Science Tank | Cold Readers: The First Circle of Hell

Science Tank | Cold Readers: The First Circle of Hell

It was 2010 and my father had passed away earlier that year. My usual logic blinded by grief, I did what any standard mourner would do and booked an appointment to see a medium. Walking into her home-cum-spiritual lair, I immediately noticed the tacky abundance of quartz crystals (when will people understand that tectosilicates do not have magical powers, apart from being a good makeshift murder weapon?).

The medium did her darndest to cover all the bases, from mentioning an elderly man in a military uniform (one of my great great uncles possibly?) to telling me that a girl was showing me a rose - too vague and inaccurate. She even went so far as to give a laundry list of all the “ailments” I was currently being niggled by - things like “knee problems”, asthma, tiredness, gout (?) and high blood pressure. In short, all of the common fat people ailments. Amazing! She gave me a list of my “health problems” just by looking at me (and she was STILL wrong, about every single one)!

When we had about 15 minutes left, she asked me if I had any questions. Deciding to give her one more chance, I asked her whether there was any contact from my father. She hadn’t mentioned him yet, probably because it’s not in a cold reader’s best interest to assume parental deaths for anybody under the age of thirty.

Obviously, she began to “get something through” immediately, telling me he loved me very much and was having a beer with an older man (“perhaps your grandfather, or an uncle of his?”). She told me that the older man “liked the odd bet on the horses”. Wow, she absolutely nailed this unidentified relative - I’ve literally never heard of an old man who liked the odd bet on the horses.

Then she went on to tell me that my father was wearing glasses (nope), had a moustache (nope) and seemed cheerful. Clearly she was actually having a spiritual interaction with Ned Flanders.

If nothing else, the $50 I wasted that day was well-spent, because it gave me a stark reminder that death means death.

Unfortunately, too many people out there are susceptible to forking out money to be cold read by people calling themselves ‘clairvoyants’.

Cold reading is a technique that frauds use to convince others that they can communicate with the ‘spirit world’, or that they possess some kind of sixth sense.

Cold readers are at an initial advantage because the type of person that seeks them out is usually in some way vulnerable or dissatisfied with their life. These people ‘want’ to believe the cold reader, so half the battle is already won.

The minute you arrive, you are providing a cold reader with information about yourself. Your age, gender, ethnicity, clothes, your style, the car you parked out the front, your manner of speaking - EVERYTHING will be used by them to present back to you a fairly accurate ‘reading’ of who you are as a person. They will use seemingly-specific statements that really apply to most people, but of course you want to get an authentic experience so you find personal meaning in them. These could be things like “you’re a very warm and kind person, yet at times you can be reserved in communication,” or “you had a fairly happy childhood but often felt misunderstood, or like the black sheep of your family”.

Cold readers will start vague and hone in on certain areas once they receive positive feedback from the sucker in front of them. Often, the person being read gets so involved in their ‘spiritual experience’ that they inadvertently give the cold reader answers without realising it.

“I’m getting a J, a Jenny, or John, or a Jackie, or a Jack…” they will say. The target then excitedly might say, “My grandfather’s middle name was Joe!” and so begins the ‘contact with the spirit’. After the reading, the subject won’t remember that the clairvoyant didn’t actually give the name, they will just enthusiastically tell their friends that the clairvoyant “got my grandfather coming through”.

This is just selective memory coupled with confirmation bias - the subject has filled in the blanks themselves while believing that the information actually came from the psychic. They discard meaningless information, while placing importance on statements that hold meaning for them. The process is successfully complete when the customer has eventually forgotten everything but the ‘true’ pieces of information. Because of this, it’s incredibly hard to convince a person that they have been cold read. A cold reader’s space is set up to try and induce some sort of spiritual or emotional experience for the subject, so trying to convince someone that their experience was not the spiritual enlightenment that they remember is near-on impossible.

So do yourself a favour and don’t get sucked in in the first place!

This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2017.
Posted 1:00pm Sunday 13th August 2017 by Chelle Fitzgerald.