Roe, C. A. and Roxburgh, E. C. (2013) An overview of cold reading strategies. In: Moreman, C. (ed.) The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World: Volume 2, Evidence and Beliefs. California: Praeger. pp. 177-203.
The standard mainstream explanation for impressive mediumistic communications is in terms of cold reading (e.g. Hyman, 2003; Lyons & Truzzi, 1991; Marks & Kamman, 1980; Nickell, 2001, 2010; Randi, 1981; Underdown, 2003). Ray Hyman’s classic account of the technique, describes it as “a procedure by which a ‘reader’ is able to persuade a client whom he has never met before that he knows all about the client’s personality and problems” (Hyman, 1977, p. 20). Unfortunately, this does not give us much insight into the actual process of cold reading, which in practice can vary in form from case to case, from a simple reliance on using statements which are true of most people (e.g. Dutton, 1988; Hyman, 1981) through to a broader definition which includes pre-session information gathering about a client (e.g. Couttie, 1988; Fuller, 1975, 1980; Keene, 1976). There are also clear indications that the cold reading ‘process’ actually consists of a number of discrete and independent strategies (including inter alia fishing, Barnum reading, and hot reading), as one of us has outlined (Roe, 1991) but this does not seem to be generally appreciated (e.g. Schwartz, 1978; see Rowland, 2001, for a more sophisticated treatment). In this chapter we will review some of the sceptical accounts that have invoked explanations in terms of cold reading before giving a detailed account of the various techniques involved, drawing in particular on an extensive but generally unknown pseudopsychic literature (e.g. Cain, 1991; Earle, 1990; Hobrin, 1990; Jones, 1989). This will focus on identifying the necessary conditions for the techniques to be practised and describing the nature of the information that can be produced by such methods. We will also briefly consider the empirical evidence that bears on the assumptions underlying pseudopsychic techniques — such as that clients are susceptible to the Barnum effect (cf. Roe, 19965), are likely to selectively forget inaccurate information and distort recalled information such that it is more personally relevant (cf. Roe, 1994), and that clients remain oblivious to the fishing and feedback stages that are characteristic of cold reading.