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Cold Reading

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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.

Ziva: I can so read your mind, Tony.
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. "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.

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.

See also Sherlock Scan, which involves many of the same skills but without the "psychic" aspect.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • ×××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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Professor Marvel on The Wizard of Oz uses this on Dorothy to convince her to go back to her farm.
  • Steve Martin does this as the lead character in Leap of Faith.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • Mentioned repeatedly in Christopher Brookmyre's Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, employed by Michael Loftus, and frequently relied on by Moira Loftus and less frequently by Gabriel Lafayette
  • Also used (and referenced by name) by Marianne in Pandaemonium to freak out her classmate with some tarot cards.
  • Lance uses this occasionally in the Quantum Prophecy series. He's an accomplished con artist, though usually he uses his skills to help his teammates.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • For Crossing Over With John Edward, John Edward had his audience sign confidentiality contracts so that they won't discuss his use of the technique. His tapings lasted for upwards of two hours. Those who've attended his live shows tend to be extremely dismissive of his performance.
  • Played with in the Doctor Who episode "The Satan Pit", in which a creature which may or may not be the actual Devil torments a group of humans on the asteroid 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.
  • On Hustle the team, primarily Albert, often uses these techniques on a mark.
  • There's a whole scene based around this trope in John Doe.
  • The Phony Psychic villain of the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Pure" does this to the cops, despite their attempts to suppress their emotional reactions.
  • Leverage
  • 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.
  • The Mentalist has Patrick, a skilled cold reader. He uses it to tease details about crimes out of those involved, supplementing his Sherlock Scan.
  • 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.
  • Discussed and demonstrated on an episode of QI.
  • 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.

  • 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.

    Theme Parks 
  • 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.

    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.

    Web Comics 
  • 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 one arc of PvP Brent tricked John Edward into channeling Obi-wan Kenobi.
  • 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.

    Western Animation 
  • 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 then start thinking he's psychic 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...
    • Of note: Stan explicitly explains how he does it more than once. In one example, he gets a middle-aged woman as a volunteer. He says an "older man" wants to talk to her. Stan explains that he guessed an older man because based on her age, there was a good chance the woman's father was deceased. If he wasn't, no one makes it to middle age without losing an "older man" who means something to them. He then asks if November meant anything special to them. She replies, "My birthday is in November!" Stan again points out that pretty much everyone has something special to them in November. If nothing else, Thanksgiving is in November. He then validates the information given by the woman and says, "He wishes you a happy birthday!" The woman asks for more, so Stan says he'll use an "old standard," and says her father is saying to stop worrying about the money. The woman validates this because she's fighting with her sister about the inheritance (a common problem when someone passes!) However, very few people are not worried about the money in some sense.
      • This being South Park, the audience misses the point and hails Stan as a psychic.
  • 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...

    Real Life 
  • 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".