Cold Reading is an umbrella term for a variety of mainly verbal techniques that gives someone the appearance of knowing ‘all about’ someone else with no prior knowledge of that person. In some ways, cold reading is the ‘science’ of what a palm reader or tarot reader does knowingly or unknowingly. That is, the ability to come to an impossibly quick understanding of what makes another person ‘tick. Or at least, give the impression that they know these things. In some ways you could say that cold reading techniques give the appearance of ‘instant empathy’ – and as such it is a powerful set of techniques indeed.
Recently the term ‘cold reading’ has become attached to TV mentalists such as Derren Brown. Derren constructs effects that give the illusion that he is a master of body language and NLP. In fact, the stunts many mentalists perform are no more than tricks dressed up as science for an audience that no longer believes in ‘real magic’. Consequently many lay people, and even people in the magic and mentalism community get caught up in the ‘explanation’ of the effects. They forget that these effects are simply magic tricks masquerading as psuedo-science. The ‘cold reading’ surrounding these routines are a bluff.
Because of this interest in ‘cold reading’ as a science, many people see it as a pure science. But they’d be better off studying the source material; tarot, palmistry, graphology and other related reading systems. Time and time again on magic and mentalism forums you hear people wanting to learn ‘all about cold reading’ and very often the answer is usually ‘learn a system’. But why is that?
With the term cold reading we can tend to get a bit unstuck when it comes to learning to use it. It’s a bit like thinking you can ride a bicycle by simply reading a book about it. Learning the science of making bicycles may be very interesting, but if you want to learn to ride a bicycle you need to get on one. Practicing riding a bike is a process that involves attempts, failures and learning as you go. Becoming proficient at riding a bike is largely intuitive, and is different for everyone. You need to learn how to ride first, and ultimately you have to teach yourself – it’s an entirely personal experience. One can learn about the vehicle later. Knowing how the chain connects to the wheel won’t prevent you falling off or make you a better rider.
So it is with readings. Learn a system (i.e. learn to ride) first. Give some readings. Then read some books on cold reading. The cold reading books will suddenly all make sense, and will help you improve the readings that you’ve already started to give, and enable you to even leave the system behind on occasion.
Here’s one of the biggest problems – many people read everything there is to know about cold reading without giving even one reading. This renders them impotent with knowledge. It’s a bit like remembering a whole bunch of dates and thinking you know about history – without context, the information is useless.
The crazy thing is that ‘cold reading’ is a perfectly natural occurrence, and we all do it to some degree. When someone walks into a room we make assumptions about them the moment they enter. The way they walk, the way they talk, the way they hold themselves, the way they dress, their accent, their mannerisms, what they talk about etc.
However, learning a bunch of ‘cold reading’ techniques can sometimes short-circuit our own natural ability to ‘read’ people. We can be so busy trying to remember what to say and how to act as we calculate ‘cold reading stuff’ in our minds, we can close off our built-in gut-reactions.
We already get a lot of information from people simply from what they’re like! And the best cold reading techniques simply build on the natural rapport we are all born with. If you simply spent an hour ‘people watching’ and practiced coming to assumptions in your mind about what people were like you’d be better at it. And if you simply struck up conversations with these people and tried to become their friend (or at least have a conversation with them where they felt comfortable with you) you’d be empathic, understanding, caring, and to some extent you’d mirror the other persons likes, dislikes and you’d look for some kind of alignment of values. But is that cold reading?
Could be. Might not be. Probably a bit of everything. Cold reading is a very wide term for so many techniques – many that we do naturally. Does a naturally born seducer use seduction techniques? Or can charm be learned? And what’s the difference between learned charm and natural charm?
Very little it seems. I just wanted to show that ‘cold reading’ as a term is somewhat vague and covers a wide variety of techniques. I have argued this out over many glasses of wine and on many internet forums. To be honest it doesn’t really matter what you think the standard definition is. To many people the term ‘cold reading’ is using all these techniques I’ve mentioned – but on purpose i.e. Specifically setting out to deceive another person into thinking you know all about them. However, with practice ‘cold reading’ can become an ability or skill that becomes second nature – so even that becomes vague.
Some people are naturals – a ‘people person’ – the types of people who are able to connect with others simply because ‘they can’. Some people are people you feel you can just ‘open up to’. You may have a friend or relative that you feel really understands you and listens. You may feel the only person who really understands you is your therapist! Whoever you think of as ’empathic’ to your own psyche, you probably don’t believe that they’re purposefully manipulating the little they know about you to pretend to have a greater knowledge of yourself than even, well, yourself. Because they’re not – they’re someone you know and trust – and this is the nature of friendship, relationships and humanity as a whole. We are all ‘people persons’ to a certain extent.
Even if you could ‘do’ cold reading, what would you do with it? What are you learning it for? This is the main question that people forget to ask themselves when they want to learn cold reading. What for?
Most only have a vague notion. An idea that if they learnt it they’d be ever so slightly superhuman, attractive or even a ‘babe magnet’. For this reason you find very few women scouring the ‘net for cold reading books. Women tend to be far more empathic than men and probably wonder what all the fuss is about.
Not only that they’re far more likely to ‘believe’ in tarot and palmistry in the first place and just do ‘what comes natural’. They go on gut reaction, instinct and their own heightened sense of empathy. Most men are looking to learn about cold reading as a form of one-upmanship – a way to get one over on the rest of the pack, increase their social standing and suchlike.
So my advice is – learn a system, practice on yourself and on others. When you feel like you’ve had some interesting experiences and had some positive (and not so positive!) reactions, read some books and learn some cold reading techniques – and find out what you did.