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Cold reading is a technique used by psychics and mentalists around the world. It allows a person to use personal perception and observation to deduce information about another person. This information, seemingly from nowhere, often leads others to believe that the cold reader is psychic or has other special abilities.
Cold reading cannot work without the cooperation of the person who is being read. If the person agrees, the cold reader will ask a series of extremely vague questions. Depending on how that person responds to these questions, and by careful analysis of other factors such as body language, the cold reader can make educated guesses that can be surprisingly close to the truth.
If the person performing the cold reading session gets onto a dead-end line of conversation, he or she will quickly switch to another topic. When cold readers find a successful line of conversation, they will stick to it. Through this method, it will appear that the person knows all sorts of information about the subject. In actuality, most of the information comes from the subject of a cold reading session and the reader only pays attention to minute details.
There are several different methods of performing cold reading. While cold reading for an entire audience, the reader will use a method called the shot gun technique. A common, extremely vague statement is made. The cold reader will then pay attention to the audience's response. After someone appears to "bite" onto the question, the cold reader will focus on that specific person. The term gets its name from actual shotguns, which fire a large number of small pellets, increasing the chance that the target is hit from a distance.
Another method for cold reading is using Barnum statements. When using this method, the cold reader will make extremely general statements and then work on from there. Common statements may include, "You are nervous around those you don't know" or "You were afraid of the dark as a child."
The Rainbow Ruse, another form of cold reading an audience, is similar to the shotgun method. By making a statement that is true for most of the people in the audience, but also offering the opposite of that statement, the cold reader can make statements that are more or less accurate. A cold reader who says, "Most of you are happy with your lives, but this was not always the case" is using the Rainbow Ruse technique.
Although seemingly deceptive by nature, cold reading as an entertainment medium is often allowed if the reader informs the audience that the information is just for fun and that they should not make any major life decisions based on the session. Those who claim to be psychic, but are actually just cold reading, can find themselves in legal trouble.
I have always been a skeptic in the area of fortune telling and psychics. I went to New Orleans a couple of years ago and attended a performance by a psychic. This was a great example of a cold reading. It seemed as though he could just say a couple of words to a person in the audience and the person would swear that the psychic was tuning in on them.
I was amazed at some of the things that they were able to “pull” out of the audience members. A lot of it was the reader going off the body language, appearance, manner of speech, and other small details. It is very interesting to watch, however.