How Cold Reading Works – And How You Can Use it to Your Advantage

A huge industry is built around the lie that it’s possible to communicate with the dead. Unscrupulous individuals take advantage of the hope and sadness of the bereaved and heart broken and then use their vulnerability to con them into believing what they want to believe – parting with huge amounts of cash in the process. For just a few thousand dollars, you can speak to your deceased loved ones, or rather to a random stranger pretending to be one of your loved ones in what is actually an offensive and vulgar act.

That said though, you can see why people are willing to believe it. Not only is this something that a lot of people desperately want to believe but the act also happens to be a rather good one and very often rather convincing. These strangers will prove themselves by uncovering seemingly impossible personal facts about the victim and making it seem as though they have ‘insider knowledge’ about that person. So if they aren’t talking to the dead, how do they do it?

Introducing Cold Reading

In fact this is a simple technique that is known in the industry as ‘cold reading’. This is a combination of using the right line of questioning and careful reading of body language, in order to work out what someone is thinking and fool them into thinking that you have some kind of special insight. Here we will look at how cold reading works and at how you can go about using it in business, relationships and life to astonish and persuade.

To see cold reading in action, try watching one of Derren Brown’s shows which will inevitably involve some form of ‘mind reading’. Derren is actually completely honest about his use of cold reading and will often use his self-taught talents in order to expose other charlatans and encourage critical thinking. Sometimes he will even explain how to replicate his effects, though he is first and foremost an illusionist so he won’t always go into depth.

When watching one of these examples you can then try to look out for a number of cold reading techniques that are generally easy enough to understand. These include:

Shotgunning: In shotgunning, the practitioner will fire a series of statements at the subject that are very vague and then look for responses both verbal and in the body language. If they were giving a psychic reading then they may say:

‘You are a shy person at heart but often very outgoing. You like to be the centre of attention and you have a keen interest in people. Yes, in fact you work with people, you’re a social worker or some kind of person who works with emotions and trauma, a nurse. You enjoy your free time you like to spend it at home, but also out where you enjoy quite extreme sports – well not extreme but things like cycling and running. You’re very fit and you enjoy working out… ‘

Throughout this speech the cold reader would be looking out for signs that they were warm or cold – micro-expressions or even nods and so would move their speech in that direction. When a statement seems to be poorly received they simply move past it quickly or come up with a quick excuse as to why they said it. As the talk is so fast, the listener only tends to really remember the things that were accurate and to gloss over the elements that weren’t. It’s not easy though – it takes a lot of skill in itself – but as you practice you can begin to sound more confident and convincing as a result. Remember, you can also look to the person’s friends and family to assess their reactions if your participant isn’t giving anything back.

Barnum Statements: Barnum statements are statements that could be true for almost anyone, or that are very general, but which work due to our natural tendency to ‘fill in the blanks’ and to apply statements we hear to our own lives (egocentrism). A Barnum statement could be something like ‘you occasionally have bouts of anxiousness where you can’t identify the cause’, ‘you have a box of photos under your bed’ or (a popular one) ‘you were involved in a traumatic accident as a child involving water’.

The Rainbow Ruse: The rainbow ruse involves making a statement that can’t be false because it makes two opposite statements. For instance, you might say something like ‘you are friendly and polite a lot of the time but can be prone to bouts of anger’ or ‘you are often quiet and solitary but you can be the life of the party at times’. These ‘rainbow ruses’ can be used while shotgunning quickly in order to illicit a telling response which can help to ‘guide’ the reader’s subsequent statements. If they seem to agree more with ‘friendly and polite’ than with ’bouts of anger’, then the reader might go on to elaborate and say that the subject is ‘generally introverted – maybe even something of a doormat at times’. Generally when using initial rainbow ruses, it’s a good idea to try and focus on the more positive traits as those are the things we like to hear (and because we tend to judge ourselves generously). For instance ‘you can be jealous and possessive but deep down you are incredibly kind and generous, someone who is truly a good spirit’ is more effective than ‘though you can be prone to moments of generosity, you are generally a nasty, possessive and vile creature who only cares about themself’. Don’t be surprised if they don’t nod emphatically at the latter statement…

Open Questions: Open questions are questions that leave you with a ‘get out clause’. Here you can poise a statement as a question so that you can’t be ‘wrong’ as such. For instance, when guessing the age of a deceived relative you might say ‘they weren’t in their fifties were they?’. Then if the subject answers positively you can say ‘Aha, thought so’, whereas if they answer negatively you can say ‘no I didn’t think so… ‘.

Shifting Blame: Sometimes if a cold reader gets confident and makes an incorrect statement, it can be hard to come back from; so often the reader needs a way to shift blame. For instance, if you were to use the Barnum statement ‘you had an accident involving water as a child’ and the subject says they didn’t, then the practitioner may come back from this by blaming the subject for not remembering, or by saying that the subject needs to ‘concentrate harder’ to keep a secure bond.

Observation: All this can be combined with some observations and general knowledge of the kind of person you are talking to. Quickly you might note that the subject is quite muscular for instance, then you could go on to assume that they were some kind of athlete and was ‘popular at school’ even. Likewise you might notice they wear glasses and have a hunched posture and you could make the guess that they work in an office environment. While these sorts of assumptions are not guaranteed to be accurate, they stand a ‘higher than average’ chance of being correct as you are using evidence to make those claims. This then in turn means that when delivered well and with careful observation of body language, you can appear to have a ‘supernatural’ hit rate.

Using Cold Reading

So how is cold reading useful for those of us who don’t want to become psychics or magicians? Well one example is in marketing and advertising. If you are a seller of any kind, then being able to read the person or people you are selling to, or at least appearing to be able to, is an incredibly valuable tool. If you are selling more television channels for instance then you might use Barnum statements and compliments in order to get that person to believe they want it: for example you could say:

‘I can tell you have a keen interest in a lot of things and that’s why you’ll often find yourself flicking through channels. You need to be intellectually stimulated, especially after a hard day at work when most people tend to rely on the television to keep them focussed. I can tell you’d like our package because you’re obviously quite a fun loving person but also someone who has a serious side and cares about the world’.

This can similarly be useful in relationships and in interviews where you can use similar techniques to compliment the person you are speaking to and ‘become’ the person they’re looking for. Just make sure to use your powers for good, rather than for evil.



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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

Follow Adam on Linkedin: adam-sinicki, twitter: thebioneer, facebook: adam.sinicki and youtube: treehousefrog

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