I wrote a post on how to be a good storyteller when you give a Tarot reading, but being too much of a storyteller, rather than a Tarot interpreter, is sometimes also the case.

Throughout history, psychics and mediums have been using several psychological tricks to appear earnest and clairvoyant to people, whereas really they are just simple knacks that could be used by anyone. It is especially true today where material is readily accessible on the Internet, so it is quite easy to build up your arsenal.

In physical readings, it is especially easy to get away with a cold read –

  • sitters tend to be more emotionally involved in a face-to-face seminar and can be exploited easily over sensitive topics (death, grievance, material issues, break-ups etc)
  • sitters offer a wide array of different subconscious hints to their attitude with body language, micromovements (especially facial muscles), eye coordination, posture, grimaces etc. Very experienced cold readers are able to grasp minute changes in the person and respond accordingly
  • we tend to follow certain psychological patterns, such as confirmation bias – from a block of information, we remember and synthesize what supports our claim and forget or ignore the rest
  • the former works with supporting divination claims as well – the reader offers a set of several claims and once something happens in your life to confirm one of them, you immediately render the entire divination true

Most cold readings thrive on textual tools, though – especially in the modern day where online readings (of any kind, not just Tarot) are widely available via e-mail, chat services, apps or social media.

Be aware of these common cold reading tricks and note them when you see them. The change starts with ourself and we will build a better community by noticing behaviour like that. 

You have probably heard about Barnum statements (perhaps not this exact phrase, but the concept). They are most widely used in newspaper horoscopes (which are written by the reporter late that day, not a professional astrologer). Barnum statements are statements which apply to the vast majority of the population and/or are so vague in their information that they are difficult to fault.

You tend to criticize yourself sometimes. This causes you to sometimes doubt the decisions you have made in the past. You find it difficult to let go of some issues in your past. You are generally organized, but you feel that sometimes responsibilities keep piling up. You have several acquaintances, but only a few close friends. You felt closer with one of your parents

Some readers get as bold as to say stuff like “sometimes, you get feelings of unease or even sorrow; it is hard for you to know what future brings sometimes; the people closest to you generally agree with you, but there have been disagreements in the past”. As you understand, these statements are true about most human beings (we all criticize ourselves, we all have doubts, we all have things in the past that still affect us, we all feel overwhelmed etc). Immediately, the seeker feels as if the reader knows something “very deep and personal” about them and therefore believes in other statements as well.

There was a great experiment regarding the newspaper-horoscope Barnum statements (I am unable to find it at this moment, but I will sure to add the link here once I do). People were given their horoscopes (description of their Sun sign) and told to assess its accuracy on a scale (not me at all to totally me, magic must be happening). Most people found that the description was exactly about them. To continue the experiment, participants were given 12 different descriptions of the sign and they were asked to match a description with their sign (e.g I’m a Gemini, I would have to find the Gemini description from the dozen). The results were completely garbled, as if they were pulled randomly. Well, they were – since all the descriptions were actually Barnum statements. But not when the person was told it was about their sign! Confirmation bias at work again.

Another popular one (but tricky to use in a written writing) is shotgunning. This one utilizes the response and body language of the seeker – what we do is we make a statement and then “shoot” several facts at the seeker, until they respond subconsciously (when you were younger, you were quarreling with a male figure, like a grandfather, father, uncle, older brother.. definitely a dominant male figure in your life). It is highly likely that there has been a quarrel with ONE of these people, and even if not (very unlikely), the seeker will translate this fact into a suitable one (“I did actually have a very dominant boss when I was younger”). 

Quite the shameless one is rainbow ruse, where you are offered two opposite personality traits that describe you, in a way that renders both true about you. Such as – “most times you feel positive about your life, but there have been times of hardship and sorrow”. Yeah, I guess there have. “You are friendly in your relationships, but when you get upset, you sometimes feel angry and frustrated”. Really? 

It is extremely important to note that some of these statements might feel similar to some we actually use in honest readings (I’ve definitely used “you let your fears control you”, which I guess we all do), but in a specific context together with a specific card. This is a banal example, but if you ask me what is my main obstacle in my relationship and I pull the 9 of Swords, there is a solid possibility I’m gonna say that. But it is as a reply to your question and in context with the card. Cold readers pull all those statements on you out of the blue and are usually generic.

How I reassure my seekers against cold readings 

  • I don’t need your personal information. It would be nice to give me a gender identification, so that I would know how you prefer to be addressed (and how I should address your partner, if relevant). Your age is helpful to me to assess the relevance of some of the factors in the reading and does make the reading more personal, but choose to hold as much information as comfortable to you
  • I always add a photo of the spread to your reading, so that you can see and assess why I have drawn some conclusions, you can feel more engaged in the process and you can churn on some of the concepts by focusing on the cards
  • I always try to add a little overview of each card. I don’t really use a card-by-card reading style (I think the patterns, elemental relationships etc are much more relevant), but I have found it really helps the seeker to feel a part of the process. This also helps them to understand how I have drawn some conclusions, which in the end makes us equal partners in the process

What kind of cold reading tricks have you noticed? How do you keep your readings concise and non-generic?