5X5 Episode 36

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5X5 Episode 36
Cold Reading
10th September 2008

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5X5 35 5X5 37
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Skepticism 101 - Cold Reading[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5 and this is the next installment in our Skepticism 101 series. Tonight we're going to be talking about cold reading. We recently got this letter from Mark Harris from Toronto, Canada, and he writes:

My mother just recently went to a psychic for a reading with my aunt, who is a true believer. Later on, during a dinner-time conversation, the subject of psychics came up, and I, being a regular SGU listener, went on about Randi's challenge, cold reading, and the like. My mother then revealed the fact that she had been to one and told of how good she was and how she was the real deal. Luckily for me, she taped the hour-long session. After quickly briefing my mother on the art of cold reading, I had listened to the session, making notes showing all the misses and hits. It was really quite pathetic. I then asked my mother to listen to it again while remembering everything I told her about cold reading and notes I had given her. It worked. I finally opened her eyes to it; she no longer believes. Thanks, SGU, for giving me the tools needed to help me save my mother from going down the wrong path. I've got her listening to the show now, too.

Well, thanks, Mark.

R: That is fantastic. Well done, Mark.

E: Hear hear.

B: Bravo.

S: And it shows the power of understanding the nature of cold reading, which essentially is a very old mentalist trick whereby you make the target, the person that you're giving the reading to, seem as if you know specific information about them when you really don't.

R: It's great, first of all, that she taped the entire session. That's fantastic, because a lot of what they rely upon is the fallibility of human memory; you go away from these things and you remember the hits and you forget about the myriad of misses. You forget about how... you mis-remember, for instance, the psychic could say, "I'm getting something in the chest or stomach area", and later on, you'll remember that as, "oh, she told me that my mother died of stomach cancer." It's amazing how badly we remember things, and so just having the recording; that's—that takes you 90% of the way there.

B: Absolutely, and another key component that I think is integral for cold reading is feedback. Feedback from the person being given the reading is so important because it's used to guide the process going from very general statements to very specific statements, and without this feedback, actually, cold reading can be shut down cold because it's such an important aspect of it. And people also, as Rebecca was saying, memory plays a key part, and they will actually go through an entire reading, giving feedback the whole way and at the very end, they will actually say things like, "I didn't say anything; he just knew it!"

J: You're right, Bob; you know what? Typically what happens is the psychic will just start throwing out a bunch of generalities, things like, "there's somebody involved in your life with the letter M" or whatever, and typically, if not virtually all the time, the sitter or the person that's being read will actually give up the information, and that's the whole idea behind cold reading is that the sitter's going to give the information and then the psychic will take that and bend it and use it in the next thing and the next thing that they say.

E: It's effectively a game of Twenty Guesses or an expansion of that that we've all played. The reader is basically asking questions of the person in front of them, and they phrase it in certain ways so it doesn't sound like questions, but that's effectively what is happening. And Bob, that plays into your comment about the feedback. You know, James Randi told us a story once that he analyzed a James van Praagh reading, and he got off in a matter of just a couple minutes about 80 or so questions during the course of that and made only two statements, two statements that would constitute an actual reading. And both of those statements, it turns out—they interviewed the person he was reading after the fact—turned out to be entirely wrong.

B: That's called shotgunning. That aspect.

S: Richard Saunders lectured about this recently and he had a very good observation that I'm going to steal right now. He said that cold reading actually takes place in the mind of the sitter.

B: Absolutely.

S: It's not actually in the mind of the reader themselves. The sitter is doing all the hard work; they're doing all the heavy lifting. So the reader, as you have said, will throw out general statements, maybe some high-probability statements, maybe hoping to get a lucky guess. But generally, statements that could fit anybody, and then the sitter is made to sift through all of the people that know and all of the circumstances in their life and make the connection, and then they give the feedback of what connections are working and which ones aren't. And then—here's where a lot of the deception comes in to play, where's it's not just twenty questions. Then the cold reader will expand on what they were saying, pretending like that's what they were saying the whole time. Like, for example, they might say, "are you going on a vacation soon?" and if the person says no, they would say, "I didn't think so, because I was getting this feeling", and if they say yes, they would say, "I thought so, because I saw this", you know? So you can pretend like you made—that whatever the person—whatever feedback you get, you can pretend like that's what you were going for all the time. And—

E: Turning misses into hits.

S: Right. It's actually the Magician's Choice, which is an old mentalist trick that's used in many, many different ways, and cold reading is no different than that.

R: Well, to be more specific, the normal thing you do is to ask a negative question: "You're not going on a vacation soon, are you?" It's so easy to turn that into, "oh, yeah; I am." "Yeah, that's what I thought, because I'm getting... palm trees." And yeah, it's a really interesting bag of tricks that they have, and obviously we can't go into all of them here, but I'd recommend that people go to Google; just Google "cold reading techniques", or you could go to Ian Rowland's website; it's really good. Ianrowland.com. He's a fantastic magician, mentalist, who exposes cold reading techniques; he's got a few books out, I think. Definitely check him out.

E: Or you can watch South Park.

S: (chuckles) Right. Yeah, even South Park did an excellent job of exposing cold reading. But it is one of the absolutely core tools of the skeptic; it absolutely reveals the man behind the curtain. And you will never look at a psychic reading, tarot reading, medium, doesn't matter; astrological reading, the same way again. Once you really know how cold reading works, it completely demystifies the whole thing.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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