Post No.: 0591
So-called fortune tellers, spiritual mediums and psychics routinely employ a technique called ‘cold reading’. Without any prior knowledge of a person, they start by spewing out some vague and general guesses that have a high probability of meaning something to the person because of their age, ethnicity or other information that can be gleaned from just first impressions. And by quickly picking up and feeding upon the responses they receive, such as the person’s body language or words – to figure out if they’re onto something they should emphasise and probe further or rapidly change topic from – they can give the convincing effect that they are true psychics. The showmanship or performance style (which may include the props, garb, and perhaps moustache and goatee) helps enormously too.
Sometimes, if it’s a live show and they know who’ve bought tickets – some covert background research is done on particular audience members (which is easier nowadays due to people publishing their lives on social media). This is called ‘hot reading’ and obviously more patently doesn’t require any psychic ability.
With cold reading, because the guesses are ambiguous, general and require the subject to give constant feedback to the cold reader to hint or explicitly state whether the guesses are going in a fruitful direction or not – this trick works because the subject applies confirmation bias in believing that a vague guess really refers to something specific in their own life. So a vague statement could be, “I see an old man in your life with some kind of persistent health problem” and the subject might respond with, “You must be talking about uncle Joe” or something like that. The cold reader will then claim to have made a psychic hit, when really it was the person being read who did all the heavy lifting!
So it usually starts with the cold reader clarifying that this process requires the subject’s active cooperation. Then proceeds with ‘shotgunning’ – where lots of loose and broad guesses are fired out in the hope that something will ‘hit’. If it’s a live show, these might be aimed at the entire audience to maximise the chances of someone saying, “That sounds like something to do with me” and feels that a particular statement is highly personal to them.
That person will then voluntarily elaborate what they think that vague statement refers to, and then the cold reader will probe with gradually more specific guesses in line with the feedback they receive each time. They might hear the subject confirm something concretely but instead of latching onto it immediately, they’ll save that piece of information for later, when they’ll state it back as if they’ve ‘just gleaned it via the spirits’. They’ll elaborate detail that’s really just paraphrasing what they’ve previously been told by the subject.
The cold reader will rapidly move on from any misses or dead-ends and bulldoze on without letting the audience dwell on them, in the hope they’ll be ignored and forgotten. Or they’ll ask something like, “Does the name John mean anything to you?.. Or Joanne?.. Jane?.. Someone with a name starting with J..?” until they claim a ‘hit’. So they’ll throw out more questions or go more vague if they’re missing the mark, and try to go more specific if they’re onto something – based on the feedback from the subject.
So these ‘psychics’ will ask questions and wait for confirmations when you’d think true psychics wouldn’t need any feedback at all because they’d just know what’s correct or not! The only things they’ll assert are things that the subject cannot confirm (e.g. what their deceased cousin is apparently saying right now).
Yet strangely, dead-on accurate readings arouse suspicions of having been researched/spied on or that someone told the psychic the information – whereas hazier statements are more believable as genuine ‘mysterious and mystical’ psychic readings(!) That’s why psychics will pretend to somewhat flounder when revealing hot-read information.
Because we’re good at inferring what others mean with our often vague or ambiguous everyday communications (please take care of the trash then take care of the baby) and at anticipating someone else’s meaning even though the words weren’t actually said – which is useful for everyday conversation – a side-effect is that it can lead to thinking that someone else is really reading our minds when they’re actually being deliberately vague, especially when we’re expecting a psychic reading.
We also like to find meanings and patterns, and we will usually find them, even though they’re sometimes illusory – we see a signal when it’s just noise/random events or something else, such as faces in inanimate objects (even ones expressing ‘emotion’). Or can you spot anything wrong with the following sequence ‘1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 31…’? The correct answer is you cannot say because you don’t know what the sequence represents with the information given (e.g. it could be the minutes past noon when someone sneezed one day) hence any pattern is just coincidental. It’s the price we pay for being so good at seeing patterns every time they are there – it’s overall better for our survival to assume a face that isn’t there than to miss a single one that is. The innate tendency to search for and perceive patterns is efficient and useful most of the time to protect us from danger, but it can occasionally lead us down a very incorrect path.
Fuzzy and contradictory statements that cover all possibilities (i.e. will always be right in at least some way) are often stated, such as, “You are a gentle person, but you can feel anger if someone breaks your trust.” So sometimes, both a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer can be twisted into a ‘hit’.
If all fails then the subject is blamed for being wrong, forgetful or uncooperative, told to look out for it in the future, or told to go away to think about it some more, as if given some homework! This again highlights how it’s not the ‘psychics’ who are doing any of the real work. They’ll then quickly move onto their next subject. If they claim to be a medium, they might alternatively blame the spirits for talking over each other too much that day, or some other excuse.
Vague and general, often flattering, statements about people’s personalities are called ‘Barnum statements’, and give rise to the ‘Barnum effect’ or ‘Forer effect’. This is the tendency to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of our personality or life that are supposedly specifically tailored just for us but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to almost anybody (e.g. ‘dramatic changes in your life occurred around the ages of 16 and 18’). We’re not as unique as many of us like to think we are, hence why Barnum statements frequently work.
This is the core technique employed with star signs and aura readings. Star signs don’t just have a 1-in-12 chance of fitting because there are only 12 astrological/zodiac signs, but have a far greater chance because most readings apply to most people in the world (e.g. ‘at times you are sociable and love parties while at other times you are more reserved and prefer being alone’). Wanting to believe matters too, and subjects do the heavy lifting by applying their own interpretations to the statements and adding the detail to fill in the gaps themselves through confirmation bias to make them appear personal or make sense. Confirmation bias is involved when astrologers look for how many x are born with a certain star sign but fail to also ask how many x aren’t. Astrology can however lead to some of those who believe in it to enact a self-fulfilling prophecy when they take to heart ‘I’m a Gemini and it says Geminis are indecisive’, for example.
If people are given horoscope predictions or warnings, these will also be equally vague and possibly general, and again it’ll be up to the subject to do the work to make the guess fit a real event. For example, they might be told that, “Good fortune will come in the shape of a box”, for which the person could interpret this in hundreds of ways by using confirmation bias. Ambiguity is the basis of Nostradamus-type ‘prophecies’.
These predictions are seldom falsified because even the dates are cryptic and ambiguous – so they just stay ‘pending forever’ until something that vaguely sounds like it becomes true! They therefore can’t go wrong but their vagueness makes them practically useless. (Albeit they can affect stock markets and thus real-world events because many traders heed such predictions in a self-fulfilling way. Stock traders can be extremely irrational and superstitious – see Post No.: 0563.) Sometimes after a major event occurs, people will look back in history to try to interpret a ‘prediction’ that fitted it – often misquoting or fabricating parts of it to make it fit better.
There’s selective reporting and selective memory i.e. only reporting and remembering the ‘hits’ and not every miss. Every prediction that doesn’t come true is dismissed or reinterpreted until true, and any chance part that can be interpreted to have come true gets focused on. It’s peculiar that just one seemingly accurate prediction will make a clairvoyant, astrologer, tarot card reader or similar person appear like she/he really does have arcane powers of foresight, despite her/his hundreds of failed predictions. ‘Psychics’ aren’t held to the same ‘there’s nothing up my sleeves’ standard as overt conjurors either. And if people who claim to be psychic are allowed to get some predictions correct and some wrong then that’s no different to ordinary people who get some guesses correct and some wrong(!) So people who claim to be psychics or clairvoyants are basically fraudsters or self-delusional. There are no esoteric powers here.
Meanwhile in other contexts, just one lie can make someone appear untrustworthy, despite her/his hundreds of truths told. This may be because many people desperately seek to predict the future and so will hang onto the words of anyone who claims they can, just like people who are desperate for better health are more susceptible to trusting quacks who offer supposed cures or treatments.
Indeed people do crave certainty and that’s the appeal of horoscopes. Even though most people want to know that they can do whatever they want and the future is yet written for them – many find the complete uncertainty of a blank chapter scary.
Again, the desire to confirm statements is greater when a subject believes or wants to believe that supernatural phenomena exist – like when someone has just lost a loved one and desperately wishes they could contact their spirit one last time i.e. these scams tend to exploit people when they’re at their most vulnerable.
So people usually self-select to go see ‘psychics’, take tarot card readings or similar because they’re probably looking for some guidance and want to make the readings or predictions fit somehow. When people go to see a doctor, they usually defer complete expertise and judgement to the doctor, but people who go to ‘psychics’ are encouraged to work on a problem together, and so all sorts of biases flow as they try and make sense of the situation.
Others may however argue that the experience offers such vulnerable people a form of counselling, even though it is a lie and they’re being charged for it. So there is some debate as to whether such ‘psychics’ or ‘mediums’ offer their clients a valuable service?
But counselling can be received from other sources that don’t lie, give false hope or talk about curses, charge any money or risk dependency. (Fraudsters give advice in such a way so that you’ll need to go back to them to obtain new advice every time – whereas good counsellors will give you the tools to solve future problems for yourself.)
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