Cold Reading: How to Persuade People that you Really Understand Them

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Cold Reading: How to Persuade People that you Really Understand Them

No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else. (P.T. Barnum, The Art of Money Making)

Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public. (P.T. Barnum, The Art of Money Making)

Many salespeople and tricksters develop a series of techniques to persuade people that they have special insight into their customers or victims. Nearly 50 years ago Hyman (1977) wrote a paper that tried to explain the tricks conmen of one sort or another use to persuade the naive client they know all about them. The article which listed 13 points (pp. 26—9) was aimed at palmists, graphologists and the like but is equally applicable to certain rather unscrupulous consultants.

The 13 points are:

1 Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reader is confidence. If you look and act as if you believe in what you are doing, you will be able to sell even a bad reading to most of your clients.

2 Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys. This can provide you with a wealth of material about what various subclasses of our society believe, want, worry about, and so on.

3 Set the stage for your reading. Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. This catches your subject off guard. You are not challenging him to a battle of wits. You can read his character, whether he cares to believe you or not is his concern.

4 Gain his cooperation in advance. Emphasize that the success of the reading depends as much upon his sincere cooperation as upon your efforts…. State that due to difficulties of language and communication, you may not always convey the exact meaning you intend. In these cases he is to strive to reinterpret the message in terms of his own vocabulary and life.

5 Use a gimmick, such as a crystal ball, tarot cards or palm reading. The use of palmistry, say, serves two important purposes. It lends an air of novelty to the reading; but more importantly, it serves as a cover for you to stall and to formulate your next statement.

6 Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue. Even if all you are doing is a cold reading, the liberal sprinkling of stock phrases among your regular reading will add body to the reading and will fill in time as you try to formulate more precise characterizations. You can use the statements in the preceding ’stock spiels’ as a start.

7 Keep your eyes open. Also use your other senses. We have seen how to size up a client on the basis of clothing, jewellery, mannerisms and speech. Even a crude classification on such a basis can provide sufficient information for a good reading. Watch the impact of your statement upon the subject.

8 Use the technique of ’fishing’. This is simply a device for getting the subject to tell you about himself. Then you rephrase what he has told you in a coherent sketch and feed it back to him. One version of fishing is to phrase each statement in the form of a question. Then wait for the subject to reply (or react). If the reaction is positive then the reader turns the statement into a positive assertion.

9 Learn to be a good listener. During the course of a reading your client will be bursting to talk about incidents that are brought up. The good reader allows the client to talk at will.

10 Dramatize your reading. Give back what little information you do have or pick up a little bit at a time. Make it seem more than it is. Build word pictures around each divulgence. Don’t be afraid of hamming it up.

11 Always give the impression that you know more than you are saying. The successful reader, like the family doctor, always acts as if he knows much more. Once you persuade the client that you know one item of information about him that you could not possibly have obtained through normal channels, the client will automatically assume you know all.

12 Don’t be afraid to flatter your subject every chance you get. An occasional subject will protest against such flatter, but will still cherish it. In such cases you can further flatter them by saying how insightful, caring or intelligent they are.

13 Finally, remember the golden rule. Tell the client what he wants to hear.


Hyman, R. (1977) Cold Reading: How to convince strangers that you know all about them. The Zetetic 1, 18—37.