - the phenomenon wherein the cold reader uses his/her exceptionally sharp observation skills to evaluate the personality traits and characteristics of his/her subject. They, then, try to make connections between their assessments and the probable life situations that their subjects are likely to be in, based upon these readings. The final verdict or prediction is an assumption which is arrived at by summing up these observations and probabilities based upon such observations. When delivered with unwavering confidence, there is little that an average subject can do to question the accuracy of such a 'prediction' or 'sizing-up' act! The best thing about cold reading is that this is a skill which can easily be learned and perfected over time. Now, wouldn't you want to get to the details of how cold reading works? The following paragraphs will tell you all the 'tricks of the trade' which can be used to learn the 'trade' itself or for merely quenching one's curiosity about the subject.

Cold Reading Laid Bare

Before we get to the techniques, let's get to know cold reading from a closer perspective. Cold reading is a very popular technique used by psychics, fortune-tellers, illusionists, telepaths, etc., to convince their subject that they have him/her all sized up despite not knowing them personally. Remember Sherlock Holmes' inductive method of investigation based upon acute observation of fine details and drawing conclusions therefrom? Well, that is the best example of cold reading in its least flawed form! For instance, by just taking a look at the palms and fingers of a subject, Sherlock Homes could make exact guesses about the latter's health, financial condition, type (sometimes, even brand) of cigar smoked by him, grooming and social habits, hobbies, vices, etc., - all this without being previously acquainted with the subject!

Similar to hypnosis, for a cold reading to be successful, the subject must be cooperative and open to take in suggestions made by the reader. Now, this is where the cold reader's subtle persuasive skills come to play. The reader must, first, ascertain the likelihood of the subject to cooperate. This is done by taking broad and generalized assumptions and stating them to be applicable to the subject. For instance, the reader can test the waters by claiming that the subject hurt himself from a fall and also had accidents around water in his early childhood. As we all know, most people have had accidents around water (near-drowning, slipping on a wet surface, etc.) and have had injuries from falls (such as while climbing trees or tripping down a staircase) in their childhood and this makes such a statement pretty generalized.

There is every possibility that these same things could have happened to the subject as well. Now, if the subject feels that this information pertains to him at that moment readily agrees with the reader's statement, the reader can easily see that more such generalized scenarios and suggestions can be subtly slipped into the subject's psyche. If the reader is skillful enough and the subject is adequately receptive to subtle psychological suggestions, the former can even get the latter to agree with his claims of instances and incidents which may not have happened to the latter at all! In such a situation, the reader has gained so much control over the subject's psyche that the subject believes every reading of himself to be true, whether or not such is the case!

Cold Reading Techniques

Keen observation, generalized statements and skill of drawing conclusions based upon such observations are the three legs that hold up the tripod of cold reading. However, there are a few specific techniques that employ certain other psychosocial elements, along with the basic trio of cold reading, to make this phenomenon more credible. Let's check out what these 'other' specialized techniques are.

Barnum Statements
Also known as 'Forer effect', Barnum statements are generalized statements which are addressed to a specific person in such a way that they seem to pertain specifically to that person. For instance, it is not uncommon for a lot of people to have had problems with friends or relatives at some point of time or the other. However, when cold reading a subject, the reader would say this same thing in a more personal way such as:

I can sense that there has been some friction between you and someone very close to you in the past.

When you think logically, this statement couldn't be any more vague! However, a subject who is unconsciously cooperative and easily accepts subtle psychological suggestions is apt to fall for such gigs and take them personally. This is especially true for subjects who are emotionally distressed and deliberately seek out soothsayers and fortune-tellers to find reasons for, and solutions to, their troubles. When used cleverly and flavored with subtle personalization, a Barnum statement can make even a logically sound person believe that the reader has some psychic gift of intuitive perception. This often causes the subject to open up and divulge more information about himself which the cold reader can take advantage of to make base his assumptions upon. This makes the readings even more credible and such a reading is known as warm reading as there is some personal information about the subject involved, besides observations, which fortify the assumptions and take the predictions closer to accuracy.

The Rainbow Ruse
A rainbow ruse is nothing but a direct suggestion to a subject. Such a statement directly attaches certain characteristics and personality traits, usually contradictory in nature, to the subject. This is a very clever trick because when you tell a subject that he/she has 'a', 'b' and 'c' positive aspects but sometimes, he/she gets caught up in 'd', 'e' and 'f' negative personality traits as well, you can't be totally wrong! You see, a majority of the people who you meet in everyday life fall under the 'gray' category, no one has a completely 'black' or 'white' personality (those few, rare ones who do would never be found anywhere near soothsayers and crystal-gazers!). That being said, it is but natural for a person to be a mixture of both positive and negative personality traits. Take, for instance, the following statement:

You are not the type of person who deliberately picks up a fight; you are even quite forgiving of others' follies. However, when someone breaks your trust or does something unjust to you, you can hold a grudge forever.

Either or both ends of this statement may apply to the subject. However, even if the subject is such that he does, deliberately, pick up fights with people, he would like to believe himself as a forgiving, polite person. Hence, he would gladly accept and agree with the reader's suggestion.

Are you familiar with how a shotgun works? It fires a batch of pellets in very close succession towards the target so that at least a few hit it. This is exactly how shotgunning works as far as cold reading is concerned and it usually works with a large audience. The cold reader throws a number of broad and generalized suggestions towards the audience in the hope that someone or the other would take at least a couple of suggestions and deem those to be applicable to them. This way, almost all suggestions would be applicable to this collective subject which is the audience. Take, for instance, the following statement:

I can sense a broken heart amidst you which still hasn't been able to move on. Also, I can sense a very close relation which has always been there, no matter what the situation... an older woman with whom you may not have agreed in the past, but who has wanted nothing but the best for you.

Now, when you are addressing a large audience, such vague, broad statements are quite likely to apply to more than a couple of people in there! Also, if you notice any kind of pattern in your audience such as age group, social strata, profession, etc., you can customize your shotgunning statements accordingly. For instance, when addressing an audience which mostly comprises middle-aged persons, you may say something like, "I can sense the loss of a father from some ailment in the abdominal region." Many of your middle-aged audience members are likely to have lost their fathers to kidney or liver problems or even diabetes, so they will, instantly, be able to relate to such a statement and become more open to your influence!

So, that was all about cold reading and how it works. As I mentioned before, it is a skill that can be acquired and perfected with practice and just about anyone, with decent observational talents, can learn the tricks of this 'trade'. Even if you do not intend to earn your livelihood from cold reading, you can always try its various techniques on close friends and acquaintances and freak them out! Trust me, it would be fun watching a procession of awestruck expressions on familiar faces!