Sunday, 8 March 2009

What makes a name odd? And what’s ‘cold reading’?

The Sunday Times Magazine carried an article today on the new TV show The Mentalist. Much of the article irritated me because it lavished praise on the premise of the show (that the lead character, Patrick Jane, uses ‘cold reading’ to solve crimes), and I think the show is a big fat annoyance because Patrick Jane is, apparently, so clever that we, the viewers, aren’t always privy to his ‘cold reading’ and sometimes have to accept plot holes so big that you could, well, drive a bus through them. (I also think the actor who plays Jane, Simon Baker, has the kind of creepy blonde 'good looks' that would compel me to keep him far from children's playgrounds.)

But I had to laugh at this paragraph: ‘The CBI team is rounded out by a smart trio of agents: Kendall Cho (Tim Kang), the oddly-named Grace van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), and Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman).’

Now, I have to ask you, in that line-up, what makes Grace van Pelt so ‘odd’? Obviously I’m talking from a western perspective here, but aren’t Kendall Cho, Tim Kang, Amanda Righetti and Owain Yeoman every bit as strange? (Wayne Rigsby is just in bad taste.) In fact, the only name that seems not-odd to me is Grace van Pelt.

Cold reading
This was a new term to me and although the magazine article explained it in summary, I googled it and came up with this. (Amaze your friends and family! Frighten your enemies! Fool people! All in 12 easy steps.)

1. Choose a subject. Select the person you will ‘cold read’ ahead of time if possible. The more time you have to learn about your subject, the better. Some cold readers have accomplices visit or interview the subject prior to the cold reading so that the cold reader can then use this information to dazzle the subject and the audience.

2. Observe your subject. Visual clues about the person will tell you something about them: their age, the way they dress, whether they have any deformities or unusual features, their height and weight, the presence or absence of a wedding ring. Read the subject’s body language.

3. Make a mental list of assumptions about the person. As you observe the subject, think about certain things that you could reasonably guess about them.

4. Prepare the subject. When you meet the person, introduce yourself and get the subjec’s name. Try to make them comfortable talking to you, but at the same time try to make them a little nervous about what is to come.

5. Go fishing. Ask questions in such a way that they can be perceived as statements. That way, if the subject affirms your question, it will seem as though you knew the answer.

6. Build on the answers to your questions. Most of the time, the subject will volunteer more information than is necessary.

7. Use Barnum statements. Barnum statements, named after the circus showman PT Barnum, are statements that will apply to just about anybody but which will give the impression that you know something about the subject.

8. Make the subject’s answers your own. Much of what a cold reader does is simply repeating back what the subject has said. Do this in such a way that it appears you already knew the answer.

9. Delve deeper. Once you’re on a fruitful line of questioning (or ‘reading’), keep going.

10. Use pregnant pauses. One method of fishing around for information is to pause long enough for a reaction from your subject.

11. Cover your errors. Sometimes a question will be off the mark, and this can ruin the illusion if you don’t recover quickly. Don’t abandon the original line of questioning; rather, twist it just a bit until it makes sense to the subject.

12. Make a positive analysis of the situation. Once you have some idea of what you’re talking about (or at least the subject believes you know what you’re talking about), you can bring the reading to a satisfying end.

(adapted from

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