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:  +23
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Jul 7, 2009
Having been a commission salesperson, I was in no way skeptical about your assertation of how how to influence others. Simple mirroring techniques, such as leaning if you see your mark leaning, or using colloquialisms if they do, etc., make customers feel more at ease and more connected to you. If you want someone to agree with you, an easy trick to try is to casually nod your head "yes" as you talk to them. For most people, they will unconsciously start nodding along with you, especially if you've been mirroring their behaviour. This action triggers a subconsious feeling of agreeance, and you are more likely to get them to agree to your proposal, whatever it may be. This is not something that only works on the uneducated or even the uninitiated; I've seen many a salesperson fall for this same technique, despite using it themselves.

I think a good portion of your thumbs up for yesterday were related to your audience recognizing what you were doing in terms of "cold reading" rather than ego centricity. Most people like to be in on a joke or trick, and you feel smart/superior for being able to stand back and watch others foolishly gape over a simple trick...wait, that IS ego centricity, isn't it?
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog