NOTE: Cold reading is a set of techniques used by elders, mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists to determine or express details about another person, often to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does. Without prior knowledge, a practiced cold-reader can quickly obtain a great deal of information by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readings commonly employ high-probability guesses, quickly picking up on signals as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses.
The more a Geronda confesses people, the more developed this practice becomes. The longer a Geronda confesses an individual, the more easier they become to read [not to mention some father confessors keep files of notes on individuals which they briefly scan before they visit the monastery]. Monastics also develop this technique over time, though it will never become as perfected as an elder’s because they do not hear the intimate details of an individual’s private life and secret sins through the sacrament of confession.
The following article is taken from Paranormal Borderlands of Science:
Over twenty years ago I taught a course at Harvard University called “Applications of Social Psychology.” The sort of applications that I covered were the various ways in which people were manipulated. I invited various manipulators to demonstrate their techniques– pitchmen, encyclopedia salesmen, hypnotists, advertising experts, evangelists, confidence men, and a variety of individuals who dealt with personal problems. The techniques which we discussed, especially those concerned with helping people with their personal problems, seem to involve the client’s tendency to find more meaning in any situation than is actually there. Students readily accepted this explanation when it was pointed out to them. But I did not feel that they fully realized just how pervasive and powerful this human tendency to make sense out of nonsense really is.
Consequently, in 1955 I wrote a paper entitled “The Psychological Reading: An Infallible Technique For Winning Admiration and Popularity.” Over the years I have distributed copies of this paper to my students. The paper begins as follows:
So you want to be admired! You want people to seek your company, to talk about you, to praise your talents. This manuscript tells you how to satisfy that want. Herein you will find a sure-fire gimmick for the achievement of fame and popularity. Just follow the advice that I give you, and, even if you are the most incompetent social bungler, you cannot fail to become the life of the party. What is the secret that underlies this infallible system! The secret, my friend, is a simple and obvious one. It has been tried and proven by practitioners since the beginnings of mankind. Here is the gist of the secret: To be popular with your fellow man, tell him what he wants to hear. He wants to hear about himself. So tell him about himself. But [do not tell him] what you know to be true about him.
Oh, no! Never tell him the truth. Rather, tell him what he would like to hear about himself. And there you have it. Simple and obvious, yet so powerful. This manuscript details the way in which you can exploit this golden rule by assuming the role of a character reader.
I will include essentially the same recipe for character reading in this paper that I give to my students. In addition I will bring the material up to date, describe some relevant research, and indicate some theoretical reasons why the technique “works.” My purpose is not to enable you to enhance your personal magnetism, nor is it to increase the number of character readers. I give you these rules for reading character because I want you to experience how the method works. I want you to see what a powerful technique the psychological reading is, how convincing it is to the psychologist and layman alike.
When you see how easy it is to convince a person that you can read his character on sight, you will better appreciate why fortune tellers and psychologists are frequently lulled into placing credence in techniques which have not been validated by acceptable scientific methods. The recent controversy in The Humanist magazine and The Zetetic over the scientific status of astrology probably is irrelevant to the reasons that individuals believe in astrology. Almost without exception. the defenders of astrology with whom I have contact do not refer to the evidence relating to the underlying theory. They are convinced of astrology’s value because it “works.” By this they mean that it supplies them with feedback that “feels right”–that convinces them that the horoscope provides a basis for understanding themselves and ordering their lives. It has personal meaning for them.
Some philosophers distinguish between “persuasion” and “conviction.” The distinction is subtle. But for our purposes we can think of subjective experiences that persuade us that something is so and of logical and scientific procedures that convince, or ought to convince, us that something is or is not so. Quite frequently a scientist commits time and resources toward generating scientific evidence for a proposition because he has already been persuaded, on nonscientific grounds, that the proposition is true. Such intuitive persuasion plays an important motivational role in science as well as in the arts. Pathological science and false beliefs come about when such intuitive persuasion overrides or colors the evidence from objective procedures for establishing conviction.
The field of personality assessment has always been plagued by this confusion between persuasion and conviction. In contrast to intelligence and aptitude tests the scientific validation of personality tests, even under ideal conditions, rarely results in unequivocal or satisfactory results. In fact some of the most widely used personality inventories have repeatedly failed to pass validity checks. One of the reasons for this messy state of affairs is the lack of reliable and objective criteria against which to check the results of an assessment.
But the lack of adequate validation has not prevented the use of, and reliance on, such instruments. Assessment psychologists have always placed more reliance on their instruments than is warranted by the scientific evidence. Both psychologist and client are invariably persuaded by the results that the assessment “works.”
This state of affairs, of course, is even more true when we consider divination systems beyond those of the academic and professional psychologist. Every system be it based on the position of the stars, the pattern of lines in the hand, the shape of the face or skull, the fall of the cards or the dice, the accidents of nature, or the intuitions of a “psychic”–claims its quota of satisfied customers. The client invariably feels satisfied with the results. He is convinced that the reader and the system have penetrated to the core of his “true” self. Such satisfaction on the part of the client also feeds back upon the reader. Even if the reader began his career with little belief in his method, the inevitable reinforcement of persuaded clients increases his confidence in himself and his system. In this way a “vicious circle” is established. The reader and his clients become more and more persuaded that they have hold of a direct pipeline to the “truth.”
The state of affairs in which the evaluation of an assessment instrument depends upon the satisfaction of the client is known as “personal validation.” Personal validation is, for all practical purposes, the major reason for the persistence of divinatory and assessment procedures. If the client is not persuaded, then the system will not survive. Personal validation, of course, is the basis for the acceptance of more than just assessment instruments. The widespread acceptance of myths about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, ghosts, the validity of meditation and consciousness-raising schemes, and a host of other beliefs are based on persuasion through personal validation rather than scientific conviction.
“Cold reading” is a procedure by which a “reader” is able to persuade a client, whom he has never before met, that he knows all about the client’s personality and problems. At one extreme this can be accomplished by delivering a stock spiel, or “psychological reading,” that consists of highly general statements that can fit any individual. A reader who relies on psychological readings will usually have memorized a set of stock spiels. He then can select a reading to deliver which is relatively more appropriate in the general category that the client fits- a young unmarried girl, a senior citizen, and so on. Such an attempt to fit the reading to the client makes the psychological reading a closer approximation to the true cold reading.
The cold reading, at its best, provides the client with a character assessment that is uniquely tailored to fit him or her. The reader begins with the same assumptions that guide the psychological reader who relies on the stock spiel. These assumptions are (1) that we all are basically more alike than different; (2) that our problems are generated by the same major transitions of birth, puberty, work, marriage, children, old age, and death; (3) that, with the exception of curiosity seekers and troublemakers, people come to a character reader because they need someone to listen to their conflicts involving love, money, and health.
The cold reader goes beyond these common denominators by gathering as much additional information about the client as possible. Sometimes such information is obtained in advance of the reading. If the reading is through appointment, the reader can use directories and other sources to gather information. When the client enters the consulting room, an assistant can examine the coat left behind (and often the purse as well) for papers, notes, labels, and other such cues about socioeconomic status, and so on. Most cold readers, however do not need such advance information.
The cold reader basically relies on a good memory and acute observation. The client is carefully studied. The clothing- for example, style, neatness, cost, age- provides a host of cues for helping the reader make shrewd guesses about socioeconomic level, conservatism or extroversion, and other characteristics. The client’s physical features–weight, posture, looks, eyes, and hands provide further cues. The hands are especially revealing to the good reader. The manner of speech, use of grammar, gestures, and eye contact are also good sources. To the good reader the huge amount of information coming from an initial sizing-up of the client greatly narrows the possible categories into which he classifies clients. His knowledge of actual and statistical data about various subcultures in the population already provides him the basis for making an uncanny and strikingly accurate assessment of the client.
But the skilled reader can go much further in particularizing his reading. He wants to zero in as quickly as possible on the precise problem that is bothering the client. On the basis of his initial assessment he makes some tentative hypotheses. He tests these out by beginning his assessment in general terms, touching upon general categories of problems and watching the reaction of the client. If he is on the wrong track the client’s reactions, eye movements, pupillary dilation, other bodily mannerisms—will warn him. When he is on the right track other reactions will tell him so. By watching the client’s reactions as he tests out different hypotheses during his spiel, the good reader quickly hits upon what is bothering the customer and begins to adjust the reading to the situation. By this time, the client has usually been persuaded that the reader, by some uncanny means, has gained insights into the client’s innermost thoughts. His guard is now down. Often he opens up and actually tells the reader, who is also a good listener, the details of his situation. The reader, after a suitable interval, will usually feedback the information that the client has given him in such a way that the client will be further amazed at how much the reader “knows” about him. Invariably the client leaves the reader without realizing that everything he has been told is simply what he himself has unwittingly revealed to the reader.
THE STOCK SPIEL
The preceding paragraphs indicate that the cold reader is a highly skilled and talented individual. And this is true. But what is amazing about this area of human assessment is how successfully even an unskilled and incompetent reader can persuade a client that he has fathomed the client’s true nature. It is probably a tribute to the creativeness of the human mind that a client can, under the right circumstances, make sense out of almost any reading and manage to fit it to his own unique situation. All that is necessary is that the reader make out a plausible case for why the reading ought to fit. The client will do the rest.
You can achieve a surprisingly high degree of success as a character reader even if you merely use a stock spiel which you give to every client. Sundberg (1955), for example, found that if you deliver the following character sketch to a college male, he will usually accept it as a reasonably accurate description of himself:
“You are a person who is very normal in his attitudes, behavior and relationships with people. You get along well without effort. People naturally like you, and you are not overly critical of them or yourself. You are neither overly conventional nor overly individualistic. Your prevailing mood is one of optimism and constructive effort, and you are not troubled by periods of depression, psychosomatic illness or nervous symptoms.”
Sundberg found that the college female will respond with even more pleasure to the following sketch:
“You appear to be a cheerful, well-balanced person. You may have some alternation of happy and unhappy moods, but they are not extreme now. You have few or no problems with your health. You are sociable and mix well with others. You are adaptable to social situations. You tend to be adventurous. Your interests are wide. You are fairly self-confident and usually think clearly.”
Sundberg conducted his study over 20 years ago. But the sketches still work well today. Either will tend to work well with both sexes. More recently, several laboratory studies have had excellent success with the following stock spiel (Snyder and Shenkel 1975)
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and resented. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do nor accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.
Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.
Interestingly enough, the statements in this stock spiel were first used in 1943 by Bertram Forer (1948) in a classroom demonstration of personal validation. He obtained most of them from a newsstand astrology book. Forer’s students, who thought the sketch was uniquely intended for them as a result of a personality test, gave the sketch an average rating of 4.26 on a scale of O (poor) to 5 (perfect). As many as 16 our of his 39 students (41 percent) rated it as a perfect fit to their personality. Only five gave it a rating below 4 (the worst being a rating of 2, meaning “average”). Almost 30 years later students give the same sketch an almost identical rating as a unique description of themselves.
THE TECHNIQUE IN ACTION
The acceptability of the stock spiel depends upon the method and circumstances of its delivery. As we shall later see, laboratory studies have isolated many of the factors that contribute to persuading clients that the sketch is a unique description of themselves. A great deal of the success of the spiel depends upon “setting the stage.” The reader tries to persuade the client that the sketch is tailored especially for him or her. The reader also creates the impression that it is based on a reliable and proven assessment procedure. The way the sketch is delivered and dramatized also helps. And many of the rules that I give for the cold reading also apply to the delivery of the stock spiel.
The stock spiel, when properly delivered, can be quite effective. In fact, with the right combination of circumstances the stock spiel is often accepted as a perfect and unique description by the client. But, in general, one can achieve even greater success as a character analyst if one uses the more flexible technique of the cold reader. In this method one plays a sort of detective role in which one takes on the role of a Sherlock Holmes. (See the “Case of the Cardboard Box” for an excellent example of cold reading.) One observes the jewelry, prices the clothing, evaluates the speech mannerisms, and studies the reactions of the subject. Then whatever information these observations provide is pieced together into a character reading which is aimed more specifically at the particular client.
A good illustration of the cold reader in action occurs in a story told by the well-known magician John Mulholland. The incident took place in the 1930s. A young lady in her late twenties or early thirties visited a character reader. She was wearing expensive jewelry, a wedding band, and a black dress of cheap material. The observant reader noted that she was wearing shoes which were currently being advertised for people with foot trouble. (Pause at this point and imagine that you are the reader; see what you would make of these clues.)
By means of just these observations the reader proceeded to amaze his client with his insights. He assumed that this client came to see him, as did most of his female customers, because of a love or financial problem. The black dress and the wedding band led him to reason that her husband had died recently. The expensive jewelry suggested that she had been financially comfortable during marriage, but the cheap dress indicated that her husband’s death had left her penniless. The therapeutic shoes signified that she was now standing on her feet more than she was used to, implying that she was working to support herself since her husband’s death.
The reader’s shrewdness led him to the following conclusion, which turned out to be correct: The lady had met a man who had proposed to her. She wanted to marry the man to end her economic hardship. But she felt guilty about marrying so soon after her husband’s death. The reader told her what she had come to hear– that it was all right to marry without further delay.
NOTE: The remainder of the 15 page article can be read here: