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The Full Facts book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland

The Full Facts book of Cold Reading

The Full Facts book of Cold Reading

This is the post I had planned to make before I messed up.  As someone with an interest in the various tricks that psychics, mediums, tarot readers and similar use, Ian Brodie’s suggestion that I read this book was welcome.  Ian Rowland is a very clear and concise writer and clearly has a love for his subject.

This book cannot make you into a cold reader any more than a Haynes manual can turn you into a mechanic.  What it does do is to take the reader through the steps that any cold reader takes, consciously or otherwise, in a way designed to make the client believe that the reader has more knowledge than they really do.  This is the essence of cold reading – as the reader you need to convince your client that you somehow know things that you shouldn’t be able to.  Whether you are posing as an intuitive person, a psychic, an astrologer or a tarot card reader or whatever, cold reading gives you a way to draw information out of your client without their knowledge.

Firstly, the one thing that jumped out at me was that Ian Rowland really does not want a discussion on whether psychics are real or not within the book.  He discusses the methodology and mentions that this is one way that a psychic could operate.  He also makes it clear that he does not know whether their are real psychics out there or not.  This is in line with skeptical thinking – just because he has never met one does not mean that one is not out there.  I was annoyed about this at first and felt that he should express an opinion.  However, I then realised that this book (despite the content) is not the forum for that debate and he has neatly sidestepped it.

The book is broken down into 6 sections: the first section is about the book itself, the section is a long section on the theory of cold reading and the elements of it, the third section is transcripts of real readings that Ian Rowland has carried out, the fourth (importantly) explains how to block a cold reader, the fifth is “additional notes” and the sixth section gives details on real life non-psychic uses for the techniques and uses a police interrogation as an example.   It is difficult to express the wealth of ideas that the author has put into a seemingly short book.  Cold reading is easy to learn but tricky to master – look at a John Edwards reading as an example of poor cold reading!

At no time does Ian Rowland talk down to you, he is an able teacher with an obviously high regard for his subject.  According to the transcripts provided he has an extremely high success rate (higher than that of professional psychics!) but at no time does he use his knowledge to make money dishonestly.  Some of Derren Brown’s early work was taken from the techniques laid out in the book.  Something else which is very important: this book does not hold back.  I have read books that promise to give you knowledge and discovered that they do the opposite.  Ian Rowland’s book does exactly what it says on the tin.  He explains the techniques and methods.  The book alone can only give you the methods, to properly make this work you need experience, some acting ability and a lot of seemingly trivial knowledge.

If you are interested in cold reading, whether academically, to learn to spot and block it or because you are an unscrupulous sort who wants to fake psychic ability you should definitely add this book to your library.


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:

What Is Cold Reading?

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!

Further Reading:

Richard Dawkins Interviews Derren Brown

You all know my views on psychics by now, I hope.   The fact that so many people are still taken in by them is a real source of discomfort for me.  Their tricks and scams have been so well publicised that it is a testament to how deluded humans can be that they are still able to practice.

Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous speaker on atheist, anti-religious and sceptical viewpoints out there (though James Randi gives him a great run for his money!).  Derren Brown is a British illusionist who focuses on suggestion and who is guaranteed to entertain.  As someone involved in stage magic he is in an excellent position to notice when someone is running a con or using any one of the usual tricks that psychics use.   With thanks to the nice people at Bad Psychics (the largest sceptical and medium debunking site in the UK) for bringing this to my attention, I bring you the first part of an interview in which Brown and Dawkins discuss the phenomena of psychics, the reasons why people go to them (and why they shouldn’t) and the tricks that psychics use to make you believe in them.  This is an informed interview between two intelligent and experienced men.  Each part is around 10 minutes long and the next part will (or should) load automatically.

The first part is provided free online.  If you would like to support the work Dawkins and other people do, consider purchasing ‘The Enemies of Reason: The Uncut Interviews’ on DVD by clicking on this link.  The video can be seen after the jump:

News on Robert Lancaster

Who he? You may be asking.  Robert Lancaster is the mastermind behind two great sites:

Stop Sylvia Browne!

Stop Sylvia Browne!

StopKaz” and “Stop Sylvia Browne“.  If you read any sceptical sites, particularly the James Randi Educational Foundation site, you will know about him.  Read on and you will discover why the second reference looks like that.

A note on Robert Lancaster: his first site, Stop Kaz, was created to expose the fraudulent activities of one Dr. Kaz deMille-Jacobsen.  To quote the site:

Back in June of 2004, I was visiting my mother at her house, when she started talking about “Dr. Kaz,” a woman who had recently spoken at her church.

My mother was obviously quite impressed with this woman, but the more she told me about “Kaz’s” story, the less believable I found it.

It was quite a story, full of this woman’s supposed connections to celebrity, wealth, a heroic struggle and escape from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, miraculous recovery from injury and disease, all leading to a current humble life of poverty, and spreading a Christian message.

Even before I heard some of the wilder parts of the story, I found it extremely hard to believe. But amazingly (to me), my mother – and evidently her minister and much of her church’s congregation – believed this woman!

Her story was so newsworthy, I felt that if it were true, I would definitely have heard about it on the radio, seen it on the TV news, or read about it on the web somewhere. Wouldn’t I?

Researching “Kaz” on the web, I found frustratingly little out there about her. Finding this to be a huge “red flag,” I continued digging at her claims, and cataloguing the holes and inconsistencies in her story.

This led me to the conclusion that little (if any) of “Kaz’s” story was true. And if I was correct in that conclusion , then she was making money off of the pain, suffering and death of those people who were in the World Trade Center towers on September 11th, 2001.

When I shared my research with my mother, and subsequently with members of her church, one thing struck me: a few of these people, while accepting “Kaz’s” story, had experienced nagging feelings of doubt, and had gone to the web to search for more information about her. When those people found so little information about her there, they didn’t know how to pursue it any further, and just gave up, accepting her story.

Hearing that, I decided to create a web site from all of my findings and questions, so that people searching the web for information on “Kaz” in the future would find it.

It seems that Kaz is still doing the rounds.  He then created the excellent “Stop Sylvia Browne” site, which is where I first came across him.  To explain more about the site, let us once again quote Robert Lancaster:

Over the years, Sylvia Browne has been the focus of a number of skeptical pages on the web, but I don’t think that there has ever before been one site which focused solely on her. The goal of this site is to fill that void by providing a central place where she, her track record and all of her claims are examined and analyzed.

Although I will be approaching the subject from a skeptical viewpoint (the name of the site should show that), I will try to do so in as fair and factual a manner as possible.

Where I state a fact, I will try to back it up with references. Where I state an opinion, I will try to clearly label it as such.

Is she a well-intentioned spiritual leader, with actual psychic powers? Is she a fraud, making money by callously manipulating and using the bereaved? Or is she something else entirely?

This site will attempt to answer these questions.

Recently, and sadly, Robert Lancaster suffered a stroke which put him in hospital and off the web.  His wife has kindly been updating the sceptical community with his progress and I am happy to say that he appears to be healing.  I wish him all the best and hope he is back on his feet and can continue with the sites.

Unfortunately while he was recovering in hospital his domain lapsed and expired.  Obviously renewing a domain name was nowhere on the Lancaster’s radar and so someone else snapped it up.  This person appears to be very pro-woo and so the site will not be put to the use it was originally opened for.  This is not necessarily illegal, though it is morally questionable.  However, it does mean that the site had to be moved to it’s new home.

The sceptical community is not taking this lying down!  The original site was well known and the media knew it was able to make contact with Robert Lancaster through it, so we are helping to publicise the new site in a few ways.  Where we linked to, we are now linking to Stop Sylvia Browne – making sure that the word “Stop” is not in the hyperlink.  This will hopefully drop the old keywords and raise the 2 new ones: “Sylvia” and “Browne”.  I will let this post from Skeptical Software Tools list the rest of the methods.

To follow news on the progress of Robert Lancaster, read this thread on the JREF forums.

Again, I wish him a speedy recovery and all the very best to his family.

Who’d Claim Psychic Powers in 2008?

I have written before about the new law, Consumer Protections from Unfair Trading Regulations 2007, here. I thought it may be of interest if I explain a little about the Act and how it really affects psychics, psychic surgeons (so called), mediums and other purveyors of woo-woo. It really is a great Act and the mainstream news has picked up on it (in this country at least) and it has the purveyors very very nervous.

Firstly, let’s step back a few months. Under the previous act, the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, there was little recourse for anyone who felt cheated by a medium. You see, all any medium has to do is stick “for entertainment purposes only” on their flyer in small print and you have no comeback. This is because the defence simply says that “it’s all a bit of fun and not meant to be taken seriously” and you have no case in law. In fact, a supposed psychic would have to do real harm for any case to be raised against them. You would have to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were maliciously harmed for any case to get anywhere. Fine if you’re only out of pocket a few quid, less so if it harms your mental well-being. A pretty poor state of affairs, I’m sure you’ll agree.

This new Act has far more teeth. It treats the service a medium or psychic provides as exactly that: a service. So now, being in contact with your old Aunt Aggie is treated on the same level as having your windows double-glazed. That is, you are paying someone to give you a concrete service against an agreement and if you don’t receive the service satisfactorily and don’t get a refund, you can turn to the law and say “I paid for service X and didn’t get it and the provider of the service won’t give me satisfaction when I complained“. No legalese required, it’s very very black and white. The business section of The Times Online has an article on this written by the Director of Law for the Open University, Professor Gary Slapper. So now you can see why the sellers of woo-woo are a wee bit nervous.

So how are the mediums fighting back? If you said that they are proving their magical powers in a laboratory setting, you ‘d be very wrong. Very wrong indeed. The mediums and psychics are not trying to prove that they have these powers, instead they are treating this as an attack on their religion. In the UK, the Spiritualist Church is a recognised religion. The mediums and psychics are aiming to have their roles recognised as a part of this church. It’s not a huge religion, the UK has more than 170 different faiths or belief systems. In 2001, some 32,404 people listed Spiritualism as the religion on the census form. That makes Spiritualism the 11th largest religion or belief in the country. They are, though a very very small number; as a reference point there were 144, 453 Buddhists and they made up just 0.3% of the population. But, and this is a big ‘but’, does classifying oneself as a medium automatically make you a member of the Spiritualist Church? Not really, the Spiritualists National Union has joining requirements and it costs you £10 to join (and you agree to sign up to their 7 principles too). And they also have a register of approved Spiritualist healers. I would like to note that the SNU are a little more sensible than most “healers” and they insist that you should only use one of their number alongside your normal doctor. To quote their page:

You should continue to consult you doctor even if you are receiving Spiritual Healing. It may be necessary for you to take certain medication and follow the doctor’s advice for your particular condition. By receiving both medical and Spiritual Healing you will receive the best treatment from both sources. The aim of every SNU Healer is to work in co-operation with the medical profession and not to replace the doctor.

The SNU have asked the Office of Fair Trading to explain the Act in terms of their religion, but don’t yet seem to have an answer. They do appear, though, not to be overly bothered. Or at least are keeping it sensibly low-key while they await the response. They do recognise that by accepting money for their services they are covered by this Act. The have also backed the Act, which puts them firmly in the opposite camp to their fellow travellers. The Spiritualist Workers Association rightly fears the Act and has begun an education campaign to prevent their members from falling foul of it. I quote:

Graham Hewitt explained in great detail, the possible effects the changes in legislation could and would have. Disclaimers were also provided for spiritual workers to use. To try and summarise this in a few words is difficult but it would seem that if any money or gifts change hands the spiritual worker is involved in a contract. As with any contract you are promising something in exchange for money or gifts. Thus the spiritual worker should choose their words carefully. It would seem that saying that it is a scientific experiment in which the outcome cannot be satisfactorily predicted is one way to stay within the legislation. Another is to class it as entertainment. The biggest problem of the regulations is the word ‘vulnerable’. It is extremely difficult to define vulnerability let alone work out whether someone who comes to you for a ‘spiritualistic’ (the government’s term – not ours) service is vulnerable. It could probably be argued that quite a few people who seek healing or mediums are vulnerable. In short, it would seem the changes in legislation are a minefield, not least because of the litigation culture that is now sweeping the UK.

They seem to already be trying to create disclaimers. The SWA, at least as I read the above, says it is difficult for their members to recognise who is vulnerable and who isn’t. I would say that, speaking very broadly, anyone who goes to see a medium following a tragedy is vulnerable. However, I would agree that it is a little unfair to ask a layperson to make the decision as to who is and isn’t vulnerable, especially if they could be held up in a court of law. Which means, to me, that they should stop what they are doing if they can’t prove their powers.

The Act does give the medium a way out though – all they have to do is to make it clear to their customer that this is only a scientific experiment and that there has been no testing of it’s efficacy and they are covered. Effectively, they have to give the paying client the information they need to make an informed decision on whether to go ahead or not. No more saying that they can definitely talk to people dead for over a hundred years (and who would have lived on different continents). No more “native American guides” who seem to speak in the local dialect and with modern slang phrases. Just admit that your powers are not proven and give the person the option to go ahead or not.

So you can see why these people are a little worried.

To read more on the methods these people use – and any half competent magician will be able to replicate their methods – I would direct you to the following sites:

In closing, these people do fleece the unwary.  For almost as long as people have claimed to speak to the dead, there have been right minded individuals who require proof of this talent and who have held them up to these standards of proof.  To date, no one has provided scientific proof of speaking to the deceased in laboratory conditions.