Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Digression into Cold-Reading

Many people, particularly those of /r/scienceofdeduction, enjoy deductive exercises in which one is presented with a picture and from it, attempts to extract as much meaningful information as possible about the owner/taker/subject of the image. Much to the surprise of the original poster of the image, people can be quite good at this game. Personally, I love that people have taken the time out of their day to practice such things.

Unfortunately, community learning tends to suffer from a lack of rigor. One of the problems I have seen with games like this (problems which I attempt to avoid as much as humanly possible when engaging in this activity) is that people tend to conflate the ideas of "doing deductions" with something called "cold reading" in a(n) (sometimes subconscious) attempt to make their results sound more impressive.

Cold reading is a technique used both to gather information about a subject, and to artificially increase the validity or importance of the information already collected. It is used by magicians and performers who wish to appear more knowledgeable or perceptive than they actually are. While it can be quite entertaining, it strays from the art of detection in subtle ways that I will attempt to elaborate upon.

It's Easy to Backpedal
First of all, those who perform cold reading will often wrap their assertions in uncertainty by using words such as "perhaps" or "maybe" or "possibly."

It's fine to be unsure, but be sure the parties involved are aware of your uncertainty in order to avoid stepping over the line into being overtly mysterious. A good rule of thumb I use is that if someone were to announce that they had proof that your deduction was incorrect, it would have to be iron-clad evidence to even introduce a shred of doubt into your mind.

Always lean towards saying too little, keeping the rest for further meditation than saying too much, forcing other people to cherry-pick the facts from the guesses.


It's Vague

Cold readers rely HEAVILY on what I'll call "fortune-cookie statements." You've seen them. They are those phrases you see so often in horoscopes that say things like, "You've recently suffered a loss of some kind," or "you tend to get stressed when your plans fall apart."

These phrases might have some truth to them, but be wary - it is only the truth that you yourself ascribe to them. That's the point. A cold-reader doesn't know the truth, so they say things that allow the audience/mark to fill in the blanks in their own mind. They can be dangerous as they tend to create the idea that the cold-reader has an incredibly complete picture of the subject and is thus qualified to make personally relevant statements, knowing that the subject will know what it means. It is not the case.

Fortunately, there is an easy 2-part vagueness test one can apply to statements such as these. It goes as follows:
  1. Is this statement true for lots of people? Not what you think the statement refers to, but the literal statement itself. Most people experience "loss of some kind" many times a week.
  2. Are the supporting reasons for the statement clear? While intuition is a powerful source of detecting power, a good detective should at least be able to articulate a reason for a particular assumption. (Ex: "The table seemed weird, perhaps because of the empty space in the middle here. It feels like there should be something there due to the arrangement of the other items.")
If the statement is true for many people, discount it. If the statement is unfounded, discount it.

It's Not Truth-Seeking

Cold-reading is certainly a skill that takes a lot of practice to cultivate. It can be a wonderful means of extracting information when necessary, and tends to create a dramatic flair which so many of us are quite fond of.

Sadly, because it lacks the rigor of detection, it cannot be relied upon as a means of advancing one's knowledge, only a means of suggesting new places to look for it.

Any method of collecting information that depends for its effectiveness on the receptive nature of its subject cannot accurately be called detection. Perhaps it falls into the purview of interrogation. In any case, cold-reading is less about getting the truth and more about the appearance of doing so.

Beware fellow detectives of inadvertently saying more than you know. You may appear clever, but it's much harder to improve as a result. Cold-reading allows for a sort of safety-net when making wilder assumptions. We don't need it.

This is not meant to be a lecture - I am guilty of relying on a safety-net from time to time as well. It is meant to be a reminder that the truly great detectives don't require one, and that practicing with one is good until it ceases to be helpful.

Happy deducing!


  1. Love your posts! I hope you will start to post more frequently, as I love them!

  2. Glad to see you post something in the new year.

    I think its natural to yearn for the attention of others. Everyone who does this deduction game should ask themselves "Is it more important to me to appear clever, or is it more important to get at the truth". If the latter is your principle then the you must keep mentally rigorous to avoid the former for its own sake.

    I love your blog Kaden. I really hope you keep inspired to continue throughout the year!