It sometimes seems amazing how astrologers, psychics, mediums, and fortune tellers of all types are able to tell people things about their lives and problems that they otherwise shouldn't know. Such experiences are often offered as proof positive that people like this have powers that cannot be explained by natural science and/or that a spiritual or supernatural realm really must exist - otherwise, how could these people know so much?
In fact, there is a much more mundane explanation which requires no reliance upon spirits or supernatural abilities. People who know what they are doing are able to make use of a procedure known generally as "cold reading," involving a "reader" who is able to convince a second person (the client) that they know all about the client's personality, problems, and life.
A cold reading occurs when, presumably, the reader does not know anything about the client in advance; this can be contrasted with a "hot" reading which is made when the reader does have advance information about the clients. How often a cold reading is actually a hot reading is unknown.
Context: The context which allows cold readings to be so effective are really very simple - there is nothing all that amazing or weird about it. A reader can reliably assume that most people are more similar than they are different; therefore, acquiring knowledge about the human condition in general can lead to a surprising amount of knowledge about individual people.
Readers can reliably assume that most people's problems are generated by the same circumstances: birth, puberty, work, illness, money, marriage, children, age, death. If these are the circumstances which tend to trouble people, it is safe to assume that these are the things which people are seeking advice on when visiting someone like an astrologer, medium or psychic.
Setting the Stage: A good cold reader will "set the stage" for creating the aura of authenticity and believable readings. This puts the client in the proper mood, causing them to be more ready to believe that what is happening is something mysterious rather than mundane. Very often, this isn't simply a metaphorical setting of a stage - for example, a fortune teller with a crystal ball may perform readings in a tent with mysterious decorations, mysterious background music, and while wearing unusual clothing.
Indeed, any gimmick like a crystal ball or cards is useful not only to give the impression of occult powers, but also because it provides a wide range of possible methods of stalling so the reader can think about what to say next. There are also more metaphorical means of setting a stage; these can include things like affecting an accent so as to appear to have a foreign (and hence mysterious) background, and using jargon which has no real meaning but which gives the impression of being Very Important.
Drama & Delivery: Dramatic delivery also helps encourage the client to believe that what he is hearing is information acquired via mysterious and occult forces rather than a cold reading. Above all, a reader must exude a high degree of confidence - people are more inclined to believe a confident person than one who is wishy-washy (a fact of human nature which has been exploited by salesmen for as long as there have been things to sell). Ironically, it also helps to start out be being a bit modest - informing the client that the readings don't always work not only serves as a cover in the case of real failure, but it makes apparent success even more remarkable.
Getting Information: Being familiar with the general problems which afflict the average human is good for starters, but an effective reading requires learning more about the details which are troubling a particular client. Sometimes it is possible to gather information in advance - which of course means that the reading won't be entirely "cold" after all. Ways of doing this have, at least in the past, including reading up on recent deaths and engagements, asking discreet questions about known future clients, and even poking about in coats which have been left in an anteroom.
Some times the quest for information can be quite blatant, as a reader or assistant may ask probing questions before a reading; curiously, satisfied clients never seem to remember such questioning later on and act amazed when a reader "knows" things which were discussed not long before. Aside from such obvious dishonesty, a fair amount of information can be gathered by an observant reader during the first few minutes of a meeting: clothing, speech patterns, race, gender, jewelry, etc. can all broadcast quite a bit about us to those who know what to look for.
Early Reading: Once all of the early information is correlated, a very general cold reading can begin. The characteristic "general" is important - the information first developed will be the sort of information which could apply to a large percentage of the population. Usually it helps for the reader to have some selection of standard introductions, a variety of opening readings which are appropriate to particular sexes, races, and economic classes. Sometimes, even just a single standard reading can be perceived by most people as eerily appropriate to their particular circumstance, making even incompetent readers appear to be amazing.
Measuring Reactions: During this early stage the good cold reader pays very close attention to the client in order to see which of the generalities spark some sort of reaction, whether negative or positive. Reactions can be found in the eyes, mouth, words spoken, or even in subtle and unconscious muscular movements which the reader might detect if in physical contact with the client (for example, when reading a palm). The best reactions can be obtained by "fishing" - asking the client leading questions in order to obtain more specific information about the client's concerns and interests. Sometimes, clients actually end up doing most of the talking without even realizing it while those clients who keep their mouths shut find that the reader's "powers" are strangely elusive at the moment...
These reactions cue the reader as to which direction to take the reading next - should it be more about illness or marriage? More about children or money? Irrelevant or incorrect statements are left behind by the reader and generally forgotten by the client, while those statements which get a positive reaction are developed more deeply and remembered by the client very clearly as amazing and unexpected "hits." A good reader isn't too bothered about not achieving a large number of hits, in fact. Studies have found that when it comes to gambling, for example, a Variable Ratio Schedule is the best way to keep people playing.
Thus, the game will pay off after 10 tries, then 3 tries, then 13 tries, etc. Even very, very infrequent payoffs will not only keep humans gambling, but also animals like rats or pigeons pushing at a lever in order to get at food - and the same is true when it comes to keeping people coming back to mediums, astrologers or psychics. The payoffs are huge (proof of life after death, communication with deceased loved ones, knowledge of the future, etc.) and the costs seem so small.
The common tactic of flattering the client aids in all this because people are more willing to believe someone who seems to like and approve of them. This is the "golden rule" of cold reading: tell the client whatever he wants to hear. Clients who leave unhappy are unlikely to return while those who leave happy will not only return, but they'll be sure to tell their friends - this is a basic principle of all business.
Results: By focusing on statements which get a positive reaction while ignoring those which get a negative reaction, the cold reader is able to construct what appears to be an eerily accurate portrait of the client's current circumstances and problems - but there is nothing truly eerie about it. What has happened is that the client, after broadcasting all sorts of information to the reader, ends up getting most of that fed back to him or her in a new package influenced by the reader's understanding of human nature and human foibles.
In a sense, these cold readings do work - after all, most of those who visit a reader end up being satisfied and feeling that they have benefited. What this really means is not that astrologers or psychics has accurately predicted the person's future, but rather it means that visiting these can be a fulfilling and personally satisfying experience. Someone has listened. Someone has taken the time to pay attention and give meaning to your experiences and problems.
You have been told that you, as an individual, are actually connected to our entire cosmos. You are told how mysterious forces in the universe around us, far greater than ourselves, work to shape our intimate destinies. You are told relatively flattering things about your character and life, and in the end you are naturally pleased that someone cares about you. In the hectic and generally disconnected modern society, you feel connected - both to another human being and to the world around you.
It's no wonder that astrologers, psychics, mediums, and other cold readers are so popular, but we shouldn't confuse that popularity with the idea that what they are doing is anything more than psychological manipulation. The fact that people are made to feel better, however briefly, is no excuse for deceiving them. Of course, it shouldn't be assumed that all such readers are engaged in deliberate deception - very often, they have probably deceived themselves first into thinking that they are genuine. If they can be said to have a moral failing, it is in ignoring the skeptical questions and problems which have doubtlessly occurred to them.-->