Cold Reading

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

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.

Examples of Cold Reading include:

Anime and 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 the 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.)


  • 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.


  • 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.

Live-Action TV

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 Gender Clone (of Elliot), so he was, in fact, unsettlingly close.
  • In one arc of Pv P Brent tricked John Edward into channeling Obi-wan Kenobi

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.
  • Parodied on Family Guy where 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.

Other Media

  • 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, if I remember correctly, a little over 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 was likely inspired by a similar experiment performed by a French scientist. He placed an ad in a Paris newspaper offering free horoscopes, 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.
      • In this case it wasn't a "Daily Newspaper"esque horoscope but one of those ones that is about your birthplace and time
  • Dara Ó Briain makes mention on one of his tours of a cold reader visiting Ireland, a country which until recently was incredibly Catholic, and asking an audience if anyone had 'lost a Mary'.