Cold reading is a technique used by mediums, psychics, faith healers, and fortune-tellers to persuade complete strangers that they know all about them. Doing a cold reading does not require any advance information about the person, as opposed to a hot reading. A hot reading involves ﬁnding out information about the person ahead of time and then presenting it as though it is simply “popping” into your mind or is being delivered by the spirits of the dead. Information used in this way may make the person more receptive to information produced in a subsequent cold reading.
The simplest approach to cold reading is to rely on what psychologist Ray Hyman calls a stock spiel—a set of vague, general statements that can ﬁt almost anyone. A skilled reader will have memorized an assortment of spiels, tailor-made for particular categories of people. The true cold reading, however, starts off with no prepared information other than acute powers of observation. The best cold readers are good at noticing subtle signs, including details of clothing, jewelry, hands, gestures, and manner of speech. The skillful reader will then produce a few tentative hypotheses intended to zero in on the issue the client wishes to hear about, to then say what he or she came to hear. The result of this technique is that the reader tends mostly to ask questions rather than actually give information, usually instructing the client to simply say “yes” or “no” regarding whether each hypothesis is meaningful or not. Some readers become remarkably adept at asking many questions; according to skeptical paranormal investigator James Randi’s estimates, television medium John Edward (host of a show called Crossing Over) sometimes asks more than seventy questions per minute. The result is that people will often remember the correct guess and forget about the dozens of wrong statements that were made.
The people who seek a reading with Mr. Edward or others (to allegedly contact the dead) are desperate for some news from beyond and are therefore highly motivated to believe that this contact has occurred. Consequently, although a successful reading usually involves very few afﬁrmative statements (rather than questions) by the reader, except for what the client said ﬁrst, they will usually marvel later at the things the medium knew without being told. In a 60-minute reading by James Van Praagh, ﬁlmed by CBS for 48 Hours, for example, Van Praagh asked 260 questions but made only two independent statements, both of which were wrong. The woman appeared impressed that he had known her husband’s name, partly because she didn’t appear to remember the
26 wrong guesses which preceded the correct guess (and if they are in touch with the deceased, Why must they always guess the spirit’s name?). John Edward has been accused of using television editing to his advantage as well— in a 1999 Time magazine article, a man who had been “read” on the show accused him of improving the reading by attaching some of his “yes” answers to questions to which he had actually responded “no.” Unlike the séances of ages past, these psychic readings do not rely on phony table movements or apparitions, but today’s mediums often use equally dishonest trickery to earn their money by taking advantage of the grief of others. Edward and Van Praagh deny using cold reading, and it can’t be proved that they never hear from the deceased, but their techniques, genuine or not, are indistinguishable from cold reading.
- Hyman, R. “Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All about Them.” Skeptical Inquirer, 2(1) (1977): 18–37;
- Jaroff, L. “Talking to the Dead.” Time, March 5, 2001: 52.