The Cold Truth about Psychics

by Bob Smet

According to the magic book suppliers I've spoken to, two recent books are the definitive books in the area of cold reading: King of the Cold Readers (KCR) by Bascom Jones and Red Hot Cold Reading (RHCR) by Thomas Saville, Ph.D. and Herb Dewey. Authors Jones and Dewey are respectively touted as prominent west coast and east coast psychics. Not being your typical psychic groupie, it should come as no surprise that I have never heard of either one. Thomas Saville is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State College in Denver, Colorado.

For those unfamiliar with the term, cold reading, according to RHCR, is "the description of the personality, characteristics, features, past experiences and sometimes the future of a person without the use of standard psychological or other formal diagnostic procedures."

The authors wrote their books as guides to the practice of cold reading by providing the typical readings, the sizing up of clients and the basic dos and don'ts of effective cold reading. Both books present typical formula readings; Saville and Dewey aptly call their formula reading The Barnum Effect, which goes, "You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused energy which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them." Etc. This type of reading is just for starters. To personalize it further, other factors come into play. More on that later.

The interesting thing about these books is that they are written with the sincere interest in developing the psychic as the poor man's psychologist. While a psychologist openly shares psychological principles to promote treatment, psychics use psychology as a personal tool to manipulate the client, known as the sitter, presumably for the sitter's own good. In the majority of cases, sitters go to psychics to address a personal problem, whether it's travel, health, expectations, sex, career, ambitions, or money (T.H.E. S.C.A.M., as Jones calls it). The successful psychic is one that lets the sitter depart feeling hopeful, self-confident or to simply get a better sense of direction in their life. The psychic's goal as described here is not to send the sitter away feeling depressed or fearful. Each author sincerely feels that the psychic must act responsibly to play the role of caregiver, albeit a hired caregiver. Nothing in either book addresses the devious practices typically associated with the charlatans in the field; take my word for it -- here is plenty of info here to get anyone with a vivid imagination interested in stretching their ethical boundaries.

The success of cold reading lies in the sitter embellishing "selected statements from the reading, with details that make the generalizations appear more accurate than they are" (KCR). To further their success, psychics must equip themselves with the fundamental knowledge regarding human nature that most of us do not normally appreciate. They realize that we arrogantly think of ourselves as unique and more different than similar, when in fact it is just the opposite. Whether we like to admit it, we all generally possess similar fears, desires, drives, etc., and it is this truth that psychics exploit.

I also like Saville's contribution of detailing the psychological factors that influence the sitter's credulousness to the psychic's craft, such as the self- serving bias, the air of confidence of the presentation, selective perception/recall, self-fulfilling prophesies, etc. By far, I thought the following typical generalities about people (chosen from several) were very insightful about how psychics ply their craft:

RHCR gives several additional observations about women since 80% of the sitters are women!

You can imagine the effect of a psychic's abilities when he or she comes in armed with the formula reading, knowledge of common life histories, and a good grasp of human nature and body language, all presented with an air of confidence that is wholeheartedly receptive to the sitter.

I never planned on becoming a cold reader before reading these books nor do I intend to do it now. I nevertheless find it very insightful to know how it's done if for no other reason to be able to spot it whenever I see it being practiced. As a skeptic, I've generally been hostile to the psychic charlatan who deliberately deceive the unknowing. Although the tone of the authors is benevolent, I'm unforgiving about the net effect of their techniques_ promoting the sitter's passive acceptance of the psychic's claims through the use of benevolently-spirited deception is still deception, no matter how one packages it.

The books are only about 90 pages long, sized at 8 1/2" x 11" and cost $40 apiece. Being interested in the field, I called a few magic stores around the country and discovered that they are the key books in the area of cold reading. If any REALL members would like to borrow them, just let me know.

[Bob Smet is a Patron Member of REALL and an environmental engineer with the Illinois EPA.]

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