Applied Cold Reading

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    My imme­di­ate thoughts take me to won­der­ing if the tech­niques could be use­ful in an acad­mic set­ting such as lec­tures or giv­ing a con­fer­ence paper? in the run up to teach­ing next term I am once again wish­ing I had joined the theatre soc at uni­ver­sity! i have found that steal­ing from the per­form­ance arts has cer­tainly improved my com­mu­nic­a­tion style ( or at least I’m hap­pier with it )

  2. alanborky says:

    I’m a Scouser and when my father died a few years back, until we moved I kept see­ing him round the house in 3 dif­fer­ent forms, one too dif­fi­cult to describe here, a second sort of trans­lu­cent and Predator-like, and a third as if he was solid felsh and blood only 50, 60 odd years younger (He died at 92).

    I even man­aged to upset him by say­ing, “You do know you’re dead, don’t y’u?”

    But even then I couldn’t say for sure it was really him, just a remark­ably good impression.

    I men­tion this to assert — con­trary to the skep­tics take — you don’t have to believe in things to exper­i­ence them and estab­lish my cre­den­tials as one who neither believes or dis­be­lieves but just gets on with whatever it is he has to get on with.

    Which brings me to so-called cold reading.

    I have a ter­rific knack for inter­pret­ing dreams and using Secret Dakini cards — a sort of Sixties style Tarot card set — which I actu­ally did over the phone until the agency told me to stop wast­ing my ener­gies help­ing people quickly and con­cen­trate on keep­ing them on the line as long as possible.

    Over the years two things’ve always struck me about giv­ing such read­ings: 1) in order to keep the sig­nal from ‘headquar­ters’ — so to speak — clean as pos­sible you need as little inter­rup­tion as pos­sible from the cli­ent, just the occa­sional con­firm­a­tion we’re all on the same page, fol­low­ing the same narrative.

    This’s because some cli­ents want to hear a par­tic­u­lar answer and con­stantly try to make what you say mean what they want it to mean, as opposed to accept­ing what you’re actu­ally pick­ing up, e.g. “Will I get back with Chuck?” “No.” “But after that I will…” “No.” “So I do some­thing dif­fer­ently and that changes his mind…?” “No.” etc., etc.

    This’s also true of dream inter­pret­a­tions where people with­hold details or change them, quite delib­er­ately, because on some uncon­scious level they already sus­pect what the dream means and actu­ally get angry with you as you get closer and closer to the truth.

    There’s another cat­egory, though, who I only became aware of from doing it over the phone because sur­prins­ingly these people’d pay good money just to try and prove to them­selves such things aren’t pos­sible and they’d spend all that expens­ive time delib­er­ately try­ing to trip you up, say­ing you’d said some­thing con­tra­dict­ory earlier, lying that you said things you hadn’t actu­ally said, and insist­ing the cards must apply to cer­tain aspects of their careers, or per­sonal lives, then insist­ing the exact reverse, or claim­ing they had a com­pletely dif­fer­ent career from the one earlier stated.

    I must con­fess though I quite enjoyed it whenever I man­aged to tell them, con­trary to what they claimed, what their true career, per­sonal and fin­an­cial cir­cum­stances were — call it a lucky guess — whereupon they’d go ber­serk and slam down the phone.

    But just to be clear though, I don’t believe or dis­be­lieve in any of these things — I don’t need to! — I just get on with whatever it is I have to get on with.

  3. I’m a bit late to this con­ver­sa­tion, but the Dutton art­icle you men­tion is avail­able for free on Denis Dutton’s web­site here: http://​den​is​dut​ton​.com/​c​o​l​d​_​r​e​a​d​i​n​g​.​htm