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How Cold Reading Works

Ishani Chatterjee Shukla
Ever been to a fortune-teller who sized you up pretty accurately the very first time he met you? Well, the technique he used to make all those apparently correct guesses is known as cold reading. Read ahead to find out all about the art of cold reading and how it works.
The best of seers is he who guesses well. - Euripides

Indeed! Predicting someone's future or making guesses about the personality and lifestyle of a complete stranger involves more observational skills than spiritual mumbo-jumbo or psychic talent. That's right, I just said it!
Now, before my spiritually inclined, occult-loving readers give me the brickbats, let me lift the veil off the art of cold reading - the phenomenon wherein the cold reader uses his/her exceptionally sharp observation skills to evaluate the personality traits and characteristics of his/her subject.
They then try to make connections between their assessments and the probable life situations that their subjects are likely to be in, based upon the readings. The final verdict or prediction is an assumption arrived at by summing up these observations and probabilities based upon such observations.
When delivered with unwavering confidence, there is little that an average subject can do to question the accuracy of such a 'prediction' or 'sizing-up' act! The best thing about cold reading is that this is a skill which can easily be learned and perfected over time. Now, wouldn't you want to get to the details of how cold reading works?
These paragraphs will tell you all the 'tricks of the trade' which can be used to learn the 'trade' itself or for merely quenching one's curiosity about the subject.

Cold Reading Laid Bare

Before we get to the techniques, let's get to know cold reading from a closer perspective. Cold reading is a very popular technique used by psychics, fortune-tellers, illusionists, telepaths, etc., to convince their subject that they have him/her all sized up despite not knowing them personally.
Remember Sherlock Holmes' inductive method of investigation based upon acute observation of fine details and drawing conclusions therefrom? That is the best example of cold reading in its least flawed form!
For instance, by just looking at the palms and fingers of a subject, he could make exact guesses about the latter's health, financial condition, type (sometimes, even brand) of cigar smoked by him, grooming and social habits, hobbies, vices, etc., - all this without being previously acquainted with the subject!
Like hypnosis, for cold reading to be successful, the subject must be cooperative and open to take suggestions made by reader. Here the cold reader's subtle persuasive skills come to play. The reader must first decide the likelihood of the subject to cooperate. He does it by broad and generalized assumptions and stating them as applicable to the subject.
For instance, the reader can test waters by saying that the subject hurt himself from a fall and had accidents around water in his childhood. As we know, most people have had accidents near water (near-drowning, slipping on wet surface) and injuries (while climbing trees or tripping down stairs) in their childhood. This makes such a statement general.
There is every possibility that these same things could have happened to the subject as well. Now, if the subject feels that this information pertains to him at that moment readily agrees with the reader's statement, the reader can easily see that more such generalized scenarios and suggestions can be subtly slipped into the subject's psyche.
If reader is skillful and the subject is adequately receptive to subtle psychological suggestions, the former can get the latter to agree with his claims of instances or incidents which may not have happened at all! Thus, the reader has gained so much control over the subject's psyche that subject believes every reading as true, whether or not the case!

Cold Reading Techniques

Keen observation, generalized statements and skill of drawing conclusions based on such observations are the three legs that hold the tripod of cold reading. There are a few specific techniques that employ certain other psychosocial elements, along with the basic trio of cold reading, to make the phenomenon more credible. Let's see what these methods are.

Barnum Statements

Also called 'Forer effect',these are generalized statements addressed to a person such that they seem to pertain specifically to that person. For instance, it is not uncommon for a lot of people to have had problems with friends or relatives at some point of time.
Still, when cold reading, the reader would say this as:
" I can sense there has been some friction between you and someone very close in the past."

If you think logically, this statement couldn't be any more vague! However, a subject unconsciously cooperative and easily accepts subtle psychological suggestions is apt to fall for these and take them personally.
This is especially true for subjects, emotionally distressed and deliberately seek out soothsayers and fortune-tellers to find reasons and solutions to their troubles. When used cleverly and flavored with subtle personalization, a Barnum statement can make even a logically sound person believe that the reader has some psychic gift of intuitive perception.
This often causes the subject to open up and give more information which the cold reader can take advantage of to base his assumptions on. This makes the readings more credible and is known as warm reading as there is some personal information about the subject involved, besides observations, which fortify the assumptions and make the predictions accurate.

The Rainbow Ruse

A rainbow ruse is nothing but a direct suggestion to a subject. Such a statement directly attaches certain characteristics and personality traits, usually contradictory in nature, to the subject.
This is a very clever trick because when you tell a subject that he/she has 'a', 'b' and 'c' positive aspects but sometimes, he/she gets caught up in 'd', 'e' and 'f' negative personality traits as well, you can't be totally wrong!
Most people you meet everyday fall under the 'gray' category, no one has a completely 'black' or 'white' personality (the rare ones would never be found anywhere near soothsayers and crystal-gazers!). That being said, it is but natural for a person to be a mixture of both positive and negative personality traits. Take the following statement:
I can sense a broken heart amidst you which still hasn't been able to move on. Also, I can sense a very close relation which has always been there, no matter what the situation... an older woman with whom you may not have agreed in the past, but who has wanted nothing but the best for you.
When you address a big audience, such broad statements are do apply to more people! If you see any pattern in the audience as age group, social strata, profession, etc., you can customize your shotgunning statements accordingly. Like, if addressing an audience comprising middle-aged persons, you may say, "I can sense the loss of a father from some ailment."
Many of your middle-aged audience members are likely to have lost their fathers to kidney or liver problems or even diabetes, so they will, instantly, be able to relate to such a statement and become more open to your influence!
That was all about cold reading and how it works. It is a skill that can be acquired and perfected with practice and just about anyone, with decent observational talents, can learn the tricks of this 'trade'.
Even if you do not intend to earn your livelihood from cold reading, you can always try its various techniques on close friends and acquaintances and freak them out! It would be fun watching a procession of awestruck expressions on familiar faces!