Sceptic Schism | Issue 10

Sceptic Schism | Issue 10

Cold Reading

You are the kind of person who can go to a party and feel great, have fun and talk to lots of people. But when you get home and you go over the things that you said, you suddenly regret how you were behaving. You keep people a little bit at bay when you are first getting to know them, but if you allow them to get close to you, then you are a loyal friend and are very hurt if that friendship is betrayed. You have a creative pursuit you have never properly realised, and you regret not pursuing it more.

These are “Barnum statements”, designed to relate to almost everyone who reads them while also appearing quite specific in their assessment of your character. They are one of the tricks used in “cold reading”, a method by which a complete stranger can seemingly tell you everything about yourself without being psychic and without any prior knowledge of what you are like. A skilled cold reader will make it seem as though the meaning is coming from their words and not from you. Many will quickly fire a string of words at the sitter so that they only have time to process the ones that apply to them personally, while forgetting the others. Another technique a cold reader will use is to ask a question such as “have you been eating a lot of vegetables?”, to which both a “yes” or a “no” can seem like a hit and will give the reader more information to work with.

Cold-reading techniques are used by illusionists and mentalists during “mind-reading” tricks, and also by tarot readers, palm readers, psychics and mediums who claim to be able to gain knowledge about living strangers and even their dead loved ones by supernatural means.

Natural intuition and skill at analysing the character of strangers based on their appearance and body language can be so finely tuned as to seem like paranormal phenomena. If you are young, you are probably wondering what you should be doing with your life or are having relationship problems. If you are old, you may be wanting to talk to your dead parents or spouse. If you are dressed like a uni student, you may have money problems. All of these things can be extrapolated and used in the cold-reading process. 

Some people may use these techniques unconsciously and really believe they have psychic powers. But many will cynically exploit vulnerable, grieving people for their money, knowing full well that they are adopting ancient techniques of cheap magic tricks to fool people into thinking they have second sight. 

This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2015.
Posted 2:20pm Sunday 3rd May 2015 by Wee Doubt.