Often occurs in stuff where Phony Psychics might be involved. One character pretends to be psychic towards another, usually The Watson. In reality, they're just very good at observation, good with broad generalizations, and have probably gone through the other person's bag.
Let's give a hypothetical example — Ziva David and Tony DiNozzo from NCIS.
Tony: Nah, Ziva. No way you could read my mind. I'll bet you ten bucks that you can't.
Ziva: OK, four items. Firstly, you put up a front of confidence, but you're insecure inside. Secondly, you have a fear you don't tell people about. Thirdly, you think you're really attractive. And finally, you really want to see me pole-dancing.
Tony: How did you know that?
Gibbs: How did she know what, DiNozzo? Come on, get the truck!
There are a few reasons why this works:
- People have a tendency to take generalized statements and personalize them, believing that they apply specifically to themselves (this is called the Forer effect). Everyone has "a side of themselves that they don't want others to see", for example. This is the same reason why people believe in horoscopes despite there being twelve predictions for roughly seven billion people. Cold readers often do this in front of a crowd, as well, which jumps the chances up to near-certainty.
- The mark is usually looking for answers and will latch onto the tiniest detail that will fit their expectations. The fact that they're seeing a psychic in the first place shows that they have some belief in the concept. It's also easy to forget the things the cold reader said that were inaccurate, by virtue of Confirmation Bias.
- "Psychics" use observation and insight to lead on the mark. Age is usually a very good indicator: for example, an older person will be around the age of retirement — so they may be "thinking about their options in life" — or may have fought in an armed conflict. (This is technically warm reading, and there's also hot reading, but let's not split hairs.) It doesn't matter if the psychic guesses incorrectly, since it's the correct guesses that the mark will pay attention to.
- The mark has a pretty good chance of just giving the psychic the information outright once they're on the right track. For instance, if the psychic says they're hearing the voice of someone and starts sounding out the first letter of a name, chances are good the person will then blurt out the name of someone they knew with that letter in their name. After all, once the person is hooked, they're likely to want to "help" the psychic, or just hysterical. At that point, all the psychic needs to do is tell them what they want to hear.
Though this sounds easy, it's worth mentioning that this requires a great deal of insight, improvisational ability and force of personality from the "psychic" to work in a convincing manner. That said, it seems that people can also do this accidentally in real life, thinking they're really psychic and fooling themselves the same way they fool the mark.
See also Sherlock Scan, which involves many of the same skills but without the "psychic" aspect.
For reference, the opposite of Cold Reading is "Hot Reading," where the supposed reader is secretly fed information about a subject he claims to know nothing about. The most notorious is Peter Popoff, a televangelist who claimed a divine power of prophecy about strangers, which was actually supplied by his wife who read him information about them through a secret radio earpiece during his services. He was eventually exposed by James Randi who managed to tap into the radio frequency to listen in, not that it stopped the scammer from bouncing back eventually with a new variant of his scheme.
- ×××HOLiC has Yuuko teaching Watanuki the difference between a Phony Psychic who charges for simply doing this, and a real psychic who guesses everything about Watanuki, from his name to his ability to see ghosts, without even asking. Yuuko even asks the phony whether it will rain, and she replied that it won't, according to the meterologist that morning. Yuuko asked the same thing to the real psychic, to which the psychic replied that it will rain, and seconds later, it did indeed rain from a seemingly clear sky.
She also made a distinction unusual for the subject matter and an occult setting, stating that there's nothing wrong with being a fortune teller with no psychic or magical powers, or in using cold reading to give advice... if you do the work you're claiming to do and being paid for. (The phony in question was an astrologer who made no attempt to cast Watanuki's horoscope and evidently had never studied the subject.)
- The Warbeasts in No Game No Life claim to be psychic, but in reality they just practice an advanced version of this, as their heightened senses can hear a person's heartbeat. Sora scares them when he reveals he knows their secret because he is also an adept cold reader.
- In The Breakfast Club, Allison reveals details about Brian which look like she is a psychic. Then she reveals that she just went through his wallet.
- Steve Martin does this as the lead character in Leap of Faith. In an Establishing Character Moment, he's good enough at this to peg the insecurities of a cop who's in the process of arresting him, which touches the cop so much that he not only lets him off the ticket, he makes a donation to Jonas's ministry.
- The 1947 noir Nightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power as an ambitious carny who vaults to fame and fortune as a cold reader after causing an accident that creates the job opening. It's like The Phony Psychic's Tell-Tale Heart.
- In Now You See Me, Merritt guesses Henley's name right on their first encounter only to be exposed by Atlas who notes that the name was written on her coffee cup.
- Pee-wee's Big Adventure: When Pee-wee goes to the sham psychic Madame Ruby, he first demands that she tell him why he's there. She thinks for a moment before saying, "You're here because you... want something," which could apply to virtually anything. This satisfies Pee-wee. She then uses his wallet to make more informed statements.
- Professor Marvel on The Wizard of Oz uses this on Dorothy to convince her to go back to her farm. Once he figures out that she's running away, he has a "vision" in his crystal ball of a farmhouse where people are sad and worried about her. (He even makes an astute guess that the barn has "a weather vane with a running horse.") It works and she rushes back home without considering his revelation would require precisely zero psychic ability.
- Compliance: The caller, who impersonates a police officer and gets people to do demeaning things, uses cold reading techniques to legitimize his false identity. He occasionally implies that he has information, such as a person's name or family background, to prompt the person into volunteering information that he then claims to have already had. As sometimes happens with cold reading, he'll occasionally hit a dead end, such as when he tries to pressure a woman by saying he'll have police look over her criminal history, only for her to counter that she has no criminal history.
- Used in Susan Price's The Bearwood Witch, and somewhat subverted in that the titular character is not only an excellent cold reader, but also a real witch.
- The Great Merlini: In one of the short stories, Merlini uses this technique on the murderer to figure out where an important piece of evidence is. It works.
- Exaggerated in Second Apocalypse with Anasurimbor Kellhus, a member of a monastic sect that has spent thousands of years honing themselves into the epitome of Awesomeness by Analysis. Kellhus can easily read emotions and broad concepts on a stranger's face, and after getting to know them, he can practically read minds merely by observation. At one point, he finishes a sentence that another character is thinking.
- Namechecked in the Yes, Prime Minister novelization, where Hacker thinks there's a plot against him, and asks the Chief Whip what he's noticed out of the ordinary. The Chief Whip then has to work out what he's on about, while giving the impression that he knows already. The "editor" adds:
'A slightly difficult time with a little unrest on the back benches' was what fortunetellers call a cold reading: something that is always true and always safe to say.
- Monk: The novel Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii sees Monk and Natalie cross paths with one such notorious psychic named Dylan Swift, who Monk pegs right away as a cold reader, even explaining to Natalie just how he reads people.
- Tattletale from Worm has a Sherlock Scan power which she initially tries to pass off as mind reading. Her non-powered knowledge of how people work combined with the conclusions her power gives her allow her to pick up uncomfortable secrets and figure out opponent's weakness and tactics with startling accuracy. She eventually drops it when an opponent who's heard about her shows up at a fight with a helmet that blocks mind reading and announces that the helmet's sensors aren't picking up any psychic powers. From then on, Tattletale responds to any questions about how her power works by blowing right past them.
- Played with on 3rd Rock from the Sun. When Mary goes to a psychic, Dick points out that the psychic is doing this. Then the psychic makes some vague generalisations about Dick. He immediately interprets them as referring to his extraterrestrial origins and panics.
- The British TV series Afterlife featured one of these, only there the perpetrator was a skeptic demonstrating how cold reading works. He is, of course, correct...except that he's now got an actual psychic in his circle.
- Doctor Who: Played With in "The Satan Pit", in which a creature which may or may not be the actual Devil torments a group of humans on the planet where it's imprisoned by seemingly identifying their darkest secrets ("The captain, so scared of command.. the soldier, still haunted by the eyes of his wife..."). The Doctor, who is naturally a bit sceptical of this "the actual Devil" thing, then points out that for all its seeming omnipotence, the Beast is actually just playing on very common fears and bringing up incredibly vague statements that could refer to anything.
The Doctor: You want voices in the dark, listen to mine. That thing is playing on very basic fears. Darkness, childhood nightmares, all that stuff.
Danny: But that's how the Devil works!
The Doctor: Or, a good psychologist.
- An episode has the team takes down a Phony Psychic who is using cold reading, among other techniques. After successfully using them on Parker, the team convinces him that they are really psychic.
- This is played with on The Listener. Toby consults with the police as an expert in cold reading and interpreting facial expressions but he is in fact a telepath. However, he can only read surface thoughts so to get the whole story out of a witness or suspect he will tell them generic things about the case and then listen to what they think in response. He will then use that information to steer the conversation in the right direction until the other person is convinced that he knows everything already.
- This gets even more play when Toby is interrogating a magician who specializes in cold reading. The magician performs a Sherlock Scan of the cops and then does a cold reading on them while Toby can hear the guy's thought process. Toby finds the experience surreal because the magician is so good that he can predict what Toby is thinking while Toby is thinking it. The magician, not knowing that Toby is a telepath, is similarly impressed by Toby since he thought that he was immune to the technique but Toby read him perfectly.
- A Season 4 episode of Modern Family sees Gloria bring Alex along on a visit to her psychic adviser. The skeptical Alex deliberately throws in false information about herself to prove that the woman is employing this trope, but decides not to say anything once she sees how comforting Gloria finds the "messages from her grandmother", even though the psychic is blatantly just telling her what she wants to hear. Of course, since this show loves the Ironic Echo, one of the psychic's predictions about Alex actually comes true in a roundabout sort of way at the end of the episode, causing her to doubt her opinion for a moment.
- New Tricks: Used by a fake psychic in "Dead Man Talking". Brian brilliantly turns the tables on him by doing his own Sherlock Scan and revealing all kinds of things the psychic would rather have kept secret.
- The very first episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! targeted spiritualists, and discussed cold reading extensively.
- Parodied in "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Your Horoscope for Today", which takes the usual platitudes of horoscopes and either adds something very specific ("your love life will run into trouble when your fiancee hurls a javelin through your chest"), editorializes ("work a little bit harder on improving your low self-esteem, you stupid freak"), or simply makes them so vague they're literally always true ("the stars predict tomorrow you'll wake up, do a bunch of stuff, and then go back to sleep").
- Bleak Expectations: Spoofed mercilessly when Pip Bin and Harry Biscuit go to see a séance. The medium, one Short Medium Larger, is identified as a huckster by Harry Biscuit before she begins, but he still falls for her act anyway because he's Harry Biscuit. First, she claims she already knew his name after he'd given it to her, and then she uses a ludicrously overlong sweeping question on whether someone Harry has met ranging from family to casual strangers might have died. Harry is still impressed by this.
- At Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, near the "Poseidon's Fury" attraction, there is a "talking fountain" that has the voice of some park employee behind it, and the fountain claims to be psychic. This is played entirely for laughs, as the predictions it gives are incredibly (and 100% intentionally) vague. When a ten-year-old boy stood in front of it, for example, the fountain took the incredible leap of guessing he liked pizza and video games.
- Miriel in Fire Emblem Awakening is intrigued with Virion's apparent ability to make rather accurate predictions about the future. Virion demonstrates it, and then explains that it's essentially this - he is talking with a person to figure out who/what kind of person they are, and then makes a vague prediction about what is likely to happen. Of course, people might actually have it happen because they will it. Virion actually treats this as somewhat of a science.
- Parodied in El Goonish Shive when Grace and Ellen go to school for the first time, and one of the teachers pretends to deduce things about them upon first glance, leading to a confused comment about "... a duplicate squirrel of some sort." Grace is a part-squirrel shapeshifting alien chimaera, and Ellen is a literal Opposite-Sex Clone (of Elliot), so he was, in fact, unsettlingly close.
- In Lackadaisy, Serafine uses cold reading in an attempt to convince Mordecai to join the Maitre Carrefour cult.
Serafine: But you should know — Maitre Carrefour, he set us on dis criss-cross path. He says he knows you. You met him before. On a lonely road somewhere. In an alley. By de tracks. On a train maybe. When you was in dat same little boat as us. When you was lost.
- In The Order of the Stick strip 534, Roy's ghost thinks someone can finally hear him when a woman claiming to be a psychic claims to sense something, but all she does is a cold reading that ends up being about someone's dog.
- Family Guy
- Parodied when John Edward goes through most of the entire alphabet trying to guess Peter's name, and it's Peter himself who blurts it out once Edwards gets to the correct letter.
- Another episode has Peter, after learning the elements of cold reading, become a "psychic" and assisting the police with finding a missing kid attached to a bomb. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't end well...
- There's an episode of South Park where Stan calls out John Edward on this, and then to prove that he's a fake Stan learns about cold readings and tries it out. People start thinking he's psychic (despite him explaining the entire "cold reading" procedure every time he does it), and he ends up with his own show. The episode, incidentally, is called "The Biggest Douche in the Universe", and ends with Edward being abducted by aliens to serve as a contestant in a literal Biggest Douche in the Universe contest. He wins against a literal giant douche...
- James Randi once passed out a series of horoscopes to a college class which were supposedly based on their astrological information and had them rate its accuracy from 1 to 5. The average rating was approximately 4. Then he had each person pass their horoscope to the person behind them, and they found that everyone got exactly the same paper.
- This trope can be found in an experiment performed by a French scientist. He placed an ad in a Paris newspaper offering free horoscopes (the type based on your time and place of birth), to which about 150 replies were received. In addition to the horoscopes, those who responded to the ad were provided with and asked to send back a questionnaire outlining how accurate they believed their horoscope was. Ninety-four percent of the respondents (and ninety percent of their family and friends) claimed to be at least recognizable in the horoscope. However, not only did everyone get the same horoscope, but it was one originally drawn up for a serial killer.
- Dara Ó Briain makes mention on one of his tours of a cold reader visiting Ireland, a country which is incredibly Catholic historically, and asking an audience if anyone had "lost a Mary".
- Orson Welles was a trained magician, and knew a good deal about how to do cold readings. In this video he explains the tricks of the trade and how, after a while, phony psychics can risk believing their own hype, or "becoming a shuteye".
- Hot reading, mentioned in the trope description, is a comparable trick but inverted. The magician or mentalist will memorize facts about a person ahead of time, and later reveal these facts in what will appear to be a spontaneous outpouring. This trick is beloved of corporate magicians, who will be introduced to a large number of people at an event at one time.