How to: Do a cold reading

Amaze your friends with your own psychic abilities. A few basic principles will set you on your way.

Bill Busher, president of Central New York Skeptics, calls cold reading a "skill of confidence." This is the method by which a psychic convinces someone that they know something intimate about them immediately upon meeting them. To cold-read convincingly, psychics must be personally engaging, tap into natural intuition and remain constantly vigilant for the cues that people unknowingly give off. Whatever your feeling about psychics, you'll make yourself a far more lively cocktail party guest once you've mastered the rules of this subtle psychological game.

Set the stage. As a psychic, you want to convey an air of confidence. All those tired psychic clichés—incense, candles, a crystal ball—are tools to make the subject buy into your authenticity. If you really want to convince someone of your ability, say you can read their palm or handwriting, or carry around some tarot cards. "It does not matter which mechanism you choose," says Jamy Ian Swiss, a magician and vice president of NYC Skeptics (nycskeptics.org). "You are far more likely to gain cooperation of your audience when tying your reading to a particular device."

Shotgun it. Most appropriate with an audience, shotgunning is a technique used by cold-readers to help them zero in on an amenable subject. In this approach, the psychic provides very general information to a large number of people, assuming that at least one of them will find it relevant. For instance, you could say, "M. I have a message for an M. Who is M?" Chances are, someone will get excited and respond. There's your sucker. Once you have identified your subject, continue with another vague statement, like, "I see water…did something happen with water?" If the person shrugs, either guess again or be aggressive—"No fisherman? Cruise? Boat?" Psychics will continue until they get a nod or some other affirmation.

Rainbow ruse. It is human nature to accept ambiguous information as applicable to ourselves, which makes it fairly easy to maintain a subject's attention if you know what you're doing. Psychics heavily rely on the use of equivocal statements: vague, even contradictory opinions statements that could describe anyone. These are known as "Barnum Statements" (after the famous manipulator of the masses). For example, say, "You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself." Or try, "At times, you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision." These may read like bad fortune cookie messages, but when told with the right confidential tone, Swiss assures, subjects find them to be "highly accurate, highly personal and unique to them." (For more information, visit skepdic.com/forer.html.)

Vanishing negative. To gain full trust, you may have to resort to a bit of verbal sleight of hand that confident psychics readily employ. Most subjects remember the basic theme of a question, not its exact logic. For instance, you might ask, "You do not work with children, do you?" You then affirm the correctness of your suspicion, regardless of the answer. The subject could answer "no," and you would say, "Right, I didn't think so"; if they answer "yes," tell them, "I thought so." To be a good psychic, avoid making specific statements. Throw out vague questions and let the subject guide you.

Hits and misses. Much of a psychic's prowess rests on skillful manipulation of a subject's selective memory. According to Busher, "The subject forgets the misses and remembers only the hits." In other words, a few false starts are no big deal. Psychic channeling is pure guesswork. You can assume that any subject is conflicted with issues of love, money, work or health (who isn't?), so narrow down to some version of these. Be as intuitive as you can, using cues like nods, smiles and sighs. "Once you hit a target, keep pursuing that theme," Swiss advises.