I have just finished a book called The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland, who is probably the world’s leading expert on this topic. Wikipedia defines it like this:
Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, fortune tellers, psychics, mediums and con artists to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.
I first heard the term ten years ago when I began to get interested in scepticism. But I had never read anything as detailed as Rowland’s book. Ian Rowland a writer and mentalist who claims that he can replicate any psychic ability, and reveal all the tricks of the trade. Of course this does not prove that those who say they have those powers are charlatans but we know that it is perfectly possible to do these things with no special psychic abilities.
The book begins by challenging some myths about cold reading. Many people think it is about saying very general things or fishing for clues but that’s not the way it works. Once he has established what cold reading is not, Rowland then sets about a systematic examination of its real functioning. This is the best part of the book. He is an excellent communicator and I like the way he breaks down the subject down into manageable chunks. He provides an exhaustive typology of the language and techniques. The book then demonstrates how the theory is translated into practice. It presents different verbatim transcripts showing Rowland deploying all the different techniques he’s just described. He is able to convince ordinary people that he has psychic abilities. There’s also a 3900-word all-purpose astrological reading.
According to Rowland, anyone can do this but you need a lot of natural ability to be able get away with it. I know the methodology but I don’t think I would be very convincing if I tried to do it myself. What I find absolutely fascinating is watching an illusionist doing a cold reading.
Perhaps the most intriguing question about cold reading is the intent. Clearly many are engaged in cynical manipulation of their clients, especially the celebrities. But there may be many others who actually believe in what they are doing. They are encouraged by the positive feedback they get from their clients. 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.”
It could also be the case that those doing the readings experience hallucinations, which might cause them to see things. This area could be a profitable one for further investigation.
The part of the book I like least is where he applies to other areas such as business or dating. However it is interesting to look outside the psychic/medium/tarot field and into other areas. In particular, I want to look criminal profiling. We have all been impressed by of profilers in The Silence of the Lambs, the British series Cracker and countless other movies and TV series. I have also read a number of books by real criminal profilers such as Paul Britton and John Douglas. The idea that you can build up a detailed psychological profile of a criminal by examining a crime scene is very seductive. I was always aware that it was not the same as real scientific evidence but I thought it could have some value in narrowing the field. Now though I have become increasingly sceptical about this field and its practitioners; it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A few years ago large study commissioned by the British Home Office found that according to police officers a profile had led to arrest in just 2.7% of cases.
I don’t know if the statistics in the U.S.A. are any better but it is hard not to notice the hit-and-miss nature of the enterprise. The case of the Unabomber (Theodore Kaczynski) illustrates this. They got stuff right – he was white, had problems with women and was a recluse. None of this is particularly earth shattering. But they got his age wrong by about ten years. They said he would be meticulously organised when he just the opposite. And they predicted that he would have been educated up to high school level when in fact he had a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan as well as being a graduate of Harvard University. Florida prostitute Aileen Wuornos, an American serial killer who killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, was effectively excluded from profiling typologies because the FBI database of convicted serial killers did not include women. Another infamous failure was the Beltway sniper attacks, where the killer was thought to be a middle-aged white male—but in fact the crimes were perpetrated by two black males, one of whom happened to be 17 years old.
In an article in The New Yorker, Dangerous Minds – criminal profiling made easy, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the case of Dennis Rader, the self-proclaimed “BTK killer (BTK stands for Bind, Torture, and Kill) In 2005 Rader confessed to the serial killing of 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas area from 1974 to 1991. Here is the profile:
Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental.”
The real Rader was married and had two children after the murders began. The Raders had a son in 1975 and a daughter in 1978. For 30 years Rader belonged to the Christ Lutheran Church and was also a Cub Scout leader who was remembered for teaching how to make secure knots. This profile looks uncannily like a cold reading – if you make enough guesses, some of them will be right, and the ones that are wrong will be forgotten. The problem is that those misses could lead the police in the wrong direction.
It’s possible to go a long way with an observant mind the right phrases and a bit of mental agility. In the end it is a tough task trying to be a sceptic. We want to believe this stuff. You do not win any popularity awards for debunking. Medium James Van Praagh put it like this: “…we [psychics] are here to heal people and to help people grow. Sceptics… they’re just here to destroy people. They’re not here to encourage people, to enlighten people. They’re here to destroy people.” Rowland has an interesting take on the sceptical movement, of which he is highly critical. He feels that too many of them are preaching to the converted. That may well be true but as I have mentioned in previous posts it’s very difficult to get people to change their world view. You can try to present what you feel is the most logical explanation but if people want to believe something else, there’s not much you can do.