Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cold reading is basically conversation

Over on Fledgeling Skeptic Maria makes a creative point.  She’s been thinking about a presentation to help people recognise and debunk psychic claims.  Along the way she came up with the idea of an un-psychic fair.  The name needs work (perhaps we could just call it a ‘fair’?) but I love the idea.  Perhaps you’d have skilled magicians and mentalists plying the psychic trade and then explaining how they did it.  Ideally it’d be interactive in the not banal sense of the word: punters could have a crack at cold reading each other in a spirit of derision.  I’d dust off my dubious cold reading skills of 20 years ago to put together an act for something like that.

Maria thinks it wouldn’t work, though, because almost all psychic claims are either the ideomotor effect or cold reading.

I’m going to do what I usually do by both agreeing and disagreeing with Maria on practically every point.

For the most part, I think she’s right.  It’s a great idea that might only work in a rose-tinted world.  But for interesting reasons.  And there are some psychic claims that aren’t closely related to the ideomotor effect or to cold-reading.  Let’s deal with those first. 

Conjuring tricks.  Geller has made a lifetime’s worth of inane programmes with this shtick. He pre-bends spoons, he has magnets strapped to every extremity, he has a mirror so he can see what people are drawing when his back is turned (why else turn your back and cover your eyes, Uri?) so he can triumphantly recreate the picture once it’s in an envelope.

There’s another thing that’s possibly not quite cold reading.  I’m not sure how else to describe it: Suckers Are Pre-Cooked.  Credulous idiots are credulous.  What the fuck are we doing at a psychic fair anyway unless we’ve failed to achieve adulthood?  We actually do need to be educated in critical thinking, we’re not very good at it otherwise.  And we’re not all that brilliant at it even if we are.  Which brings me to my main point.

Maria is right to say that almost all psychic claims are down to cold reading or the ideomotor effect.  In fact, I’d tend to count the latter as a possibly dubious example of the former.  This is because cold reading isn’t something that’s done to a person or even something that’s done by a person.  It’s an interaction between a performer and an audience.  Cold reading without audience participation reduces to random wild stabs in the dark.  As it happens, we’re all too ready to participate.  It’s actually an effort to restrain ourselves from filling in the gaps.  And it’s this kind of tendency that gives cold reading it’s power.

Let’s take – as I suggested in a comment on Maria’s blog – the psychic nonsense out of it.  How many of us know someone who seems unusually perceptive?  This person seems able to turn a mess into a dilemma and help us realise that we knew all along which horn we preferred.  It’s the same person who told us to visit the doctor when we had a suspicious mole which turned out to need surgery and suggested we go for it in a putative relationship which led to happiness. 

How do we treat this person?  We trust her advice.  We forget the misses and we remember the hits.  We actually seek out her advice even when we won’t ask anybody else.  We treat the person and her advice as legendary and we recommend her advice to our friends.

We can’t help it.  We play our part in conversations and pretend we don’t. Almost everything we do is cold reading and when we think we’re being perceptive, we’re probably fooling ourselves.

I think it’s really cool: conversation is cold reading and possible vice versa.

I’m debating Maria about accomodationism on her blog starting Monday, FUNTIME. Tune in.

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