True cold reading using nonverbal feedback

The techniques described up to this point do not exploit information available through interaction with the client but depend instead on general truths and impression formation by the reader. When feedback is available during the reading, there is the opportunity to further refine these categories using what we have termed "true cold reading" (see Figure 5). This process has been likened by Hyman (1981) to the Clever Hans phenomenon (Sebeok & Rosenthal, 1981; see also Pfungst, 1911) because it exploits subtle behavioural cues emanating from the questioner during the course of the interaction to arrive at an appropriate reading.

It is achieved by forming initial hypotheses about the client which are informed by population stereotypes and environmental cues (as in pigeon holing). Here, however, these hypotheses are tested by introducing each topic (personality characterisation or problem area) in a generalised form and noting the client's behavioural response to its introduction. If it is positive, then the sketch can be elaborated a little further until another choice has to be made and the client is asked to unwittingly provide more feedback which steers the course of the reading. If the response is negative, then the reading is either moderated or the reader may "opt out" back to general categories to try the next one in the listix.

When successful, the true cold reading can follow a tree-like path, from broad trunk to branch to twig as the implicit choices made non-verbally by the client become more esoteric, resulting in end points which give very specific information indeed. And the client will tend to only remember this end point, not the stages which led to it.

Earle (1990a) illustrates the process by using Barnum statements as his starting point, but goes on to provide alternative elaborations according to the feedback he receives. For example, the initial statement "You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others' opinions without satisfactory proof..." is followed after a positive response by "...and the proof has to be on your terms, not just formula and hypothesis. The understanding must come from within", but after a negative response results in the moderator "...you have, however, proven to have an open minded attitude. You are willing to listen to what other people have to say before making your decision". In the study with Davidson, different feedback in two of the readings turned a "holiday" into "just a day out with friends" after negative feedback, but a trip "...outside Europe ... India or Egypt ... don't be surprised if you end up galloping around the pyramids on a camel" when the client expressed interest in the topic.

The decision as to how to proceed depends on an ability to "read" the client's responses to what is being said, exploiting the social conventions that exist for managing a dyadic communication. In normal conversation, the speaker looks intermittently at the listener, especially toward the end of utterances, to determine whether the listener is still interested in what is being said, and to gauge whether the listener wishes to take a turn as speaker (Duncan & Fiske, 1977). The listener reacts to this cue by producing behaviours which indicate essentially whether they are happy for the speaker to continue, whether they wish the speaker to change the topic of conversation, or whether they wish to take a turn as speaker. These behaviours, known as back-channel signals (Wiener et al., 1972), can be expressed through a number of modalities. For example, interest is typically indicated verbally through vocalisations including uh-huh's and similar grunts (Argyle, 1988), facially through smiles (Brunner, 1979), and posturally through head nods, forward or sideways lean and drawing the legs back (Bull, 1987). Negative reactions can be signalled through frowning (Argyle, 1988), lowing the head or turning the head away, as well as adopting characteristics of a closed posture, such as folded arms (Bull, 1987). Pseudopsychics can similarly use these (generally unconscious) responses to gauge the appropriateness of what they are saying. In the pseudopsychic literature, commonly recommended measures indicating acceptance include eye blinks, leaning forward, dilated pupils, slight head nod, blushing. There are fewer signs for negative reactions, possibly since absence of all of the above would be taken as a negative reaction, but the few to be noted in the literature (e.g. Ruthchild, 1981) include slight frowning, folding arms, and looking away.

Many of the cues are quite subtle (e.g. some readers have suggested synchronising breathing patterns with the client so as to be sensitive to changes in that pattern) and their practical utility may be overstated. Jones (1989, pp. 50-74) does offer some interesting suggestions for ways to amplify these signals, including: dropping one's voice to force the client to lean forward, making nonverbal behaviour more apparent; having the client lightly rest the palm of her hand on the back of yours, to be able to utilize a form of muscle reading (also known as Hellstromism or Cumberlandism - see Whaley, 1989). Jones also suggests the use of some props to sensitively monitor clients' reactions: a glass-topped table will allow one to monitor foot movements and to see the client's hands in her lap; swivel chairs which have been treated with water to encourage slight rust will squeak as weight is redistributed; prohibiting audio recording of readings but allowing the client to jot down notes provides a ready-made feedback channel indicating where the hits were, even to the extent that one may be able to read what was written.

There are likely to be considerable differences between individuals in the way they react to true or false statements. This can be overcome by taking measures of what constitutes a positive and/or negative response before the start of the reading-proper by using questions to which the answer is known or will be given without suspicion. Hobrin (1990) uses an introductory patter with questions like "Have you had a reading before?", "Did any of it come true?" etc, which are designed to provide such behavioural benchmarks.

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