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Cold reading is a technique used to convince another person that the reader knows much more about the subject than they actually do. Even without prior knowledge of a given person, a cold reader could still quickly obtain a great deal of information about his subject by carefully analyzing his or her body language, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, education level, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. This is called profiling.

Popular users of cold reading

Magicians, psychics and cold reading

Performers such as Mark Edward, Lynne Kelly, Kari Coleman[1], Ian Rowland and Derren Brown have posed as psychics offering either private fortune-telling sessions or open forum "talking with the dead" sessions in the manner of self-proclaimed psychic medium John Edward and his U.K counterpart, Colin Fry. Only after receiving acclaim and applause from their audience do they reveal that they needed no psychic power for the performance, only a sound knowledge of psychology and cold-reading. The alleged psychics, on the other hand, claim that their "interpretations" stem from paranormal means or intuition.

In an episode of his Trick of the Mind series broadcast in March 2006, Derren Brown demonstrated how easily people can be influenced through cold reading techniques by repeating the famous experiment in 1948, by psychologist Bertram R. Forer.


Before starting the actual reading, the reader will typically try to elicit cooperation from his subject, saying something like, "I often see images that are a bit unclear and which may sometimes mean more to you than to me; if you help, we can together uncover new things about you."

The reader will then ask a number of questions, typically using variations of the methods noted below. The subject will typically reveal some further information with their replies, and the cold reader can continue from there, pursuing promising lines of inquiry and abandoning unproductive ones. In general, while only some of the information comes from the reader, most of the facts and statements come from the subject, and are then refined and restated by the reader.

Even very subtle cues such as changes in facial expression or body language can indicate if a particular line of questioning is effective or not. Combining the techniques of cold reading with information obtained covertly is also called "hot reading".

Cold reading techniques

The most comprehensive book on hold to perform Cold Reading techniques is The Full Facts Guide To Cold Reading by British illusionist Ian Rowland. In this book he discusses over 20 different techniques including The Rainbow Ruse, Fine Flattery and Barnum Statements.


"Shotgunning" is a commonly-used cold reading technique, used by purported television psychics and spiritual mediums. The psychic or reader offers a huge quantity of general information to an audience (some of which is certain to be correct, near correct or at the very least, pro or evocative), observes the subject's reactions (most usually their body language), and then narrows the scope, refining the original statements according to those reactions to promote an emotional response.

This technique is named after a shotgun, as it fires a spray of small projectiles in the hope that one or more of the shots will strike the target. A majority of people in a room will have, at some point for example, lost an older relative, or knew at least one person with a very common name like "Mike" or "John".

Edgar Cayce, Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, Colin Fry and John Edward in particular have all been accused by skeptics of using shotgunning techniques in their stage and television shows.

Shotgunning might include a series of vague statements such as:

  • "I see a heart problem with a father-figure in your family, a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a cousin... I'm definitively seeing chest pain here for a father-figure in your family."
  • "I see a woman that isn't a blood relative. Someone around when you were growing up, an aunt, a friend of your mother, a step-mother with blackness in the chest, lung cancer, heart disease, breast cancer..."
  • "I sense an older male figure in your life, who wants to know whilst you may have had disagreements in your life, he still loved you."
  • "You find your present line of work unsatisfying."

The Forer Effect/Barnum Statements

"Barnum statements" named after P.T. Barnum, the American showman, are also used. These statements seem personal, yet apply to a great many people. And while seemingly specific, such statements are often open-ended or give the reader the maximum amount of "wriggle room" in a reading.

These rather vague statements are designed to elicit responses from people, which can then be developed into longer and more sophisticated paragraphs which seem to reveal great amounts of detail about a person.

Statements of this type might include:

  • "I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don't know very well."
  • "You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house."
  • "You had an accident when you were a child involving water."
  • "You're having problems with a friend or relative."
  • "Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen."

If the subject is old enough, his or her father is quite likely to be dead, and this statement would easily apply to a number of conditions such as heart disease, pneumonia, diabetes, most forms of cancer, and in fact to a great majority of causes of death.

The Rainbow Ruse

The Rainbow Ruse is a crafted statement which simultaneously awards the subject with a specific personality trait, as well as the opposite of that trait. With such a phrase, a cold reader can "cover all possibilities" and appear to have made an accurate deduction in the mind of the subject, despite the fact that a rainbow ruse statement is vague and contradictory. It is a very common technique in tarot and psychic readings, especially since personality traits are not quantifiable, and also because nearly everybody has experienced both sides of a particular emotion at some time in their lives.

Statements of this type might include:

  • "Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past where you were very upset."
  • "You are a very kind and considerate person, but when somebody does something to break your trust, you feel deep-seated anger."
  • "I would say that you are mostly shy and quiet, but when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the center of attention."

A cold reader can choose from a variety of personality traits, think of its opposite, and then bind the two together in a phrase, vaguely linked by factors such as mood, time, or potential.

Subconscious Cold Reading

People who are naturally good at personal observations can unwittingly conduct readings demonstrably based on cold reading without a deliberate attempt at deception.

Former New Age practitioner Karla McLaren said, "I didn't understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone; I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis." [2]

After a person has done hundreds of readings their skills may improve to the point where they may start believing they can read minds, asking themselves if their success is because of psychology, intuition or a psychic ability. [3] This point of thought is known by some skeptics of the paranormal as the transcendental temptation. [4] Magic historian and occult investigator Milbourne Christopher warned the transcendental choice may lead one unknowingly into a belief in the occult and a deterioration of reason. [5]

Cold reading in movies and on television

  • Nightmare Alley (1947). Depicted ex-carnie and aspiring cult-leader Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) using cold reading and other mentalist techniques to convince people he can communicate with the dead. Although the presentation is clumsy, the technique of cold reading is referred to by name. Based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name.
  • Leap of Faith (1992). Early in the film, tent evangelist and phony faith healer Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) uses cold reading on a police officer who has pulled over the group's tour bus, to dissuade him from writing a ticket.
  • Hustle (2005). BBC series about a group of grifters in London. In Series 2 Episode 1, Albert Stroller and Danny Blue mention using cold reading in order to get a mark interested in business.
  • South Park (2002). In the episode The Biggest Douche in the Universe, the gang encounters John Edward. Stan is angered at the crowd's willingness to believe Edward has any psychic ability at all, and throughout the remainder of the episode he tries to prove that Edward merely uses cold reading to trick people by demonstrating to the locals, only to be mistaken by the South Park townspeople for a gifted child psychic himself. Stan then faces off against Edward in a 'psychic showdown' on TV to disprove him once and for all, but then Edward is kidnapped by aliens and given the dubious award of 'The Biggest Douche in the Universe'.

See also

  • Clever Hans - a Mr. Ed-like horse who also learned how to cold read.
  • Arthur Ford


  1. Kari Coleman (2001). My Psychic Adventure. Swift 2 (3&4).
  2. Karla McLaren (May 2004). Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures. Skeptical Inquirer.
  3. Paramiracles by Ted Lesley, Hermetic Press, 1994
  4. The Transcendental Temptation by Paul Kurtz, Prometheus books, 1986
  5. ESP, Seers & Psychics: What the Occult Really is by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970

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