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!
- Australian Skeptics Guide To Cold Reading
- The Skeptic’s Dictionary: Cold Reading
- Wikipedia on Cold Reading