Cold reading strategies – Psychology Course Essay

Cold reading strategies – Psychology Course Essay

1. Introduction
There can be little doubt that the relatively high levels of belief in paranormal phenomena among members of the general population are due in part to impressive experiences which they were unable, after consideration, to account for in terms of more mundane processes (cf. Schmeidler, 1985). Irwin (1985), for example, reports personal experience to be the primary factor loading on belief, irrespective of the breadth of the measure.

One potentially important source of impressive experiences is through interactions with professional psychics such as palmists and Tarot readers (Schouten, 1993), and a number of sceptical commentators have claimed (without citing particular empirical evidence) that clients are typically impressed with the content of readings they have solicited (Dutton, 1988; French et al.. 1991; Hyman, 1989).

Indeed there does seem to be some support for the claim that psychic readings are well-regarded by consumers (e.g. Haraldsson, 1985; Palmer, 1979). One recent survey (Roe, 1997) found that a surprisingly high proportion (29.5%) of the sampled population had attended a reading at some time. Although some of these clients had attended only for entertainment or other social reasons, their readings were nevertheless typically regarded as relatively accurate and specific, with 50% of attendees believing the experience to be of some value to them. This picture contrasts quite sharply with research investigating professional psychic readers, which provides little experimental evidence to support the view that they have paranormal access to information about their clients. In the most recent and most extensive review of quantitative studies evaluating material produced during ostensibly psychic readings, Schouten (1994) concluded that “there is little reason to expect mediums more often to make correct statements about matters unknown at the time than … can be expected by chance” (p. 221) .

How can these findings be reconciled? Often, successes by psychics have been explained not as a consequence of psychic ability, but in terms of the exploitation of common (but subtle) channels of communication using what has been termed “cold reading” (e.g. Schwartz, 1978; Randi, 1981). The concept is not new; Whaley (1989) for example describes it as “Originally the argot of psychic mediums by 1924 … from the fact that the customer walks in ‘cold’ – previously unknown to the fortune-teller” (p.173), and the stratagem was probably first hinted at in the writings of Conan Doyle through the instant face-to-face deductions of Sherlock Holmes, published from 1887.

A more recent definition of cold reading, taken from Ray Hyman’s classic account of the effect, 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: 20). Unfortunately, this does not give us much insight into the actual process of cold reading, and a perhaps more useful operational definition is given elsewhere by Hyman:
The cold reading employs the dynamics of the dyadic relationship between psychic and client to develop a sketch that is tailored to the client. The reader employs shrewd observation, nonverbal and verbal feedback from the client, and the client’s active cooperation to create a description that the client is sure penetrates to the core of his or her psyche. (1981, p. 428)

In practice, the techniques identified as examples of cold reading can vary in form from case to case; from a simple reliance on using statements which are true of most people (Dutton, 1988) through to a broader definition which includes pre-session information gathering about a client (Hyman, 1977; Couttie, 1988). Techniques such as ‘fishing’ (to be described later) are regarded as central to some accounts (e.g. Randi, 1981) but as separate, supplementary methods by others (Whaley, 1989). There is a real danger that overliberal and inconsistent application of the term will cause it to lose any explanatory power it has.

There are also clear indications that the cold reading ‘process’ actually consists of a number of discrete and independent strategies. Hyman (1981) hints at this when he distinguishes between two ‘types’ of reading – static and dynamic – which exploit quite different psychological mechanisms. The former makes use of commonalities between clients to allow the reader to launch into a stock spiel which should apply equally well to all, whereas the latter depends upon interaction with the client to generate material which is more tailor-made to his or her specific circumstances. An initial attempt will be made here to identify and characterise the actual techniques brought to bear in cold reading, and to specify their interrelationships. The model which has been developed is informed by two sources:

1.1 Pseudopsychic literature
There exists a substantial specialist literature describing the techniques involved in setting up as a pseudopsychic, running under titles such as Money-making Cold Reading (Hobrin, 1990) and Cashing in on the Psychic (Ruthchild, 1978). This literature is typically produced to allow the peudopsychic fraternity to share resources and expertise, and is not intended to be generally available. Books are privately published or produced by specialist publishers of magic literature, and tend to be advertised in private circulation magic society catalogues and magazines. Access to these suppliers was made possible with the assistance of Professor Robert Morris and Dr Richard Wiseman. The latter is a proficent close-up magician and member of a number of magic societies, who was at that time a member of the parapsychology unit at Edinburgh. Together, we were able to build a reasonable pseudopsychic library from which to develop a description of cold reading practices as articulated by pseudopsychics themselves (Cain, 1991; Corinda, 1984; Earle, 1990a, 1990b; Fuller, 1975, 1980; Hester & Hudson, 1977; Hobrin, 1990; Jones, 1989; Lewis, 1991; Martin, 1990; Ruthchild, 1978, 1981; Webster, 1990).

1.2 Interactions with a practicing pseudopsychic
An exploratory study, conducted in cooperation with pseudopsychic Malcolm Davidson, allowed us to investigate the mechanics of cold reading in situ. Davidson had worked as a psychic reader in the Yorkshire region for over 15 years, but was at that time semi-retired and was happy to share some of his expertise with us. A one-day initial exploratory study was arranged in which he was filmed giving separate readings to three individuals in the morning, and gave a commentary on the techniques being used in the afternoon.

Three sitters (all female) were selected to represent a broad age range , and were invited to participate in ‘a preliminary evaluation of a psychic reader’. Sittings took place in the University’s television studio, and were filmed using three video cameras. The first of these gave a side-on long shot (full body) of the sitter and reader. Cameras two and three gave mid-shots (waist up) of the sitter and reader respectively. Recordings from cameras two and three were edited together to give a vertical split-screen view of the interaction, with one half showing the reader and the other the sitter.

Upon completion of the reading, each sitter gave immediate feedback, ostensibly to allow us to decide whether further testing would be fruitful. Ss gave three ratings, indicating how impressed they were with the reading’s content, how relevant it was to worries or concerns they had, and how psychic they thought the reader was. Responses were given using a 7-point Likert scale, where 1 = not at all, and 7 = very much. Sitters’ actual ratings are reproduced in Table 1:

sitter impressed relevance psychic?
One 6 5 5
Two 6 6 7
Three 1 1 1
Table 1: Sitters’ ratings of their reading

Two of the readings were very well received, suggesting that the pseudopsychic techniques being used were successful in persuading these clients that the reader did have paranormal access to information about them. Subject three was an academic colleague who worked in the department. It seems likely that she did not conform to the stereotypes Davidson usually uses with women of her age. She is also most likely of the three to be generally sceptical of claims of psychic ability. Immediately after supplying ratings, sitters were debriefed as to the true objective of the investigation.

In the afternoon, we met with Davidson to review the video recordings. Davidson was video taped giving a commentary on the three readings, and answering questions about the actual methods used. Copies of all video material are lodged with the Koestler Chair, and are available for inspection. Video footage was studied to compare theoretical accounts of cold reading as given in the literature with actual examples of the process in practice. We had intended to conduct further work with Davidson, but sadly he died before this could be arranged.

2 An expanded model of cold reading
The above sources of information about the pseudopsychic technique suggest a model in which cold reading actually encompasses a number of discrete operations which appear to represent a hierarchy (see Figure 1).

All these processes involve the gathering of intelligence about the client, but are distinguishable on the basis of when and how transfer of information occurs, and of what form that information takes. Those at the base of the hierarchy require little, if any, interaction with the client, but the reading so-produced remains relatively vague or general. As the opportunity for interaction increases, so the reading can be made more specific to the client in attendance. Knowledge of all of the processes enables the reader to produce a reasonable sketch whatever situation he finds himself in, while being able to be increasingly impressive when circumstances allow.

Strategies which appear higher in the pyramid are somewhat dependent upon the use of those lower down for success. For example, the use of information drawn by virtue of pigeon-holing the client may be needed to initiate the necessary conditions for cold reading by providing the source material for the client to react to. Similarly, Barnum statements may be used as distractor items before feeding back information unwittingly given up by the client in warm reading. However, it should be noted that although these strategies can have a particular temporal order, in that some stages tend to be passed through to generate information necessary for stages higher in the pyramid, the reading as a whole does not represent a steady progression through the hierarchy. Rather, the reading is more likely to involve a number of switches from technique to technique depending on the information that is available. For example, if the initial conditions are such that the client immediately offers up personal information, the reader may decide not to employ lower-order methods of generating material for the reading. The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the strategies which together seem to make up cold reading.

3 Setting the stage
An important aspect of the persuasion process is to set the stage for the reading; this includes careful consideration of how the reader advertises himself, how he presents himself, and how he manages the initial interactions. Its purpose is threefold: to persuade the client that the reader is genuine, to engage the active participation of the client in the reading process, and to provide plausible ‘outs’ should the reading nevertheless not be a success.

With regard to presentation, the reader should appear professional and in control of the situation. Earle (1990b), for example, urges magicians interested in specialising in pseudopsychic effects to dress smartly, and warns that “You will save about 80-90% of what you were spending on props, but you’ll end up spending it on wardrobe”. Dean et al. (1992) have described how graphologists can use polished presentation to triumph over lack of substance. They label this the Dr Fox Effect, after the first experimental demonstration of it in which a Dr Fox gave a well-received one hour talk on games theory to 55 psychiatrists and social workers (Naftulin et al., 1973). In fact Dr Fox was an actor, although
He looked distinguished, sounded authoritative, and lectured charismatically with much jargon, enthusiasm, jokes, and references to unrelated topics. His talk was highly entertaining but deliberately meaningless. Yet the audience found it to be clear and stimulating, and nobody realized it was nonsense. (Dean et al., 1992, p. 371).

Appearance may also be effective in inducing a Halo effect (Cooper, 1981; Kelly & Renihan, 1984). Here it is argued that if the reader possesses some positive characteristics (such as dressing well, appearing warm and friendly) we will readily attribute other characteristics (e.g. that he is sincere, genuine, trustworthy) to him.

The reader works hard, both in terms of presentation and through verbal exchanges, to establish that they are in control of the situation; they emphasise that they have a track record of successful demonstrations so their expertise is not in question – any ‘failures’ must inevitably be placed firmly at the feet of the client. Thus it is already agreed that much of the burden for making the session a success falls on the client:
If something that the reader later says does not tally with the client’s beliefs or does not make sense, the client has been prepared to treat the apparent confusion as due to the client’s own failure to understand adequately rather than to the psychic’s lack of knowledge. (Hyman 1981: p. 430).

The reader also emphasises the co-operative nature of the reading. Messages may come through them which are only meaningful to the client and which cannot be deciphered without their help. Earle (1990a), for example, notes
The best readers always include a statement like, ‘I only see pieces, as in a jigsaw puzzle. It is up to you to put them together’, or, ‘I may speak of a person being crushed by a house as in The wizard of Oz, but you recognize it as a friend with overdue mortgage payments’. This attitude has the additional advantage of enlisting the active participation of the client. She is always searching for meanings to your statements and, when she makes the connections, will vividly remember them later. The better her mental images the longer she will recall, and try to validate, your statements. (p. 6)

The client’s active co-operation can be further encouraged by establishing a rapport with them. Hobrin (1990) stresses that the primary attribute in a reader is to have a pleasing, charming, disarming personality. Martin (1990) further suggests that by involving the client physically in whatever divination process is being used (such as shuffling the Tarot cards or casting the I Ching) they become participants rather than just observers.

Although the reader has asserted his expertise, he can use the process of setting the stage to also prepare an ‘out’ should the client not be able to understand elements of the reading, despite much effort. It should be stressed that this need not imply that the reader’s psychic gift is fallible in some way (which would be contrary to the primary message conveyed during stage setting, outlined above). Rather, it can be understood as suggesting that the psychic ability is somewhat independent of the percipient him or herself; whereas the gift is infallible, the percipient and client are prone to misunderstand its ‘true’ meaning. Lewis (1991), for example, recommends saying of the reading
This is like looking through frosted glass; I don’t see everything, I only see little glimpses.
Clairvoyance is not something you can just turn on and off like a tap, sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn’t.
This is not the ten commandments. I don’t know everything – if I knew everything I could win the pools.

Perhaps best of all, he draws a parallel with weather forecasting; just as weather forecasters get it badly wrong on occasion without our rejecting their predictive methods, so even gross errors of prediction here won’t invalidate the method from which they were derived (i.e. the reader’s claim to be psychic). Once the client has been sufficiently primed to work hard to understand the meaning of the reading, the pseudopsychic can move on to generate material for them.

4. The stock spiel
A stock spiel reading, also known as a psychological reading (e.g. Hyman, 1981) is made up of prepared phrases, and can be delivered not only without feedback from the client during the reading, but also without the reader having any contact with her before the session begins. Such statements allow one to give a general description of the client, perhaps including some personal details but without focussing on any specific problems. They are of particular use with “sensation-seekers” who really have only come for a reading out of curiosity or for entertainment, or in situations where the lack of contact will make the reading seem impressive, for example if giving a reading over long distances or while screened from the client. The items which make up a stock spiel can be assigned to one of three broad categories of statements; specific generalisations, specific trivia, and Barnum-type statements.

4.1 Specific generalisations
Couttie (1988) coined the term “specific generalisations” to describe items that ostensibly are very specific, but still are meaningful to most people. These items exploit the maxim that we are essentially more alike than different but that we are generally not aware of our similarity (see, e.g., Snyder & Fromkin, 1980). Jones (1989) effectively characterises specific generalisations when he states
Each of us likes to think of ourselves as unique, with problems and needs and goals that sets us apart from all the others. We’re not. Although we may mistrust generalities, whether we like it or not, there is a commonality about our fears, wants, and aspirations that make them predictable … Psychic readers recognise this, and use it to their advantage. (p. 10).

Couttie (1988) even recommends that the reader give the client a general run-down on the reader’s own life-story, hopes and fears, angled as though it was the client’s, in order to illustrate just how impressively accurate this can be. Also included here is the traditional “cradle-to-the-grave” reading, which extends the principle of similarity to suggest that most of us go through the same stages in life, and at roughly the same ages. It has even been suggested (e.g. Ruthchild, 1981) that psychics make use of life-span development books for stimulus material. A popular lay account of life-span development by Gail Sheehy (Sheehy, 1976) is a common recommendation (e.g. Martin, 1990).

As well as going through similar life events to one another, we can also relate to specific but relatively common events. Typical examples include; the death of an older male with a heart condition, the death of a very young (or unborn) child, a divorce affecting someone the client knows well, and so on. In a similar vein, Couttie (1988) suggests trying
not-too-rare names like Ann, Mary, Joan, John, Arthur, Joseph (remembering that the further North [in the United Kingdom] you go the more traditional the names are likely to be) … keep away from Smith, but you could try Williams, Willcox, Robinson or Clark. (p. 137).
And the sources of this general knowledge can be quite surprising:
I find that psychology and statistics provide a lot of these good general lines. Collect items from Psychology Today, Readers Digest, or a newspaper, statistics like ‘83% of American women over the age of 21 say that they …’ (Martin, 1990: 98)

Associating the generality with something that is unique to the client (such as the lines of the palm, or the particular arrangement of cards) serves to draw attention away from its general applicability.

4.2 Specific trivia
Other statements, labelled here as “specific trivia” (although Webster [1990] refers to them as ‘platitudes’), are so trivial that they only become memorable if they come true, and even then are impressive by virtue of being true rather than because of what they can say about the client. For example, Davidson often used the prediction that the client would see something in a shop which they would have an urge to impulse-buy, safe in the knowledge that if no such event occurs then the prediction will be forgotten. Martin (1990) suggests peppering the reading with examples of what he terms ‘out of the blue’ items which touch on; a minor car problem, or some appliance breaking down; strained relationships with someone close; a recent minor hitch in finances; a relative who is wearing blue; a driver of a green car; and a recent sleepless night.

4.3 Barnum-type statements
Barnum statements are general personality descriptions which apply to almost everyone, under most circumstances (see e.g. Tyson, 1982; Furnham and Schofield, 1987). Acceptance of such statements is referred to as the Barnum effect. Dickson & Kelly (1985: 367) have defined the effect as the tendency for “people to accept general personality interpretations as accurate descriptions of their own unique personalities”.

It is claimed that the descriptions are readily accepted because they are sufficiently vague as to allow the subject to read into them what they want. Indeed, the Barnum effect is so-called in reference to the American showman Phineas T. Barnum who is alleged to have attributed the popularity of his circus to there being “a little something for everybody” (cf. Meehl, 1956), a comment which may also apply to Barnum statements themselves. For example, Martin (1990) offers the line “You’ve come a long way psychologically from where you were even a few years ago” (p. 22), which could conceivably relate to any change the client has experienced. Less kindly, however, the choice of term may be a reference to Barnum’s claim that “There’s a sucker born every minute” (OUP, 1985; French et al., 1991 offer such an interpretation).

Specific generalisations and specific trivia can be distinguished from Barnum statements in that they differ in the degree of apparent specificity of the descriptions being given; the former rely primarily on base rates for their success whereas the latter tends to rely more on inherent vagueness to encourage the client to read meaning into them .

The phrases recommended by pseudopsychics vary little from those used in the psychological literature to investigate the Barnum Effect (see, e.g., Hester and Hudson, 1977), and indeed Earle (1990) actually recommends Forer’s (1949) original 13 Barnum statements (reproduced as Figure 2) as crib material. It has been consistently found in experimental studies that subjects are willing to accept such statements as being uniquely true of them (see Furnham & Schofield, 1987), and appear unaware of the likelihood that they could apply equally well to others (e.g. Ziv & Nevenhaus, 1972).

Where the phrases used by pseudopsychics do differ from Forer’s thirteen, they still tend to share characteristics which have been isolated by Sundberg (1955) as being influential upon acceptance or rejection, namely the use of (i) vague statements such as items 3 and 7, (ii) ‘double-headed statements’ (which make two opposite and complementary predictions) such as items 6 and 11, and (iii) favourable statements such as 4 and 9.
It has been argued (e.g. Layne and Ally, 1980; Tyson, 1982) that such sketches are effective because they allow the client to read into them what they want. Two mechanisms in particular are thought to be at work. Firstly that Ss will tend to remember only the correct statements. Hyman (1981), for example, notes of selective recall
Both lab research and what we know about actual psychic readings predict that the client will remember mainly those things the psychic said that were consistent with the overall script. (p. 433; a similar view is espoused by Hester & Hudson, 1977, p. 6).

1. You have a great need for people to like and admire you.
2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
5. Your sexual adjustment has caused some problems for you.
6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker, and don’t accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
11. At times you are extraverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
13. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Figure 2: Forer’s original ‘Barnum Statements’

And Dutton (1988) has claimed
Even where there are negative or undesirable elements in a Barnum description, subjects have … a strong tendency to notice and remember only a percentage of available items. This is selectivity of attention … confirmations are remembered, often quite vividly, whereas less plausible aspects of the description are paid correspondingly less attention. (pp. 327-8).

There is indeed some empirical evidence to suggest that clients of psychic readings do tend to recall more of the reading elements which they rated as accurate than those items rated inaccurate (Roe, 1994).

Secondly, subjects will impose their own meaningful interpretation on the statements, embellishing them with their own specific detailed experiences that will make the generalisations seem more accurate than they really were (e.g. Hyman, 1977; Corinda, 1984). This can be accounted for in terms of schema theory, which suggests that subjects are likely to unconsciously impose a particular structure on the communication which will invest it with a particular, relevant (to the percipient) meaning. The classic account of this phenomenon has been given by Bartlett (1932), who found that his subjects misrecalled a Native American folk tale called ‘The War of the Ghosts’ in ways that were determined by their prevailing schema. For example, elements of the story that did not accord with expectation were omitted, and other material was distorted so as to make it fit better with subjects’ Cambridge backgrounds (see also Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Pichert & Anderson, 1977). This process can be readily illustrated here via an example suggested by Marks & Kamman (1980, adopting a task originally used by Dooling & Lachman, 1971).

In reading the following text, try to ignore the fact that the poem is about Christopher Columbus.

With hocked gems financing him
Our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter
That tried to prevent his scheme
Your eyes deceive he said
An egg not a table correctly typifies
This unexplored domain.
Now three sturdy sisters sought proof
Forging along sometimes through calm vastness
Yet more often over turbulent peaks and valleys
Days became weeks
As many doubters spread fearful rumours
About the edge
At last from nowhere winged creatures appeared
Signifying momentous success.
Figure 3: “The voyage of Christopher Columbus”

The belief that the text is about Columbus directs our understanding of each part of the message, conjuring up particular images or interpretations for elements of the text in an effort to maintain the sense. Thus the reference to ‘three sisters’ is understood not to be taken literally, but to refer to the ships in which Columbus’ party sailed. It could be argued that similar processes are at work in the case of a pseudopsychic reading. Here the overarching schema is that what is said is intended to concern the client and should be interpreted with reference to events and circumstances surrounding them. Marks & Kamman (1980) describe this ‘effort after matches’ in terms of
The micro-machinery of subjective validation. The rule is simply – keep searching for similarities until an overall match has been made (cherchez la correspondance). Once the match is presented it will be hard to see how it could be any other way. (p. 182).

Randi (1981) gives a nice example of reading more into a reading than was actually said. As a guest with Paul Kurtz on a Canadian TV show he witnessed the psychic Geraldine Smith working the vibrations from an object belonging to the host. She gave the rather vague prediction “I’m seeing the month of January here – which is now – but there would have to be something strong with the person with January as well.” (p. 107). Although sceptical of the reading as a whole, the host of the show noted on reflection that Smith had actually determined that his birthday was in January. In fact no mention had been made of what type of association with January was being referred to – the client was left to fill in the gaps. In a similar vein, Schwartz (1978) describes a performance by Peter Hurkos in which the efforts made by the client to make sense of a statement are quite explicit:

Hurkos: One two three four five – I see five in the family.
Caller: That’s right. There are four of us and Uncle Raymond, who often stays with us.

Dean et al. (1992) describe this tendency as the Procrustean effect, after the Greek mythical figure who would stretch his guests’ limbs or sever them in order for them to fit his bed. Communications are similarly stretched or truncated to fit the client’s circumstances. Schwartz (1978: 53) has argued that even talking complete nonsense need not be a bar to success :

Hurkos: When you want to break the marriage that time he did not have a chance. When you said ‘If I don’t, if I don’t want him and I lose him – I like him, I am not listening to anybody – I want a want a want, or get the house! This is correct?
Woman: That is fantastic!

Clients may even alter their perception of events to have them fit with the reader’s predictions
For example, if a girl is told that her life will be influenced by an imaginative, sensitive man, she may start attributing artistic qualities to the basketball player she has been dating, even though she never previously thought of him as being a particularly imaginative or sensitive person. (Hester & Hudson, 1977, p. 6)

Delaney & Woodyard (1974) offer a nice experimental illustration of a situation in which subjects are motivated to actually alter their own self perception in the light of predictions made. In their study, Ss were given a personality sketch ostensibly based on their star sign but in fact descriptors were randomly allocated. Ss were also given a short questionnaire asking about their actual personality to be compared with the astrological predictions. Ss responses on this measure suggested that their self-description was influenced by the astrological sketch.

5 Pigeon-holing
Stock spiel statements are necessarily general, even though interpretation by the client is claimed to make them seem more impressive. To provide more specific assertions, the reader must narrow down the number of topic areas which could possibly be relevant. To do this he assigns the client to a particular category, generating a stereotype for that sub-population which will inform him of the kinds of interest or concern to concentrate on. Such classification seems to occur along two main dimensions which are somewhat mutually dependent: what type of person the client is, and what type of problem they are concerned with. Pigeon-holing makes use of information leakage which occurs very early in the reading situation and requires little, if any, subsequent feedback. Instances in which this situation occurs include some types of radio reading, where psychics are invited to give readings on the air for listeners who telephone the station, and more recently with advertised telephone readings. Here there is an initial (verbal) contact with the client which can provide details about sex, age, and perhaps some regional and socio-economic information, but then involves what the client may perceive to be impressively little subsequent interaction.

5.1 The client
The reader classifies the client prior to or very early in the reading, by scanning the environment for sources of intelligence about her. Davidson has stated that initial impressions of the client, as she enters the room, exchanges greetings, and seats herself, are particularly important. This is because the client is off her guard at this point, unaware that the ‘reading’ has begun, and so is prone to leak more information about herself than she would during the actual reading. Indeed, if Davidson found himself unable to allocate a client to a relatively narrow pigeon hole category by the time she sat down, it was unlikely that the reading would be a success.

The main distinctions are made according to the sex and age of the client, and at one extreme may simply use a narrowed version of the cradle-to-grave reading, or other stock spiel, determined by information given up by the sitter. For example, Couttie (1988) describes how:
Up to the age of twenty or twenty-five the main concerns are sex and relationships of different sorts. From then to the mid-thirties the concerns are mainly about jobs, money and the home. For the next ten years there is a shift towards worries about children’s futures, parental health, rethinking careers and so on. From about forty-five onwards there are worries about personal health, one’s own marriage, a desperation about the direction of one’s life, concern about grandchildren and so forth. (p. 137).

Webster (1990) similarly describes different scenarios depending on the age of the client. For younger sitters, he portrays a very positive, optimistic future (but still within the realms of possibility). From the age of 30-35, however, clients “start to realise that the dreams they had will never eventuate”. So for an older person he offers the more realistic “Money hasn’t always been easy. You’ve had to work pretty hard to get where you have.” and he predicts more moderate achievements gained through effort rather than good fortune. For much older sitters, the real concern is with loneliness as much as it is with poverty, so it is always worthwhile to describe how they won’t be alone in their old age (see, e.g., Martin, 1990, p. 36).

Further information can be gleaned from the client’s clothing, physical features, carriage and manner of speech which can point more specifically to their past history and future aspirations. Hyman (1977) provides an illustration of the process in action, recounting a story told by the magician John Mulholland which occurred in the 1930s (and which may now appear to be somewhat dated):
A young lady in her late twenties or early thirties visited a character reader. She was wearing expensive jewelry, a wedding band, and a black dress of cheap material. The observant reader noted that she was wearing shoes that were currently being advertised for people with foot trouble… By means of just these observations the reader proceeded to amaze his client with his insights. He assumed that this client came to see him as did most of his female customers, because of a love or financial problem. The black dress and the wedding band led him to reason that her husband had died recently. The expensive jewelry suggested she had been financially comfortable during marriage, but the cheap dress indicated that her husband’s death had left her penniless. The therapeutic shoes signified that she was working to support herself since her husband’s death. The reader’s shrewdness led him to the following conclusion – which turned out to be correct: The lady had met a man who had proposed to her. She wanted to marry the man to end her economic hardship. But she felt guilty about marrying so soon after her husband’s death. The reader told her what she had come to hear – that it was all right to marry without further delay. (p. 408)

In the exploratory study, Davidson noticed that one of his clients heaved a sigh as she sat down. He correctly surmised that she spent much of her working time on her feet. She was very particular about her appearance, so he believed that she was used to being in the public eye. On the assumption that she worked in a shop or public house, he fed her a line about her being very open and friendly and would be well suited to working in a profession where she would be in contact with the public – if she didn’t already. It transpired that she did indeed work in the service industry

If the reading is held in the client’s home, then themes found in collections of ornaments, pictures, or books will also indicate some hobbies, interests, and aspirations. These will help the reader to assign the client to a narrower and presumably more accurate category. When taken to an extreme, the classification can be quite specific, for example by exploiting the discovery of hobby stickers on cars which indicate membership of particular clubs or societies, or necklaces bearing initials (Hester and Hudson, 1977). The reader should not necessarily ignore very obvious sources of intelligence. As Hobrin (1990) notes, “You may be surprised to learn the number of people who forget that they are wearing their birth sign or name around their neck. They say familiarity breeds contempt; I’d say that it breeds forgetfulness … never overlook the obvious” (p. 12).

At times, this process can be barely distinguishable from “hot reading”, which involves gathering intelligence about the client in advance of the reading (and which will be described in more detail later in this chapter). However, hot reading can be distinguished from the other stratagems discussed here on the grounds that it is possible for a “shut-eye” (a reader who believes that they have psi) to unwittingly be exploiting processes such as pigeon holing, whereas it is not possible for them to be making use of hot reading, where the information gathering is much more contrived and vigorous (see, e.g., Fuller, 1975, 1980). The former may also be considered more ‘fair’ to the client, since it only makes use of sources of information which are equally available to them during the reading (and which thus can allow them to better evaluate the paranormality of the communication).

Strictly speaking, however, hot reading should not be included under the banner of cold reading, as on occasion it has been (e.g. Hyman, 1977; Randi, 1981), since it does not entail the reader coming into the reading situation “cold” (i.e. knowing nothing about the client in advance). However, when used, the information gained in this way is not baldly given up but is interwoven with information derived from the other strategies to give a broader reading, and so arguably should be included in any model dealing with the interaction of different cold reading strategies.

As well as providing an overarching category within which to set the client, simple observation can also provide the reader with titbits which can appear to be remarkably insightful. Selected examples (drawn from Martin, 1990) are given in figure 4 to give a flavour of the kind of information which can be gleaned.

Ridges in a belt may indicate fluctuations in weight.
A worn left heel (reversed in Britain) indicates a lot of time driving, perhaps with work.
Tall women tend to dislike their feet (as too big) especially when they were younger.
A mole or birthmark on the neck or shoulder is usually accompanied by one on the back, usually lower back.
Men (in particular) who wear their watch on the right wrist tend to be left-handed. This can be alluded to by predicting: “When you were a child, adults around you tried to make you change your ways, but you chose a path not as populated as most. All your life, I see you marching to the beat of a different drummer”.
Women who sigh a lot and look somewhat depressed, tend to strongly agree with a description in terms of a ‘tough life, hard uphill struggle’ no matter what their financial or social position.

Figure 4: Simple observations providing insight into the client’s circumstances

5.2 The problem
By pigeon-holing the client, and padding out the reading with general statements drawn from the categories described previously, the reader is in a position to tell her some quite impressive facts about her personality and life history. However, as Jones (1989) notes, “A perception of accuracy is not sufficient to make a reading satisfactory in the minds of most clients” (p. 22). The primary function of a reader in most instances is to act as a counsellor (Lester, 1982; Richards, 1990). Clients come to him with a problem for which they seek comfort and advice. Even “sensation-seeking” clients will identify a specific problem or question which is uppermost in their minds and wait to see what the reader has to say about it. As with the cradle-to-grave technique, strategies developed to determine the client’s problem rely on the assumption that we are more alike than different. The problems which occur in life belong to a finite (and small) number of categories, each of which has only a limited number of specific problems associated with it. The number of categories commonly used varies from psychic to psychic (see Table 2), although some of the items may represent sub-divisions of larger categories. Jones’ (1989) grouping of human problems under six categories has been contrived in part to give the particularly apt acronym THE SCAM when the letters are rearranged.

Earle (1990)
Hyman (1977) Jones (1989) Ruthchild (1981) Hobrin (1990)

sex sex
children love life

social standing
ambitions / goals
financial security social life & recreation
work & professional prospects
financial prospects
health health
expectation health
immortality health & possible long life
________ (travel)
(psychic potential) (character assessment)
Table 2: Commonly used problem area categories

Utilising the population stereotypes noted above allows the reader to assess the probabilities of each problem area being applicable in this case. By ranking them in this way he can quickly deal with each of the most likely worries. By mentioning all of the possible problem categories, he can be sure to have covered the one most relevant, even if only in the most general of terms (Corinda, 1984). This will make the reading seem successful to the client because, according to Jones (1989), she “will assign immediate significance to any mention … of her problem or worry, while she will pass over as unimportant other problems or worries … [mentioned] … in the same reading” (p. 23). Just as with describing the client, sources of actuarial data can provide accurate insights into the nature of problems that present. Martin (1990) for example claims that the average marriage lasts seven years;the average weight gain in the first year is five pounds for each partner; and the most common causes of marital breakdown include broken promises and money problems, especially in so far as money decisions involve power, security, dependency and goals
6 ‘True’ cold reading: using non-verbal feedback
The techniques described up to this point do not exploit information available through interaction with the client but depend instead on general truths and impression formation by the reader. When feedback is available during the reading, there is the opportunity to further refine these categories using what we have termed “true cold reading” (see Figure 5). This process has been likened by Hyman (1981) to the Clever Hans phenomenon (Sebeok & Rosenthal, 1981; see also Pfungst, 1911) because it exploits subtle behavioural cues emanating from the questioner during the course of the interaction to arrive at an appropriate reading.

It is achieved by forming initial hypotheses about the client which are informed by population stereotypes and environmental cues (as in pigeon holing). Here, however, these hypotheses are tested by introducing each topic (personality characterisation or problem area) in a generalised form and noting the client’s behavioural response to its introduction. If it is positive, then the sketch can be elaborated a little further until another choice has to be made and the client is asked to unwittingly provide more feedback which steers the course of the reading. If the response is negative, then the reading is either moderated or the reader may “opt out” back to general categories to try the next one in the list .

When successful, the true cold reading can follow a tree-like path, from broad trunk to branch to twig as the implicit choices made non-verbally by the client become more esoteric, resulting in end points which give very specific information indeed. And the client will tend to only remember this end point, not the stages which led to it.

Earle (1990a) illustrates the process by using Barnum statements as his starting point, but goes on to provide alternative elaborations according to the feedback he receives. For example, the initial statement “You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof…” is followed after a positive response by “…and the proof has to be on your terms, not just formula and hypothesis. The understanding must come from within”, but after a negative response results in the moderator “…you have, however, proven to have an open minded attitude. You are willing to listen to what other people have to say before making your decision”. In the study with Davidson, different feedback in two of the readings turned a “holiday” into “just a day out with friends” after negative feedback, but a trip “…outside Europe … India or Egypt … don’t be surprised if you end up galloping around the pyramids on a camel” when the client expressed interest in the topic.

The decision as to how to proceed depends on an ability to “read” the client’s responses to what is being said, exploiting the social conventions that exist for managing a dyadic communication. In normal conversation, the speaker looks intermittently at the listener, especially toward the end of utterances, to determine whether the listener is still interested in what is being said, and to gauge whether the listener wishes to take a turn as speaker (Duncan & Fiske, 1977). The listener reacts to this cue by producing behaviours which indicate essentially whether they are happy for the speaker to continue, whether they wish the speaker to change the topic of conversation, or whether they wish to take a turn as speaker. These behaviours, known as back-channel signals (Wiener et al., 1972), can be expressed through a number of modalities. For example, interest is typically indicated verbally through vocalisations including uh-huh’s and similar grunts (Argyle, 1988), facially through smiles (Brunner, 1979), and posturally through head nods, forward or sideways lean and drawing the legs back (Bull, 1987). Negative reactions can be signalled through frowning (Argyle, 1988), lowing the head or turning the head away, as well as adopting characteristics of a closed posture, such as folded arms (Bull, 1987). Pseudopsychics can similarly use these (generally unconscious) responses to gauge the appropriateness of what they are saying. In the pseudopsychic literature, commonly recommended measures indicating acceptance include eye blinks, leaning forward, dilated pupils, slight head nod, blushing. There are fewer signs for negative reactions, possibly since absence of all of the above would be taken as a negative reaction, but the few to be noted in the literature (e.g. Ruthchild, 1981) include slight frowning, folding arms, and looking away.

Many of the cues are quite subtle (e.g. some readers have suggested synchronising breathing patterns with the client so as to be sensitive to changes in that pattern) and their practical utility may be overstated. Jones (1989, pp. 50-74) does offer some interesting suggestions for ways to amplify these signals, including: dropping one’s voice to force the client to lean forward, making nonverbal behaviour more apparent; having the client lightly rest the palm of her hand on the back of yours, to be able to utilize a form of muscle reading (also known as Hellstromism or Cumberlandism – see Whaley, 1989). Jones also suggests the use of some props to sensitively monitor clients’ reactions: a glass-topped table will allow one to monitor foot movements and to see the client’s hands in her lap; swivel chairs which have been treated with water to encourage slight rust will squeak as weight is redistributed; prohibiting audio recording of readings but allowing the client to jot down notes provides a ready-made feedback channel indicating where the hits were, even to the extent that one may be able to read what was written.

There are likely to be considerable differences between individuals in the way they react to true or false statements. This can be overcome by taking measures of what constitutes a positive and/or negative response before the start of the reading-proper by using questions to which the answer is known or will be given without suspicion. Hobrin (1990) uses an introductory patter with questions like “Have you had a reading before?”, “Did any of it come true?” etc, which are designed to provide such behavioural benchmarks.
7 Warm reading: using verbal feedback
From the above we can see that the essence of cold reading is the use by the reader of nonverbal feedback from the client to help him decide between a number of already-known alternative routes for the conversation. While cold reading requires the client unwittingly to deliberate between implicit choices produced by the reader, in what might be termed ‘closed questioning’ (e.g. “do you have children?”), in warm reading the emphasis is on the client to provide answers to ‘open questions’ to which the reader need not know the range of possible answers (e.g. “what are your children’s names?”). The process of warm reading is less constrained than that for cold reading (as for example was outlined in Figure 5), in that it need not follow such a fixed path of information gathering. Rather, warm reading is opportunistic, with the reader remaining alert to any personal details given up by the sitter at any time during the session from when she enters the room to when she leaves it.

Some of this information will be freely volunteered by the client if the reader has successfully developed a rapport with her, through mirroring her body language, appearing friendly and sincere, and expressing a wish to help with her problems. The client can be encouraged to speak – or to continue speaking – by reproducing the back-channel behaviours typically adopted by the listener in conventional conversational dyads . Martin (1990) emphasises the importance of being able to listen, and to use listening body language:
Nodding occasionally, in the sense of acknowledgement is a must. A slight sideways tilt of the head is also a listening signal you must learn to use … Leaning slightly forward is standard; so is slowly (‘thoughtfully’) stroking the chin, almost as if you had a beard… This one action – attentive listening – is powerful magick [sic] by itself. For one thing, it is so rare for people to listen intently to them, that they want to talk on and on. It is a perfect way to get them to tell you their problem, and their tentative solution. (p. 78)

More ‘aggressively’, the reader can simply refrain from speaking. Earle (1990b) notes that “People abhor a silence the way Nature abhors a vacuum. The client will often fill the silence with material you can feed back later.”

7.1 Fishing
However, this haphazard method is unlikely to naturally produce all the information the reader wants to know. Other data will have to be teased out through ‘fishing’. Hyman (1977) defines fishing as “a device for getting the subject to tell you about himself”, but as well as being rather vague, this definition tends to overlook the important characteristic of fishing – that the client doesn’t realise (or at least recall) that she is the supplier of the information. Corinda (1984), for example, describes it as
A process of verbal conjuring … [in which] you have to make them tell you what they want to know – and yet they must not know they have told you. (p. 341).

Like cold reading generally, fishing is better defined operationally, and we will consider three versions here. In its crudest form, fishing involves simply asking the client for required information. Lewis (1991) for example, offers the following patter
Do you drive a red or a silver car? No? Well I see someone close to you who has a car like that. Also “Is there someone around you who wears a uniform? No? You know there are different types of uniform? I think I’m seeing a nurse’s uniform. No? I sense someone bringing you news of some sort, the person bringing the news wears a uniform. You will get benefit from the news, and so will a family member.”

Where the client answers in the affirmative, the reader will be credited with a perspicacious hit. Where unsuccessful, the reader is able to moderate the prediction, for example. by widening its applicability, or transforming its meaning altogether. Here, the acquaintance in uniform smoothly becomes only the uniformed postman delivering a message from the acquaintance!

More subtly, fishing can involve using questions framed as if they were statements (Couttie, 1988). Here the client is encouraged to elaborate openly on a topic (which of course she has been privately doing for all elements of the reading) as the reader feigns difficulty in quite comprehending the meaning of his message, or is apparently looking for confirmation for a received message. Figure 6 reproduces a conversation contrived by Couttie (1988) to illustrate how this is likely to work.

psychic: I’m getting something about a car crash?
client: Yes … my brother.
psychic: Because he keeps talking about his shoulder. He’s saying “It doesn’t half hurt.”
client: He had head injuries
psychic: That’s right, dear, his head and shoulder are hurting. It was your brother wasn’t it?
client: Yes, that’s right.
psychic: He’s saying “I was a fool for not doing up my seat-belt.” He didn’t do up his seat-belt did he?
client: No he didn’t, that’s right.
psychic: No, we haven’t met before have we? I couldn’t know your brother was in a crash unless I was in contact with him, could I?

Figure 6: Fishing by using statements as questions (from Couttie, 1988)

The reader’s initial statement is a fairly safe specific generalisation, which by the way it is presented stimulates the client to give up information which would be extremely difficult to guess at (i.e. that the sitter has a brother who died in a car crash). It is important that the reader gives the impression that whatever information the client volunteers is already known to him. In reality, the reading would be much more chaotic than presented here, as the reader switches between topics and leaves much longer delays between fishing and feeding back the fish. This would increase the likelihood of the client misrecalling that the reader brought up the topic of her brother without any prompting from her. Davidson, for example, typically has three stages to the reading; some palmistry, a Tarot card spread, and use of a crystal ball. Most fishing occurs during the palm reading, but is only fed back during the interpretation of cards (given the symbolic nature of the images, it is a straightforward matter to associate any gleaned information with one of them). The crystal ball allows Davidson to correct any errors by providing the opportunity to reinterpret any cards that he was ‘unsure of’.

Another, equally useful form of fishing is the seeking of information about one topic while ostensibly giving information about another. For example, the statement “I get the impression that someone close to you, probably someone in the family, was quite ill recently, does that sound right?” apparently relates to health. In fact the client need only mention a spouse or partner, or son or daughter, for the reader to know that he can safely talk about relationship and family matters and events which only make sense in relation to them. Ideally suited to this purpose are the throwaway items like ‘specific generalisations’ and ‘specific trivia’ noted earlier. Once again, such information can be stored to be presented later in a modified form. To ensure that the client forgets where the details have come from, the reader employs some mis-direction, changing the topic of conversation, usually with the help of predictions derived from stock spiel statements (suggested, for example, by the next Tarot card in the spread). After a suitable delay the conversation can revert back to the original topic and this “new” information divulged, typically as an interpretation of a new card.

7.2 Hot reading
Although most readers don’t generally need to resort to it, information about the client can be gathered in advance of the reading using methods collectively termed “hot reading”. Hyman (1977) describes one form of hot reading when he outlines how
If the reading is through appointment, the reader can use directories and other sources to gather information. When the client enters the consulting room, an assistant can examine the coat left behind (and often the purse as well) for papers, notes, labels, and other such cues about socioeconomic status, and so on. (p. 405).

Where the reading is held in the client’s own home, this advance scouting for information can be very calculated.
At some point, get up and say that you want a .. glass of water. Go into the kitchen and fill the glass. You are alone in the kitchen and you can stay there only a few seconds. But while you are there, find the calendar or notepad that is usually pinned up near the phone, the refrigerator or the back door. On it you will find a wealth of information about appointments, scheduled events involving your host or his family, peoples’ names, phone numbers, etc…if you can get to the medicine chest, look for prescription drugs. Pain killers, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, drugs used in geriatric cases, all tell you something about his life… Knowing the name on the drug label, you know whether the patient is the host or his wife..

Remember that any means is considered fair by the psychic hustler. You are trying to piece together a picture of your host’s life and you are using every means to achieve the desired end. Everything is a clue, even the number of toothbrushes in the bathroom. You are doing nothing more than a detective does when trying to construct a picture of a victim’s life, but of course your goal is entirely different. The detective is out to catch the culprit, but your aim is to set up the mark. (Fuller, 1980, pp. 13-14).

Keene (1976: 43-44) recounts a similar episode in his own past as a pseudopsychic. Lyons & Truzzi (1991, footnotes 60 & 61, p. 288) illustrate how organised this can be when they list professional and ‘underground’ sources which are often intended for the private detective market but which can be exploited by pseudopsychics. These books run under titles such as How to get anything on anybody (Lapin, 1983), and outline methods for locating individuals and finding out about them. Keene (1976) also describes how the network of pseudopsychics themselves can be used as an information-sharing resource, by exchanging files containing personal details of regular sitters. Among themselves, mediums often refer to such files on sitters as their ‘poems’ or ‘poetry’, to be meditated upon immediately prior to a sitting. These poems often adopt a standard format:
A cross beside a name means the individual is dead; a circle, that he’s alive. A heart next to the name indicates someone with whom the sitter was in love. “G.G.” next to “Blue Star” would mean that a medium had assigned the sitter a girl spirit-guide named Blue Star. (Keene, 1976, p. 38).

Jones (1989) has devoted whole chapters to describing how information supplied by a prospective client in booking an appointment can give an insight into their circumstances. For example, he lists eleven pieces of information which may be found on a cheque, should the client pay in advance. These include: postdated cheques indicating the imminent receipt or deposit of money; outsize cheques indicating that the client runs her own business; cheques under a pseudonym often indicating employment in the entertainment world. When presented within the framework of the psychic reading, information derived from these sources can be accurate and specific enough to be very difficult for the client to account for except in terms of the reader’s claimed psychic ability.

8 Why should such readings be successful?
Although the cold reading may be capable of generating quite accurate information, due in part to the client’s effort after meaning and their tendency to forget what wasn’t true and to embellish what was, it can be argued that this only partly explains the success of the psychic reading. Hyman (1981) notes that although it is unlikely that the pseudopsychic reading will generate information which is truly new to the client, it may still have utility for them, as “He or she may have a new insight into the conflicts and problems that precipitated the consultation. And new alternatives for coping with the situation may have been opened up” (p. 179). Dean (1986/7) has commented that “For every Western astrologer who concentrates on prediction there are probably another two who concentrate on psychology and counselling. The popular view of Western astrology as consisting of prediction and nothing else is incorrect” (p. 168). And Jones (1989) reflects:
It is an entrancing experience, having one’s life described by a stranger. It’s an exercise as seductive as looking at a photograph of one’s self. At the very least, what (you get for your money) [sic] is an attentive listener and guilt-free self-absorption … Indeed there are some who maintain that today’s practicing psychic is the poor man’s analyst. (p. 5)

There may still be a stigma attached to visiting a mental health worker or counsellor, particularly among the working classes; according to Ruthchild (1981), visiting a psychic may provide a socially acceptable alternative forum for talking though one’s problems and concerns. Pseudopsychics are generally aware of their role as counsellors, and often echo the Hippocratic admonition to ‘first do no harm’, avoiding offering independent advice but preferring instead to provide non-judgemental support for the decision already reached by the client. Corinda (1984) for example, comments
One thing is vital knowledge to the reader and should never be forgotten; that is, nearly all clients ask a question which has already been considered by them and they have invariably formed their own opinions as to what to do … make it a rule to find out what they have decided they should do – and you advise the same. (p. 351).

A common scenario is that of a client who has some important or unpalatable life-decision to make. Bascom Jones (1989) notes that such people “know what they ought to do but can’t find the courage to do it. What these people need is self-confidence and belief in themselves … [I just] give them a push in the right direction.” (p. 6). In this way, the client can be relieved of some of the responsibility for their choices and actions, as any blame can later be laid at the door of the reader.

There is some evidence to suggest that readers can be quite skilled in the art of counselling. Lester (1982) has considered parallels between the psychic reading and other more orthodox forms of therapy, and noted a number of commonalities, which left him impressed with the readers’ competence at the counselling process. Sechrest & Bryan (1968) found the advice offered by astrologers to be realistic, and usually vigorous, personal and friendly, and concluded that such consultations were unlikely to be damaging and probably represented a great bargain because they were relatively cheap. Dean (1986/7) concludes that “In a society that denies ego support to most people, astrology [and presumably other forms of divination] provides it at a very low price.” (p. 178). Thurstone & Reed (1984) surprisingly found that psychic readings, given at a distance by anonymous psychics were rated by paying clients as a more valuable source of counselling than more orthodox psychological techniques. This suggests that a reader may be able to provide a valuable service even if his claim to be psychic is untrue. There is great scope to further consider both the interpersonal expertise that the reader may possess, which may contribute to any therapeutic effects, and to determine what criteria the client applies when evaluating the reading. This promises to be a fruitful area for future research.

9 Summary
This chapter began by describing how subjectively impressive psychic readings have been accounted for in terms of deceptive practices known as cold reading. Existing characterisations of cold reading were criticised as too vague and inconsistent to be useful. A new model of cold reading strategies was elaborated, informed by a review of magic literature concerned with pseudopsychic techniques, and by an exploratory study with a practicing pseudopsychic. These suggested that cold reading may be more usefully regarded as consisting of a number of discrete strategies which generate information about the client in different ways. These strategies were described and illustrated. The methods were characterised as falling into a hierarchical arrangement. Those lower down the hierarchy are effective under conditions of impoverished feedback, but are capable of only relatively general information. Indeed, their primary purpose often is to act as a platform for more sophisticated methods, since the generation of more specific information by ‘higher’ strategies can be dependent upon the use of more basic methods to provide the material necessary to encourage reactions from the client or to misdirect them away from their own contributions.

The information produced by the basic use of a stock spiel (made up of Barnum statements, specific generalisations and specific trivia) is qualitatively different from that produced by the more sophisticated methods. When used together with more interactive techniques, these strategies can provide a well balanced reading which deals equally well with the general picture as it does with specific details. Thus it is as likely to tell a client that she will live to a ripe old age as it is that she has three cats and a dog. Very little work has been done to find out what type of information or advice is most likely to convince the client of their paranormal origin, but it is not necessarily the most specific or improbable items. Richards (1990) illustrates this when he states
A reading might contain the evidential statement that, “You have a husband with a glass eye”, but the value derived from the reading is assigned by the client to statements like, “You need to relax more at home and communicate more effectively with your husband.” (p. 278).

This account of the pseudopsychic reading draws attention to the fact that all the information emanates from the client in one way or another, making it very unlikely that she will be presented with material that is particularly new or surprising to her. It is unlikely, then, that the primary reason for the success of many psychic readings is the psychic or predictive function, and it is suggested that the primary role may be as a therapeutic, quasi-counselling event.
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