What Is Cold Reading?

I’ve been pretty lax in my posting.  Back in 2007, I posted about the Forer Effect and had every intention of following it up.  Now you know why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions!  To rectify that, let’s talk about cold reading.

With the Forer (or Barnum) Effect, we saw how making generalised, non-specific statements can both apply to anyone and be used by anyone.  People are always happy to believe nice things about themselves and to completely ignore the things that don’t apply.  Something to remember about these fraudsters is that none of their methods is used in isolation – they couple Barnum Statements, Cold reading and Hot Reading together to make the “mark” believe that they have special powers.  Cold Reading is especially effective in a group setting, with one psychic and a large audience.  In fact, the bigger the audience the better this works.

So what is cold reading?  In short, it is a method where the questioner makes vague statements and asks open questions to the mark to get the person to provide information.  At the same time, they make it seem as though they knew this already and thus reinforce their powers in the mind of the believer.  Worryingly, this even works on pre-recorded shows that can be taped by the home viewer and seen over and over again.  You would have thought that this would stop the phenomena, but it doesn’t.  The joy of being human, I guess.

Most psychics will start their show with a caveat.  They will say something like “I can’t guarantee what will come through or whether what comes through will apply to you.  I don’t know where my powers come from or whether they will even work.  If you don’t receive an answer this could be for any number of reasons”.  If they do wash out completely, it’s not their fault, it’s yours for either not believing hard enough (“negative energy”) or just because you’re too dense to realise that you’re being given the correct answers.  I may use this to become a mechanic, I will say “your car may get repaired, but I can’t guarantee it.  If it doesn’t work it’s because you didn’t diagnose the fault correctly.  I may even fix something else entirely.  That’ll be £500 please.”

Typically, the psychic will say “I get the strong feeling that someone here has lost a woman; a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister.  An older woman.”  And they will gesture to an area of the audience.  So, you the individual reader, cast your mind through a list of every woman you have ever known.  Are they all still alive?  If so, you will not be featured in the show.  So, someone puts up their hand.  Likelihood is that a good number of people will put up their hands.  The psychic will look at these people and make a decision about how to narrow down the choice.

Let’s say they decide that the person has lost their mother.  This will be done by looking at the ages of the people – if they are older, that is a very likely choice.  So they will say “You have lost a mother; an older woman; a mother-like figure.”  A small number of people will lower their hands, the remainder will be even more hopeful.  “I’m getting chest pains – the heart or lungs, possibly lower in the stomach area.”  Guess which areas make up the largest number of defects leading to death?  If you guessed chest and stomach you’d be right.  In fact, broadly speaking, the heart stopping beating is what causes death – no matter what illness you have, your heart will stop beating.

That statement has culled accidental deaths and car crashes and any other difficult to guess illnesses or accidents.  So let’s say that leaves 10 people.  Now the psychic can get it down to one person (though the rest can be kept in reserve in case they need to go back to them).  “I’m getting an older woman with a heart or chest problem.  I’m getting E, L, R or S.”  The psychic will keep looking to see who nods their head, someone will pick up on at least one of those letters – remember that they haven’t specified what those letters may signify: first name, last name, town or title.  We see an older lady who seems to be happiest with the letter ‘S’.  So the psychic can say “I’m getting drawn to this lady who lost a mother called, and I want to say, Sally, Susie, Sarah” and the lady will say “Yes of course, my mother died of a heart attack 20 years ago and her name was Susannah”  the psychic will respond “Yes, that’s correct, a heart problem”.

The mark will be amazed – he correctly guessed that her mother, called Susannah, died of a heart attack.  The psychic correctly pulled her out of 500 hundred people nd put her in touch with her mother.  But let’s look at what actually was said, shall we:

  • I get the strong feeling that someone here has lost a woman; a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister.  An older woman.
  • I’m getting chest pains – the heart or lungs, possibly lower in the stomach area.
  • I’m getting an older woman with a heart or chest problem.  I’m getting E, L, R or S.
  • I’m getting drawn to this lady who lost a mother called, and I want to say, Sally, Susie, Sarah
  • Yes, that’s correct, a heart problem

Now this is a crude way of putting it, the psychic may well have a bunch of guesses and questions, but that is in shorthand the way these things tend to go.  The best way for you to test a psychic is to not respond to the questions and ask the psychic to tell you rather than ask you.  As you will see, they will very quickly give up.  As an illustration of this, please read these two posts from Simon Perry when he went to see Joanne Jordan and Pamella Blaby – there are some revealing mp3 files to have a listen to.

To close, cold reading is easy to spot if you know what to look for and go in forewarned.  The psychic will ask a lot of questions, mostly very open and you will be required to provide the answers.  These answers will then be fed back to you as if the psychic were providing them.  If you don’t believe this is happening, take a look on YouTube for John Edwards videos and other psychcs.  Compare them side by side and look at what they do and how they do it.  It will be very revealing to you!

Further Reading:


Posted on 4 January, 2009, in Skeptical Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 42 Comments.

  1. Cold reading is popular in many ways today (even in TV shows). I see many people who believes in it. I used to be unsure about it, but after I read about the Forer Effect, I stopped believing in it completely. Thank you for this great post.

  2. In attempt to con my cousin, a man approached her and said, “I know your family is having a problem..”

    Bollocks. Seriously, who doesn’t have one?

    od´s last blog post..Happy New Year everyone!!!

  3. And that’s why it works. If you hold a spiritualist/medium session, you are absolutely guaranteed that most of the audience will have recently lost someone. Put in a few vague guesses and very open ended questions and the audience will believe in your powers. Because humans prefer to think in positive terms, we forget all the misses and incorrect responses and come away believing the medium is 100% accurate and genuine.

    Ray´s last blog post..What Is Cold Reading?

  4. This was really and interesting post. I have seen these psychics work before and it is amazing how they can manipulate the audience to get the answers they want. If you are not aware of what is happening it is easy to think the psychic has a power. I guess we want to believe and for some reason that is hardwired in us.
    They us a lot of probabilities as you said. It reminds me of a statistics class I took once. We were amazed that the professor guessed there would be two people with the same birthday. Well in a group of people of that size you are statistically assured that two will share a birthday.
    No magic, just science.

  5. Cold reading can absolutely be used as part of a con, as you outline well. I think it can also be used for good, especially when speaking with some one you’ve just met. Asking open questions, actively trying to get information from another person, is also part of being a good conversationalist.

    Spot@best blu-ray players´s last blog post..Play Music, Wirelessly, Throughout Your House

  6. Con men of all types use similar techniques. As long as there are vulnerable, desperate, gullible people there will be cynical people ready to exploit them.

    Lbug@Make Money Be Happy´s last blog post..Big stack of dollars $$$

  7. I like refereeing to people as the mark. I imagine this technique works well by playing the percentages and reading people’s body language.

  8. Indeed. In a way, perhaps the person pretending to have psychic powers is helped by the fact that people who go to the show are precisely looking and wanting to somehow feel a connection with a lost loved on. So they want to believe. It’s rather sad really that there is someone looking to take advantage of people like that.

    Neil@Michael´s last blog post..Michael Bartul

  9. So that’s what it’s called. I happened to watch a TV show with a “psychic” like that as the host. Back then, I am sure that the psychic cannot really know these things unless they have planted some people in the audience. But now, I know better thanks to this post. 😀

    • TV psychics have another trick in their arsenal – editing. James Randi once went to see a famous psychic’s TV show and everyone said how accurate the guy was. Randi counted some 30-40 guesses from the psychic before he gained a hit!

      • As can be expected. Looks like the guy is not as perfect “As Seen on TV”. 😀

        • Yep – I would always advise anyone going to see one of these people to take a recorder so they can listen back to the session when they aren’t so pushed and to see what they’ve paid for.

  10. Thanks for the info on cold reading. This post was very informative and interesting. Keep it up.

  11. I don’t understand why people want to make their living deceiving others, I know a lot of people make it easy for them but that’s no excuse. With all the time and effort they put in to learning this deception they could make a good honest living.

  12. I always thought that the theory of probability explains all that shows…
    But I've never heard about cold reading or Forer's effect. Thanks for interesting info.

  13. I really did not have so much of an idea of the Forer effect. Cold reading really did not seem so interesting till now! Very informative post. Thanks!

  14. Being able to read peoples’ psychology and body language plays a big part. Very interesting information!

  15. “In short, it is a method where the questioner makes vague statements and asks open questions to the mark to get the person to provide information. At the same time, they make it seem as though they knew this already and thus reinforce their powers in the mind of the believer.”

    This reminds me a little bit of the Socratic method. It does seem as though the questions are loaded.

    Dara´s last blog post..All Time Best

    • It’s easy to do and relatively simple to do well. We all do it to an extent: you see a big burly unshaven man coming towards you with paint splattered clothes – your first assumption is likely that he is a painter and decorator and from there you can extrapolate various things about him: his daily routine, his home life and so on. You could be entirely wrong – he may be an artist or may just be painting his outside wall, but most of the time you will be right. Just remember that you don’t need to be spot on – you could suggest that he lives in a terraced house in a quiet area (if he’s self employed it’s likely that he will be comfortable but not well off). As long as your guesses seem reasonable based on what you can see, you will be right more times than wrong.

      Just make sure you don’t try to be too specific and he’ll fill in the gaps himself. This is also why large audiences are great for these people, say something, point to the side of the audience and say you’re seeing that this relates to a woman – the audience will select themselves almost every time.

  16. Interesting, so you’re saying that its a good way for charlatans to get attention and make themselves look magical?

    • Exactly. The fact is that if you go to 3 different psychics you will get 3 different stories. As well, look at the insights the dead tend to give: you need to recarpet, get a plumber in and so on. Logically speaking, if you died and suddenly had the opportunity to speak to your loved ones would you concentrate on home improvement or on something else?

  17. Wow, fascinating read as I never realized how easy it is for an expert to garner so much information with so little effort and then expound on that once the mark is convinced it’s the real deal. This type of con goes way way back to be sure.

    • Sadly, the “psychic” doesn’t have to do much convincing as the audience are all true believers and have made that initial step for themselves. All the psychic has to do is to build on that.

  18. You should check out Ian Rowland’s book: The Full Facts on Cold Reading – probably the most comprehensive guide to the various cold reading techniques available. Difficult to get hold of a copy – but should be possible on ebay.


    Ian Brodie´s last blog post..Business Development North West 2009 Survey Launched

    • Thanks for that recommendation – I just ordered it via his site (good old Google Checkout!)

      • Update on this – Google Checkout wrote to me to say that the book has been shipped!! I ordered it at around 0230hours this morning and it is shipping! So I can expect it either Monday or Tuesday. Now that is absolutely awesome customer service.

        http://www.ianrowland.com/HowToOrder/HowToOrderPage1.html is the page you need. At the moment he is only accepting Google Checkout for ordering. On the other hand, £27.28 including post and packing is a very good price for a reference book like this,

        • Replying to my own post 🙂 The book arrived today. 2 days after I ordered it (bearing in mind I ordered it at a stupid time of the night on a Sunday!! That is excellent service – especially since the website appears abandoned with some parts being 2 years old.

          If you ever read this, thank you Ian Rowland. Once I’ve cleared my book backlog and returned them to the library, I’ll be sitting down with this one and will write a review. And Ian Brodie will be credited for turning me onto this book.

  19. Ian’s a funny guy. For a while he didn’t accept any orders from France! (I think because of problems with the postal service over there rather than any dislike of the French).


    Ian Brodie´s last blog post..Business Development North West 2009 Survey Launched

  20. PS – You might want to read his dissection of a couple of John Edward shows he was sent to analyse for a Rolling Stone article: http://www.ianrowland.com/TheVault/JohnEdward1.html



    Ian Brodie´s last blog post..Business Development North West 2009 Survey Launched

    • That was a great link – thanks for that. John Edwards, from a skeptic’s point of view, is pretty laughable. I have seen articles on Randi that say they can’t understand how someone with such a poor concentration of even near hits can be so popular. All down to seeing what you want to see I guess….

  21. Thanks for the information about Cold Reading. I do appreciate it. Thank you so much for the link.

  22. I’ve watched that show on TV before (I think its John Edwards, but not certain) and I sit there in disbelief because I think I could do it. I’ve also heard that they have people that talk to the audience while they’re waiting in line or something and just ask what seem like general friendly standing in line waiting for someone together questions – but really they’re finding out who you’re hoping to hear from and what their story is. Obviously I have no proof of that, but its an interesting rumor.

    Anyways, I agree, let the psychic tell you instead of you tell them 🙂

    • John Edwards (of Crossing Over with John Edwards) is a notorious cold reader. The second part you describe is Hot Reading, about which I have also posted.

  23. If there truly is something like psychic powers, or ‘healings’, these people will have a never-ending battle to prove they’re genuine. So many imposters out there trying to make money using techniques similar to the above.

    Theo@website design´s last blog post..Browser Statistieken van 2008

    • If there are any “genuine” psychics out there, there is a really easy way for them to prove their powers to the world and make $1,000,000 – take the JREF Million Dollar Challenge.

      Ray´s last blog post..Proper Snow At Last

  24. “Cold Reading” is a known acting tecnique here in Los Angeles. It is quite a common term – it means rehearshing a script for only a few minutes and then immediatley performing the scene.


    Michael-John Wolfe

    Michael-John Wolfe´s last blog post..Residuals and Royalties Introduction Video

  25. Thanks a lot for letting us know about the Cold Reading. Thanks for the great share.

  26. I remember learning about this on South Park; Stan and Kyle found a book called “Cold Reading” in the home of John Edward. I remember that show, Crossing Over with John Edward. It really was the epitomy of cold reading.

    Justin@Airsoft Rifles´s last blog post..Ambidextrous Airsoft Shoulder Holster

  27. cold reading is indeed a clever art, although i think the name makes it sound quite sinister! really it's listen and watching people perhaps more closely than you usually would!

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