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Book in the snow

The best photo I've seen of cold reading by SPDP at Flickr.

I took a weekend off to attend a course in London on Applied Cold Reading. The course was given by Ian Rowland, who might be familiar to some readers as ‘Ian who from where?’, for everyone else he’s the author of The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.

The Full Facts Book is mainly about Cold Reading in a psychic context. There are lots of people who can tell you how cold reading works in a psychic context. It relies on Barnum statements, statements that feel personal but they’re true for everyone. I don’t find that a satisfying explanation. I get the impression that the Barnum effect works best on gullible people. I know a few people who take psychics seriously and they’re all far less gullible than me. Another reason it’s a poor explanation is that there aren’t many people with a father called Brian, with dark hair, who’s missing fingers from his left hand.

Detail is important. When people say what they find convincing about a reading it isn’t “She told me I’ve travelled, possibly overseas somewhere.” It’s “She saw my honeymoon, three years ago, in the Canary Islands. It was really detailed, she even saw the shark.”[1] You can explain that as fishing for information, but that’s a step away from Barnum statements and eventually you end up with an explanation that’s something like “The reading wasn’t psychic, it was a series of tricks like Barnum statements, fishing for information and a few other things that I might not have thought of.” It might be right, but it’s really vague. It might be difficult to convince people it’s the ‘psychic’ spewing generalisations.

The Full Facts book has a number of techniques for showing how a convincing psychic reading works with cold reading. The best analogy I can think of is that you become a mirror to the other person’s personality. The more creative, intelligent and imaginative you are the more vivid a picture you can paint, and the more impressive the reflection you get back will be. Regardless of whether this is true,[2] it’s an optimistic view of psychic customers, that I can work with because it matches my experience of psychic believers. If this is a working method for cold reading, then why doesn’t it seem remotely convincing to sceptics?

I think part of it is down to psychic readings being set within a religious experience and religions tend to look implausible viewed from the outside.[3] Tell a sceptic she’ll have a psychic reading and it’s a warning something is going to happen. She’ll tend to adopt an open mind on the subject, including the possibility that she’s going to be tricked in using non-psychic techniques she doesn’t know about. Could you cold read without having to use a psychic context? This is where the last chapter of the Full Facts Book goes, for example looking at cold reading in law enforcement. It where the Applied Cold Reading, ACR course picks up. It’s also where I got a bit confused on the first day.

ACR is not cold reading as covered in the book. It’s complementary to it, in some ways it’s the sequel to the book. On the other hand some of the techniques are contradictory to the book. It doesn’t make the book wrong, Ian Rowland emphasises cold reading covers a range of methods, but if you’ve read the book several times then you might be wrong-footed if you expect ACR to be a deeper version of the book. It is different.

The course is a two-day event. The second day makes sense, but the first can be confusing. The plan is that by the end of the two days you can create ACR models for cold reading in any situation. To be able to apply the components of a model to your situation you have to know what those components are. So the components are introduced in a generic situation. Except I don’t know anyone who has done something that’s simply generic in their life. So it opens with mind-reading which works best in a pseudo-magic or psychic context.

It works well. Within an hour I was up in front of the class reading someone I had never met. I got the connection between the subject and his brother and then came the instruction “Tell him when and where they last met.” The internal response was “How the hell am I supposed to know?” I followed the system and what came out was “It was at a birthday party, one month ago, at home. There were plenty of people there, lots of alcohol, lots of food including a dish that you particularly liked.” Ok, if it’s a party with lots of people then lots of alcohol and food is a safe bet, but I’ll leave you to work out how I got the rest.

The feeling when it works is uncanny, and it’s a feeling shared by some other people who’ve tried out the technique. It’s common to think a psychic has stooges in the audience, but how many psychics actually wonder if the audience is planted with stooges when they get a series of hits?

In the afternoon we spent pulled apart and rebuilt some of the model. The actual details are probably best left undescribed. Ian Rowland gets his income from this so giving away a second-hand half-baked distillation of what goes on isn’t likely to do him much good. But I will say is that this section was where the Barnum statement hypothesis breaks down. We weren’t generating statements that were sure-fire hits. In fact we were trying to come up with statements that could very well be misses.

What’s the value in a miss? If you don’t get anything wrong you can’t learn something. Also in ACR misses are hard to spot. If you give a psychic reading there’s a clear start and end point between which something magical is supposed to happen. That’s a lot of pressure, so there’s a need for easy hits regardless of who you’re talking to. In contrast ACR works a lot better if you take a genuine interest in a person. It’s better thought of as fast tracking rapport than mind-reading.

The second day is all about non-psychic contexts. In my case the Interdisciplinary Science BSc has interviews before someone can go on the course. It’s almost a BSc by research, and that doesn’t suit everyone, because a short-cut to doing well in school exams is regurgitating right answers. Cold reading could help spot the students who’d do well at the course, but aren’t expressing themselves well, and the students who do better with a traditional course, but have trained to regurgitate ‘right’ answers at interviews. Sales is a common context, as are interviews. Romance?

I think it could help if it’s someone you could have a genuine connection with anyway. It’s not going to get someone with a firm 3-date rule into bed on the first date.[4] It won’t mind-zap people into changing who they are, but it helps finding out what sort of person they are. If you’d like to be sleazy I suppose you could very rapidly work through everyone to identify the easier targets, but even then it won’t screen for diseases.

The training is intense, including the feedback. It has to be. You have just two days so there’s not time for a gentle learning curve with plenty of opportunity to repeat and work through what you might be getting wrong. This means that statements of mistakes you make can get emphatic. This can be uncomfortable in a session where you have several things up in front of everyone and no time to correct between errors. If I wanted to be comfortable I could have spent the weekend at home, but it’s something to look out for.

Looking over the two days, I think the group was about is big as it could comfortably be. There were twelve people, but two had to leave. You could have got more people in the room, but the course would have suffered for it. At the same time I think the course would have struggled with less than eight. Seeing how other people do stuff is helpful, not least because you can think what is it that they do that I’m not that makes their stuff work. I had a few Aha! moments because of that.

Was it worth the money? “Knowing what you know now would you have gone on the course?” No, but that’s because I wouldn’t need to if I knew what I know now. Another way of looking at it is that I’ve been to plenty of big conferences. Too many times I’ve gone home feeling I’ve lost three days of my life that I’m never going to get back and that I could have done something useful with the money instead. I don’t feel that way about this. Oddly, I don’t know if it’s a suitable course if you’re a sceptic of psychics.

Psychic cartoon from xkcd

Psychic by xkcd. Click for full size.

If you’re more interested in proving that psychics are frauds, this won’t suit you. For one reason, the fact I could impersonate a psychic doesn’t disprove the existence of real psychics any more than Lib Dem impersonators disprove the existence of genuine Lib Dems in Westminster. I’ll admit the most likely explanation is they’re either frauds, or self-deluded rather than real, but you can’t rule out the possibility they’re the genuine thing.

And the same goes for psychics too.[5]

If you’re more interested in the process and how people react to it, then it is worthwhile. You won’t go deeply into the psychology of thinking, but you will at least get the tools to mull over. I’ve had a look to see if there’s been much academic work on cold-reading and found little. I did find Denis Dutton’s article on ‘The Cold Reading Technique’ in Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, which Springer will sell you for €34.95. Ian Rowland’s course is comfortably at least ten times more informative than the article.


1. By the the way, the correct response is to profess amazement. Don’t reply “She saw everything on your honeymoon? Everything? Euww! I think that would make my skin crawl.” (back)

2. I don’t know of any scientific research comparing what techniques make the most convincing fraudulent psychic readings. I can’t refute someone who prefers to think of psychic customers as idiots, because to refute requires data and what I have are anecdotes. (back)

3. It’s a vernacular religion and not an established religion. There are common core beliefs that most psychic performances assume, the existence of an afterlife, the survival of individual consciousness beyond the body, an interest in the affairs of the living and the curious inability to remember full surnames, but know it has a J, or possibly a G in it. If you’re offended then substitute quasi-religious for religious and if you study religion seriously then you might prefer cult to religion. (back)

4. If you find your success disproves this statement, I have two counterpoints. First they clearly didn’t have a firm 3-date rule. Second, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, I don’t want to know about your sex life anyway. No, not even ‘in the interests of science’. This is one of those situations where ignorance is bliss. (back)

5. A cheap shot I know, but earned. For people outside the UK, the Lib Dems toured campuses before the election promising to abolish tuition fees for students. Within months of joining the Conservatives in government they supported the Conservative policy of tripling the fees, hence the scepticism that there are any Lib Dems in government. (back)

Research on Cold Reading in peer-reviewed journals

Dutton, D. (1988). ‘The cold reading technique’, Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences 44 (4). 326-332. doi:10.1007/BF01961271 (available free online here)

Hyman, R. (1981) ‘The psychic reading’, in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, eds., R.A. Sebeok and R. Rosenthal. Academy of Sciences, New York. 169-181. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1981.tb34471.x

…and that’s all I’ve seen. A search on Google Scholar will add a few more reliable sources like books and Skeptic Magazine, but while there’s research on the Barnum/Forer effect, there’s little on the cold reading process.

Photo: Book in the snow. Photo by SPDP. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.
Psychic by Randall Munroe. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.