My previous post got one of the top ratings for anything I've blogged about. Several of you wondered if I saw the recent episode of Penn and Teller's Bullsh*t that apparently dealt with the "cold read" phenomenon, in which general statements seem more personal than they are. I missed that episode, but the cold read concept has fascinated me for a long time, both as a writer and a hypnotist.

Originally I was going to title yesterday's post "Cold Read" but I thought "Your Psychological Profile" would seem spookier. And besides, I'm not entirely sure where you draw the line between a cold read and an FBI profile of an unknown criminal. One method is a parlor trick and the other passes as something closer to science, allegedly.

One fascinating aspect of the cold read, as it applies to horoscopes for example, is that they are more entertaining than you think they ought to be. I don't believe in astrology, but if you put a horoscope in front of me I will immediately look for Gemini and read it. Likewise, I always take the time to open fortune cookies. What's up with that?

Answer: The most fascinating topic in the world, at least to you, is you.

My post from yesterday got a high rating partly because, for a change, it wasn't about some random idea, technology, or foreign country. It also wasn't about me. It was totally about you. And that, as it turns out, is one of the big secrets of writing. Readers care about themselves more than they care about just about anything else. I can most easily keep your interest when I write about something personal to you. And sometimes that requires me to use the writer's equivalent of a cold read.

The cold read concept also overlaps with hypnosis and other forms of influence, such as advertising, sales, and seduction. When people believes you understand them at a level they have not yet chosen to reveal, you get into their heads quickly, and that gives you influence. For example, you might say to a customer that you met only minutes ago, "I can tell you're a man who likes to get all the information before making a decision." It's a general statement that applies to most people, but it will feel to the customer as if you understand him, and his guard will come down a little, even if he knows exactly what you're up to. And he will like you better for turning the topic to him.

If you are trying to interest someone of the opposite sex, the cold read works there too. After a few minutes of getting to know someone new you might toss out a generality in the form of a question. For a woman, you might ask "How did you learn so much about design?" For a guy, you might ask "Which sports did you play?" It's a compliment disguised as a question wrapped in a cold read.

Right now you're wondering if something so simple would really work. You're a bit skeptical because things that sound that simple usually don't work. And if it were really that easy, wouldn't you already know about it? After all, you're extremely well read. In any gathering, you're the one who seems to know the most about lots of different topics. How can you test the cold read concept for influencing someone to see if it's legit? How would you Google it?

See what I just did there?
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +22
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:


Sort By:
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 16, 2009
Glad to say I read the posts in the correct order and wasn't wrong.
Jul 9, 2009
Like KingDinosaur I just learned what it was called, too. My favorite experience with it (see how I make it about me!) was in business school when my unorthodox, though much more entertaining, Organizational Behavior professor asked for volunteers to submit to a psychological study for a friend of his.

His friend was a professor at Stanford he wanted 25 of about 100 students to fill out a survey about themselves. Our professor sent those sealed questionnaires off to Stanford and a few weeks later the results were returned.

He asked each of us to quietly read the results to ourselves and then asked if we agreed with what it said about us. All 25 agreed that it was a fair evaluation of us. He then asked if anyone would be brave enough to read his or hers aloud.

As that person read the remaining 24 of us realized that ours was the same. Word for word the same!

Jul 8, 2009
I understood the concept of cold reading before, but I never knew the name of it... so at least I learned something today.

So wouldn't cold reading be almost mandatory for a politician to learn? If con-men and psychics can make a living off of it a politician would almost have to in order to keep up with his opponents. Talking vaguely about lowering taxes for the middle class, which most people are a part of, or cleaning up Washington corruption is pretty much mandatory, but they seem to be a part of the cold reading concept. Or you can talk about hope and change and let the audience fill in the rest for you.

As a side note, I just started reading Beck's new book Common Sense and the first chapter has a bunch of cold reading in it.
Jul 8, 2009
This is know as the The Forer effect. The personality test that someone mentioned having done in school was a recreation of psychologist Bertram R. Forer's "personality test" to his students. He then asked them to rate it from 0 to 5 on how well it described them. The average result was 4.26. He then revealed that everyone got the same description that he culled together out of old horoscopes.

Very interesting stuff
Jul 8, 2009
I just read yesterday's post. My immediate response was "he threw out a bunch of generalizations all over the map - bound to hit some on each person" and "but only one or two of the entire list would seem anywhere close for me".

The vast majority of things you said weren't just 'not applicable', they actually opposed things I'd have said about myself. Maybe I'm an outlier (an induhvidual, just like everyone else, as the old saw goes). I think maybe two sentences in that entire set of 25 or so seemed applicable and they were so generic as to be indicative of no particular insights. If I took the 'you' to mean all dilbert readers (vs. me particularly), I might have concluded this was some statistical representation of the body of readership or posters to your site and therefore would have shrugged and went "well, that's probably how they see themselves".

I'm not immune to advertising or to a cold read or some of the other psychology tricks you could use as a thought experiment or bait, but using generalizations will mostly fail since I tend to reject most of them (or find them inapplicable). Because I don't just reject them all, even turning them around and reversing them wouldn't work all that well. And this isn't even a constructed approach to life, I just haven't really thought like most people I know for most of my life (and no, I'm not the 1 in 10 with a high psychopathy index either.... quite the reverse).

I find for myself, I'm less interested in things about me than in things about others that seem substantial and less than superficially presented. Ultimately, I live with myself every day and know myself as well as anybody (better than I want to some days). I'm more interested in what insights I can gain about others. So trying to pander to my (alleged) interest in myself will quickly bore me or make me shake my head at the inaccurate characterizations.

I suppose how well a technique like making things about the person themself and focusing on their individual situation depends a lot on how internally or externally focused they are and probably also to a large extent on their own self-image and/or ego. Me... I'm just a boring and average entry in the overall world. Tell me about someone else and you're telling me something I can get interested in. Tell me about me and you'll either get it wrong (most commonly) or at best I'll say "yah, so? that's not news....".
Jul 8, 2009
Scott, did you learn this from Catbert or Dogbert? I am thinking Catbert, but it also sounds like Dogbert.

BTW. Good comic today. Good advice. Who would want their soul to escape?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 8, 2009
Curses on you, Scott Adams, for so easily manipulating us! What other dastardly tricks do you have up your sleeve? If only one could use these powers for good, like winning friends and influencing people.

Now I must go purchase your newest book and the figurine set and perhaps...hey, wait a minute!
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 8, 2009
Oh and Miguel1626, if you don't think you have anything useful to add in a meeting, think about how even less useful most of the contributions from the people around you are.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 8, 2009

You are easier with big crowds then with small groups of people with whom you interact directly.
You not only have a vague feeling that you are smarter then those around you, you know it for a fact.
Sometimes you wonder why you are so succesfull, allthough you know how hard you worked for it.
You need the appreciation for your work, feedback is very important for you.
Although it doesn't seem always so in your writing, you are actually a very kind person.
Would you like to place a link to my website?
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 7, 2009
I like this "cold read" thing. I recently asked a girl why it was that such a plain looker like her had apparently had more pr1cks than a second hand dart board.

We didn't connect at all, althougth the roundarm right just narrowly missed.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 7, 2009
Disclaimer: Do not take your seduction advice from a cartoonist who specialises in geeky cartoons.
Jul 7, 2009
Hey miguel1626, I have that problem to. On the plus side, their is an awesome song about it.

Jul 7, 2009
Loved yesterday's post (obviously!) and today's followup. Cold reading and mentalism effects are an interest of mine also -- I highly recommend watching the full, unedited (well, hardly edited) video of Richard Dawkins interviewing Derren Brown about this subject. Brown doesn't go into as much detail as I would have liked, but then I'm sure he has his reasons ;)

Jul 7, 2009
Here's an alternate explanation for yesterday's high rating: the first sentence in your post was an advertisement for the rating tool.

I've read the blog regularly for well over a year, and yesterday was the first time (at least that I can remember) I became aware of the rating mechanism (I know, I know - I can't find my shoes in the morning either). I didn't end up rating yesterday's post, although I very nearly did. If I had, it would have been solely for the "hey look, a new thing I didn't know existed before" factor.

Yesterday's post wasn't necessarily popular, it was just well advertised. A better metric for assessing reader impact might be counting the number of comments left - although that might be biased as well, since you specifically solicited reader feedback. Why don't you go through the last 3 months of posts and separate out the ones in which you ask a question: how many more comments, on average, do those posts get?
Jul 7, 2009
Yesterday, I recognized the cold read, and commented as such. However, as I read many of yesterday's comments from others, I was surprised how few recognized it as well. Too many people fell for this so easily.

And I too do not believe in astrology. That's because we Geminis are naturally skeptical.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 7, 2009
"When people believes..." Your hologram has a virus Scott.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 7, 2009
Its kind of the opposite for me, at least for horoscopes (especially those Facebook "what your sign says about you" posts). I see that all the signs pretty much say the same thing, just worded different. I'd be apt to believe whatever it said about me if just one of the descriptsion for any sign said "probably a d-bag".
Jul 7, 2009
So the Dilbert comic strip is about me, huh? That's why I like it?

Let's see, I'm an engineer.
I sit in a cubical all day, doing mostly meanless things for an uncomprending boss.
I drive an electric car (well, hybrid).
I have a son (who acts like a dog) who disdains me, and plots to take over the world.
I have no social life.

Yep. It's all about me alright.
Jul 7, 2009
"I'm not entirely sure where you draw the line between a cold read and an FBI profile of an unknown criminal. One method is a parlor trick and the other passes as something closer to science, allegedly."

tell that to Richard Jewell ("what? he's a white male who wanted to be a cop but washed out? obviously a bomber looking for attention!") or Tim Masters ("what? a high school kid doodled some pictures? obviously been posing as an OB/GYN resident to hone his surgical skills!")...

cops get a lot more default credibility than they deserve...
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 7, 2009
One time in psych class, we (the students) took a personality test. When we got the results a few days later, we read it and the teacher asked how much of the class thinks this describes their personality "well." About 3/4 of hands went up. He asked who thinks this describes their personailty "very well"--about 1/2 of the class kept their hand up. He then read outloud the same paragraph that everyone received (he took the time to make the spacing for each student's "results" different so we wouldn't get suspicious).

When you actually look at what it's saying, it was things like "you're angry when things make you mad," "you're nervous in foreign situations," "you like to have fun, but not toom much," etc.

Everyone is like this! The difference in actual personality traits is what makes you mad, what's a foreign situation, how much fun is too much, etc.

It was a cool trick, though.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog