Cold reading strategies

Master Mentalism and Magic Tricks

Revelation Effect Mentalism and Mind Reading

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Chris A. Roe Psychology Division, University College Northampton 1. Introduction

There can be little doubt that the relatively high levels of belief in paranormal phenomena among members of the general population are due in part to impressive experiences which they were unable, after consideration, to account for in terms of more mundane processes (cf. Schmeidler, 1985). Irwin (1985), for example, reports personal experience to be the primary factor loading on belief, irrespective of the breadth of the measure. One potentially important source of impressive experiences is through interactions with professional psychics such as palmists and Tarot readers (Schouten, 1993), and a number of sceptical commentators have claimed (without citing particular empirical evidence) that clients are typically impressed with the content of readings they have solicited (Dutton, 1988; French et al.. 1991; Hyman, 1989).

Indeed there does seem to be some support for the claim that psychic readings are well-regarded by consumers (e.g. Haraldsson, 1985; Palmer, 1979). One recent survey (Roe, 1997) found that a surprisingly high proportion (29.5%) of the sampled population had attended a reading at some time. Although some of these clients had attended only for entertainment or other social reasons, their readings were nevertheless typically regarded as relatively accurate and specific, with 50% of attendees believing the experience to be of some value to them. This picture contrasts quite sharply with research investigating professional psychic readers, which provides little experimental evidence to support the view that they have paranormal access to information about their clients. In the most recent and most extensive review of quantitative studies evaluating material produced during ostensibly psychic readings, Schouten (1994) concluded that "there is little reason to expect mediums more often to make correct statements about matters unknown at the time than ... can be expected by chance" (p. 221)"

How can these findings be reconciled? Often, successes by psychics have been explained not as a consequence of psychic ability, but in terms of the exploitation of common (but subtle) channels of communication using what has been termed "cold reading" (e.g. Schwartz, 1978; Randi, 1981). The concept is not new; Whaley (1989) for example describes it as "Originally the argot of psychic mediums by 1924 ... from the fact that the customer walks in 'cold' - previously unknown to the fortune-teller" (p.173), and the stratagem was probably first hinted at in the writings of Conan Doyle through the instant face-to-face deductions of Sherlock Holmes, published from 1887.

A more recent definition of cold reading, taken from Ray Hyman's classic account of the effect, describes it as "a procedure by which a 'reader' is able to persuade a client whom he has never met before that he knows all about the client's personality and problems" (Hyman, 1977: 20). Unfortunately, this does not give us much insight into the actual process of cold reading, and a perhaps more useful operational definition is given elsewhere by Hyman:

The cold reading employs the dynamics of the dyadic relationship between psychic and client to develop a sketch that is tailored to the client. The reader employs shrewd observation, nonverbal and verbal feedback from the client, and the client's active cooperation to create a description that the client is sure penetrates to the core of his or her psyche. (1981, p. 428)

In practice, the techniques identified as examples of cold reading can vary in form from case to case; from a simple reliance on using statements which are true of most people (Dutton, 1988) through to a broader definition which includes pre-session information gathering about a clientiii iv (Hyman, 1977; Couttie, 1988). Techniques such as 'fishing' (to be described later) are regarded as central to some accounts (e.g. Randi, 1981) but as separate, supplementary methods by others (Whaley, 1989). There is a real danger that overliberal and inconsistent application of the term will cause it to lose any explanatory power it has.

There are also clear indications that the cold reading 'process' actually consists of a number of discrete and independent strategies. Hyman (1981) hints at this when he distinguishes between two 'types' of reading - static and dynamic - which exploit quite different psychological mechanisms. The former makes use of commonalities between clients to allow the reader to launch into a stock spiel which should apply equally well to all, whereas the latter depends upon interaction with the client to generate material which is more tailor-made to his or her specific circumstances. An initial attempt will be made here to identify and characterise the actual techniques brought to bear in cold reading, and to specify their interrelationships. The model which has been developed is informed by two sources:

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