What Is Hot Reading?

You enter the theatre to hear what the psychic you have come to see can tell the audience.  You’ve paid your entry fee, milled around excitedly in the lobby beforehand and now the lights are dimming.  The psychic gives you the preamble – negative energies interfere with the spirits, no guarantees that your loved one will come through, the spirit world is very different to our own world – when s/he looks at you and says “I’m getting an older lady, a grandmother, she died after complications during a routine operation.  I’m getting a pain in the muscles of my stomach … I want to say “hernia”, does that sound familiar to you?”  Quite rightly you are amazed – no questions have been asked, you are one face in a hundred.  How on earth could the psychic know this?  Could their powers be real?

We have looked at cold reading and Forer Statements previously, but these are not the only weapons in the psychics arsenal.  Hot Reading is a very effective tool, especially when used alongside cold reading.  In some ways, it is a very obvious con but it uses the selective memory and need for positive reinforcement that we all have.  The likelihood of this is that while you were happily milling around in the lobby of the theatre, you engaged in conversation with a friendly person.  They would have elicited, either directly or indirectly, who you wanted to hear from and what happened to them and they would have recorded it or written it down, known where you were sitting and passed that onto the psychic.  Having a close relative die of something unusual is great (for them) because it’s memorable and not easily guessed at – if they can get that information from the “spirit world” surely they must be real.  Once you are hooked via hot reading, they can switch to cold reading in the safe knowledge that you are on their side and won’t question their methods.

This is used to best effect by faith healers.  In a very well known episode, noted sceptic James Randi put a small team together to work out how famous faith healer Peter Popoff did what he did.  By chance, one of the team happened to tune into the same frequency that was being used by Popoff’s wife to transmit details of the audiences ailments.  You can view the action here on YouTube.  What Popoff did was reprehensible, he took people, many of whom were terminally ill, and he convinced them that he had the power of God flowing through him and with this could diagnose and cure their illnesses.  Many of these people stopped their regular medications and treatments and subsequently died.  When someone asks “What’s the harm in doing these fake sessions?” remind them of Popoff. In the meantime, Popoff and similar fraudsters have moved onto another town or city and never have to be confronted with the harm they have caused.

This is harder to defend against than cold reading as gaining prior knowledge can be done in many ways: they can question you directly, they can ask your friends and family in “normal” conversation or other sessions, they may see inside your home and get an idea of your tastes, likes and dislikes, or if you are famous enough just hit you up on Google.  However, you are now aware of more of the tools of the trade and you should be able to notice when these things are being used against you – particularly if their investigations throws up incorrect information.

Further Reading:


Posted on 13 January, 2009, in Skeptical Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. Wow! In the past I though these “evangelists” are really helping people because faith is a powerful thing. But for these people like Popoff to get into this just for the money? It’s sickening.

    I pity the old, and the crippled, and the sick, and those in trouble, looking to find solution to their problems by going to see faith healers such as Popoff. 😦 It’s just so sad.

    Good thing there are people like James Randi taking steps to expose these frauds.

    By the way, another good post Ray. Keep it up.

  2. This is like that movie where the star is a faith healer and a woman accomplice meets people and finds out about them and then relays the information to the faith healer by radio. This movie may have been based on Popoff’s life?
    If is amazing how adept these “psychics” are at reading us and determining what we want to hear. We play right into there game because we want and need to know answers that are unknowable. Thanks for this post.

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  3. Fraud is fraud, whether you drag religion in to it or otherwise.

    On the other hand, I do believe that there are a very very small fraction of genuine mind-readers out there in the world. It’s quite real, but extremely rare and such people usually are very media-shy and very focussed on their own talents.

    hari´s last blog post..FOSS video software for all your needs

    • I would have to suggest you look on YouTube or similar for videos of Derren Brown. He is frighteningly accurate in his mind reading act – the difference is that he is an entertainer and doesn’t try to be anything else. I do not necessarily disbelieve the claim that some people can read minds, however I would have to see it for myself and be unable to explain it away before I could accept it.

  4. Hot reading is like exploiting social engineering techniques. If those conmen were to get the information indirectly, then I’d say it’s next to privacy breach.

    od´s last blog post..I’m writing this because it doesn’t feel right if I don’t.

  5. Interesting article, i guess i knew what hot reading was, but i didn’t know it was called hot reading. I hate when i see faith shows on sunday yelling and screaming, trying to brainwash people. good post.

  6. Wow. Really nice article. I like the contrast with your previous post. Thanks for the info.

  7. True. That’s pretty reprehensible. It’s a straight out con, and they’re playing with people’s lives for the sake of money. 😦

  8. One particularly reprehensible technique was that “psychics” would circulate details of regular clients to each other so that if a regular was visiting another town they would be amazed at how much a psychic they’d never met could tell about them from simply their palm or whatever – thus locking them further into a cycle of dependency.


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  9. As a previous commenter has said – its a con. Fraud, plain and simple. And this type of fraud exploits the vulnerable. It is totally reprehensible.

  10. This is so sad. I hate it when people get ripped off like this. The scary part is that it is not new and yet people continue to believe in this garbage and get ripped off.

  11. Hot Reading is a very effective tool, as you described in Popoff’s case. It is especially effective when used alongside cold reading. I am happy that people like James Randi makes the effort to expose those Frauds. Thank for the post.

  12. This is an extremely useful technique in all sorts of negotiations, assuming you master it. Too bad some people take advantage over the gullible, but I guess that’s how the world works, eh ?

  13. This is fraud! I am amazed to know that these guys walk away causing so much harm to people and playing with their beliefs.

    • Unfortunately, while not ethical, it is legal. They usually have a “for entertainment purposes only” note on the publicity to avoid being sued.

  14. They are frauds, and often they can lead people toward unmeant harms. I guess such practices should be more restricted.

    • they definitely should be. Unfortunately, at least in the UK, the medium can claim to be part of the Spiritualist Church and then we get into the whole religious freedom schtick. The “What’s the Harm” website does a great job of documenting the outcomes from going to a variety of people – mediums, new age healers and so on. It’s frightening reading.

  15. Always beware

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  16. I am pretty new to all this stuff and to your blog as well. I think it will take some time for me to be familiar with all this. Anyways I believe in a lot of stuff which other simply think superstitious. Perhaps it is in our nature to be attracted but we always reluctant to express our thoughts.

    • Belief in things is fine if it doesn’t hurt you. Too many people forego proper medical treatment or counselling because there’s a local wise wo/man or psychic healer who can do things non-invasively or by channelling a dead person. All I ask that you do is to look at things with a clear head: if the psychic channels someone who lived 300 years ago, why do they talk in modern slang? How come Einstein always seems to have an english or american accent when he comes through.

      Don’t allow yourself to be fooled.

  17. Hot reading is definitely more effective than cold reading, and by using the two together you can be quite convincing to someone who doesn’t understand what is going on.

  18. I did not know about Popoff, how sad for those people to have stopped their medications. Wish there was a way to get the guy behind bars.

    • Not really that weird. Just a lot of guessing, sounding ambiguos and acting very very confident. People who'd be willing to belive you in the first place will fall for that instantly.

  19. I heard about it while watching the Mentalist for the first time. The show is mediocore to be honest but the whole technique seems amazing for scamming and tricking people.

  20. apparently Peter Popoff doesn't have a conscious

  21. These type scams are prevailing in India too. Though it is good to use this method for healing, people are spinning money out of it by indulging in fraud acts. Simon

  22. I guess he doesn't have a conscious.. Thanks for the post! Great info!

  23. A “Hot” reading is one that is done beforehand, giving the psychic foreknowledge that he or she pretends not to have. An accomplice visiting a home and observing the homeowner to have small owl figurines prominently displayed will relay this information to the psychic, who may then make a statement to the target like, “I get the feeling you like birds…especially nocturnal birds.” The target will be amazed and likely cop to the truth, “Yes! I love owls!” The psychic has now been validated as far as the target is concerned as having mystic powers.

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