Ian Rowland – The Cold Hard Facts of Cold Reading

February 19, 2010

Ian Rowland is a Mentalist and Mind Reader living near London, UK.  The world’s foremost authority on cold reading, he is the author of the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.  In this book, Rowland has defined and categorized the different types of psychic readings, and created a taxonomy of cold reading techniques.  Rowland was the first person to lecture on cold reading to the Magic Circle and his book has been described as “the definitive work” on the subject by Derren Brown, James Randi, Martin Gardner, Teller, and Banachek.

Rowland is a prolific writer and a charismatic lecturer and entertainer who has appeared on television numerous times and performed in many countries around the world. Rowland performs better than the psychics. He convinced an audience he was a psychic medium for ABC’s Primetime, and during a BBC documentary one of his psychic readings was rated as 99.9% accurate.

In this conversation with host Karen Stollznow, Rowland explains the history and meaning of cold reading, and how and why it works.  He demonstrates how cold reading is a “Win-Win Game” and psychics are “right” even when they’re wrong.  He claims that he can replicate any psychic ability.  Rowland recounts some of his performances as a psychic, tarot reader, astrologer, and medium, and his “miracles” of spoon bending, psychic surgery, and hammering a nail into his head.

Rowland also discusses the practical, non-New Age applications for cold reading, and how these strategies can be used for law enforcement and business, but why they probably shouldn’t be used for romance.  A qualified yet reluctant spokesperson for skepticism, Rowland presents his “off-message skepticism”, and shares his opinion of what he thinks the movement is doing right, and what he thinks we are doing wrong.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 19th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots, I am Karen Stollznow and you host of this show. I’m a linguist, researcher, writer and Long-Term Investigator of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. I’ll be conducting monthly interviews, focusing on themes central to skepticism and critical thinking. My very modest first guest has insisted that I introduce him this way. We have lots of interesting, talented and fascinating people lined up for interviews. Unfortunately, none of them are available this evening. So we’re going to talk to Ian Roland instead. Ian’s modesty aside, he’s the world’s foremost authority on cold reading and the author of the Full Facts book of Cold Reading. He’s an acclaimed writer, entertainer and lecturer specializing in positive mind, magic and the psychology of constructive deception. Ian, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you very much for that glowing introduction. 

I’ll do my very best to live up to Jim Underdown. You wrote it. You wrote it. That’s true, sir. 

So firstly, what title do you prefer? Do you prefer to be called a mentalist or a mind reader? 

I don’t. I think people just refer to me by the name that I’ve been known best for the last 20 years, which is Ian who from where. And on my business card that I’m going to have printed, it’s going to say the world’s finest purveyor of the services of Ian Roland. And that’s about as narrow as I can get it. And there’s Focus’s. I can get it. 

Okay. That’s quite a lengthy title. So how did you get started in that industry? 

How did I get started? Privé my own services. I’ve been doing it for over 40 years. 

If you’re talking about mind reading a magic, I thought magician on TV when I was seven and I thought that was kind of cool and interesting as I started reading books. And then in the 1990s, I started performing semi professionally, which was good fun. And a lot of the early shows and performances that I did were indeed for skeptical organizations because they kind of liked having some of the long who could do all the psychic stuff and, you know, read minds and bend spoons and that without actually pretending that it’s like, you know, it was a good way of getting into it. And then in 1997, I just walked away from the rat race and didn’t have a job. And I’ve been working for myself ever since, including performing all around the world. 

So your specialty, though, is called Reading and your book, The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading has been described as the definitive work on Cold Reading by Derren Brown, James Randi, Martin Gardner, Michael Shermer and Benishek. So you are the person to ask what is cold reading and how and why does it work? 

Yeah, without really trying to. 

I seem to have become the cold reading guy. You know, there’s no other facet of my life that anybody ever talks about. So what is cold reading? Cold reading? I think the simple way pretty much everybody knows someone who’s been for a psychic reading at some point, tarot reading, spiritualist reading, astrology, reading, whatever. And they come away and they say it was amazing. And she told me all kinds of things that she couldn’t possibly have known, et cetera, et cetera. And if you don’t know what’s going on, it can sound very convincing and very real. There’s nothing psychic about it. Of course, it’s just a particular way of manipulating the basic rules of conversation so that you sound as if you know a lot more than you really do. There are many, many different strategies involved. And as you say, as you very helpfully mentioned, I’ve written a book about it, which is great. 

So that’s what cold reading is, or at least that’s the communist manifestation. Cold reading strategies, in fact, have lots of uses in context that have nothing at all to do with pretending to be psychic and reading fortunes. But I think I think that’s a pretty good working definition for now. 

What is what’s warm reading as opposed to cold reading, or is that subsumed under cold reading? 

No, no, it’s completely different. You can see the reverse with hot reading. That’s where you have, conversely, harvested information about your subject beforehand. So if I was doing a hot reading on you, I would have secretly obtained some advance information about you so that I can bring this up in the course of the reading and it will sound suitably amazing and impressive. Miraculin. So hot reading is when you actually have some information prepared and cold reading is, as the name suggests, when you’re going in cold. You don’t have any information. But that’s okay. You don’t really need any to make it sound convincing. 


So hot readings, form of espionage, in a sense, spying and espionage, as I’m sure go into a can be. It can be quite sophisticated and they can be quite trivial. There was a time when spiritualists in the United States, for example. In a given area would actually pass information about their clients and customers around among themselves. There’s a kind of a private network of information, and one person might give a reading, too. James Smith. And any information that emerges about his character would be sort of noted on the file. And this could be passed around to other readers and spiritualists in the same area. So that kind of Kovar passing around of information has gone on. 

So we’re told various people have claimed that the psychic mafia by Amla, Michael Caine, is the book that purportedly lifted the lid on that kind of practice. And other people have reported it. I’ve no firsthand experience of it. And my my interest has always in cold reading where you don’t need any information at all. 

But it is a lesson that had gone on. I think it’s an enormous waste of time myself. I mean, you just don’t need to go to that much trouble to be very, very successful getting reading. 

Ray Hyman and Bob Steiner have also written about cold reading. You were the first person to electron cold reading Magic Circle. And in your book, you’ve described the elements of cold reading over 40 strategies and techniques. And you’ve created a very colorful mental language for these as well, like the Rainbow Ruse and the Russian dolls statement and fuzzy facts. So aside from the bottom statement, which is also known in psychology as the four effect, you seem to be the first person to have identified and categorized these techniques. Would you say that’s the case? 

I do not think I was the first to identify many of them, but I certainly was the first to prepare what you might call the taxonomy and to see how they fit it together into one overall structure and to give little pet names that just, you know, they made the description a little bit more colorful and made some of the techniques, gave a little convenient handle or label for them. 

So I think some of them are original with me, not all of them, but a lot of the ones that I used in my book. Yeah. 

A fellow named Nick Tosches got in contact with me. I don’t know if he contacted you as well, but he’s researching the etymology of the phrase cold reading, and he traces it back to two usages of the term in 1946 from two books, one’s called Nightmare Alley and the others called The Dead Do Not Talk. I’m wondering if you know anything about the history of cold reading that you can tell us. Know that’s a broad question. 

No, it’s a fine question. I think the answer is actually one of the appendices to my book. I don’t have my book handy to confirm it, but I think I think cold reading was I think the term was actually coined and a psychology journal ran about the same time in the 40s. 

And so your book lists some advice that seems counterintuitive, I think to a layperson that generalizations and body language and fishing for clues aren’t really vital. So what techniques then would be integral to cold reading? 

What you’re getting at is absolutely right. There are some common misperceptions about how cold reading works, and they tend to get spread around in skeptical circles. Some people say it’s to do with fishing for clues. What people say is about reading body language and so on and so forth. These things can featuring cold reading. There are very, very tiny part of it. And obviously then nothing to do with things like readings done over the telephone reading done remotely. At one point or other, there was a lot of mail order psychics, not so much now, but once upon a time you could actually get a reading city through the mail. So fishing for clues that there was not really a major part of it. But the main misunderstanding, and I’m talking about a misunderstanding among skeptics, the main misunderstanding to clear up is this when I am cold reading, when anybody is cold reading, we’re not bothered how many hits we get. Skeptics seem to think it’s a clever process where you’re always going to get hit. Or trying to get these accurate responses. It doesn’t matter. In normal conversation, you can make a statement and it can be wrong or it can be right. In cold reading, that distinction doesn’t apply. You can never be wrong. And so when I make a statement, I don’t care whether it’s wrong or right. I don’t care whether it’s a hit or not, because in the process of giving that reading, I will make it that one way or another. 

So would you say then that anyone can learn cold reading? 

Yes, in exactly the same way as anybody can learn to play the piano. There was always gonna be some people who have more of a natural aptitude for it than others. The law is some people have more of a natural talent for it than others, but it is something anyone can learn. I don’t see any reason why people can’t learn it. 

And you’ve performed previously as a psychic, a terror reader, an astrologer. You’ve demonstrated spoon bending psychic surgery and key metrics such as fire walking and hammering a nail into your head. Can you replicate any claimed psychic ability? 

Yes, but I will clarify one thing. You said that I performed, as you know, giving readings, tarot card readings and things like that. Right. 

Let me explain. I have never in my life claimed a member of the public by giving them a reading and charging money for it in terms of demonstrating that cold reading works. This is something I’ve only ever done for the media on the test conditions where I had no control whatsoever over who was chosen to give a reading to those beyond my control. I then had to give a reading and I had to agree to the I had to agree to that reading being independently assessed by a separate interview. Nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t even be present asking none leading questions. So they weren’t taken away afterwards and asked how accurate was that? Because that’s a leading question. They would say, was it accurate or not? 

And that kind of demonstration is is one that I’ve given many, many times. I’ve done it here in the UK and American Australia. Just just to demonstrate the point, you see, if it were the case that psychics, psychics could say, look, when we give readings, we give the we get these fantastic reactions from people who say that we are 90, 95, not 100 percent accurate. You can’t nobody else can do that. Ergo, we must be having some. We must have some sort of special gift. We must be using some sort of special talent or power. The point of replicating it is not to prove that they don’t have psychic powers because it doesn’t prove that. You can have an original. You can have a fake copy of approved that the original isn’t the original. The point of doing it is just to show that the psychic hypothesis is not necessary to explain it. The psychic hypothesis is redundant. You don’t need it in order to explain the results. So I you know, I’ve given readings that were independently assessed to be 95 percent accurate or one woman said ninety nine point five percent accurate. You know, it’s just to show people that there is an alternative explanation for that. That’s all that it does show and that’s all that it can show. So that’s what I’ve been asked many times by the media to do. And I’ve been willing to do it. And it’s always, always, always been the case that afterwards we’ve explained to the subject everything that was going on. And we did it as tactfully and sensitively as possible. We’re not trying to make anybody feel foolish. And we explained the whole thing and what we were doing. And, you know, we let them down gently and hopefully make it quite an interesting experience for them. The other things do form part of my stage repertoire. I sometimes bend metal or read minds and things. But again, it’s always the people watching me know that I’m not psychic and they know that it’s for entertainment. 

And I wanted to say that you seem to use cold reading as entertainment and education purposes rather than for exposing exposing psychics who don’t appear to be on a crusade to debunk psychics as such. 

From what I’ve read, you appear to have more of a laissez faire relativist approach towards psychics. And I’ve read that you’ve said psychic powers are as real as you want them to be. Correct. So I do want to put words in your mouth. I know that’s dangerous. But you’ve also got a psychic beating section in your book. So with all of this in mind, our psychic abilities, invariably cold reading techniques. 

Well, no. I mean, cold reading does what it does and it can be applied by people who want to give give readings. Obviously, that’s what the name is all about, tarot readings, astrological readings or whatever. But there are other kinds of psychic claims, you know, boom bending, for example, dowsing, for example, which have nothing to do with Goldring. 

So Kolderie is just one one subset of all the things that people do claiming to have some sort of psychic ability. But am I on a crusade? No. 

And so I know also you don’t like to comment on specific psychics or other performance artists. And I think you’ve said that you don’t comment about you. Why should you comment about them? So instead, I’d like to ask, what are some features or examples of poor cold reading Jim Underdown that you’ve come across a poor cold reading? 

Well, luckily with these days we have this wonderful toy called YouTube where anybody can tap in the name of any of the prominent, well-known psychics who feature on American television. And you’ll see all the rotten, awful, pathetic, cold reading that you on many. 

It’s not as if there’s a shortage of this information. 

There are even some Web sites that are set up by skeptical minds that actually gather examples of just how bad a lot of this cold reading is. I mean, he doesn’t have to be good to be successful. It can be very, very bad and still be perfectly successful because people want to believe and start to skeptics. 

I think, by and large, seem to perceive cold reading as an explanation for claims of psychic abilities. And as we’ve already mentioned a couple of times, you conduct a cold reading masterclass and you teach practical applications for these techniques. And so I’ve read that you’ve used terms such as real mind power and ethically responsible cold reading. Yeah. Your website also describes cold reading as the most powerful psychological presentation technique in the world. So without sounding too much like an infomercial, what are some of these applications? And we have touched upon a few of these already. 

First of all, again, let me make a distinction. I’m sorry if this is getting complicated. The class that I teach is on something called ACR applied called reading. It has nothing whatsoever to do with giving readings, pretending to be psychic fortune-telling, tarot cards, astrology. Nothing. Absolutely. 100 percent nothing to do with any of that. My book on cold reading explains how cold reading works, and the example that is featured most often is the psychic industry, because that’s the commonest one. That’s the communist example that we see in today’s world. However, the actual strategies and techniques of cold reading can be applied and should, in my opinion, be applied to other contexts. And the class of 82 is a two day thing. ACR applied cold reading is about how some of these strategies have a role to play in other contexts. Now, a very good example of that is selling. I have a professional background in sales and marketing. I was the UK head of sales marketing for a very big company before I just walked away from it all in 1997. So also, Phil had a proper job. That’s one of the things that I was into. And I realized I had started using a lot of cold reading technique in selling to people and in marketing campaigns and so forth. And a lot of it has to do with the immense difference. The truly immense difference would it make is that arises from making statements instead of asking questions. If you meet someone in a business setting and you make polite business, small talk, which is five perfectly good way of doing it, you build rapport by asking questions. Oh, tell me about your company. How does your market work? Tell me about your industry. How are you finding things at the moment? And so what an all of that’s fine. And that’s traditional. And that’s the way that most business relationships begin. How much more powerful to make statements instead of asking questions? It stands out a lot more. You connect a lot more positively, positively, very quickly, and you can establish rapport a lot more quickly. And the other person then relate to you as someone who understands them somehow. Someone who understands their work, their working life, their company, their business, their market, their industry. And that is a much, much better footing for the rest of your dialog. 

And I realize I’ve been doing this sort of I wouldn’t say inadvertently, but almost subconsciously, I had started using some of these techniques in my own work in sales and marketing. And that’s the kind of thing that I teach in the two days of the ACR class. 

And I’ve also read that one of the applications for cold reading could be romance. 

How, sir? All right. Well, I mean, it is the case, but it’s one that I try and steer well clear from. 

There is a big industry these days in what’s called speed seduction. It’s a big industry and lots of very inadequate men with very large egos can make money by apparently offering these classes to other men. 

Similarly challenged. And I’ve even heard some of them contact me and say, hey, we got a hold of your cold reading book. And we think some of your techniques could be really useful to our group. Do you want to come along and give a lecture to which I replied, No, thank you. Get a life. So it’s not it’s not something which I feel I want to be associated with in any way. And I do what I can to distance myself from it. You know, let’s live in that live. Those people who’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing better to do with their time than either preach that stuff or go to those classes. You know, let’s leave them to their own inadequate little lives and let’s all the rest of us can get on with something more productive. 

So given your book, I think the skepticism movement sees you as a spokesperson. 

Oh, I doubt that very much. I don’t think anybody sees me as a spokesperson for anything. 

I think they do. I think a lot of them see your book as debunking psychics and somehow that you’re an activist for skepticism, whether you like it or not. But you’ve said to me that your skepticism is more off message. So what do you mean by this? 

I’m very off message. I’m a lousy spokesperson for anything to do with what you might call the skeptical movement. I’m as critical, probably as critical as the skeptical movement as they have of psychics. 

So I guess that means you don’t feel in any way as though you’ve debunked psychics. You don’t feel any sense of responsibility to expose any unethical practices. 

Well, let me put it this way. I’m not aware that anybody’s asked my opinion on any of this. I you know, it seems to me that anything I’ve done is a matter of supreme indifference, especially to the psychic community, and always has had no effect whatsoever on their activity. It is psychic industry just does what he’s always done, which is continues to grow and thrive and grow and thrive and prosper. And as each new medium comes along, the psychic industry just embraces it and grows even stronger than before. And it’s certainly nothing I’ve I’ve ever done or said will will ever dent that success. I don’t think anything anybody says within the skeptical movement will ever have any dents on it or make any impact at all. 

So do you have any advice for the way the skeptics SA could treat this particular issue if they were wanting to expose people who were doing curse removal or psychic surgery and dangerous unscrupulous psychics? 

Well, yeah. First of all, I think you could learn a quote, which is you cannot rationally argue out what wasn’t rationally argued in. I think that’s from George Bernard Shaw. You cannot. Rationally argue out what wasn’t rationally argued in court. 

That’s the first thing. So the minute you start trying to address this thing as a rational argument. Look, we’ve been able to prove for since forever that, for example, astrology doesn’t work, homeopathy doesn’t work and indeed can’t work. But it doesn’t make any difference and it doesn’t make any difference because people don’t believe in these things for rational reasons. It’s not as if anybody sent them down with charts and rules and graph paper and statistics and proved anything to them. They believe in it because it fulfills a need in them. It’s an emotional thing. People will believe whatever happens to fit the needs and wants of the time. So that’s the first thing you can. You can run all the rational articles you want about this. Well, that doesn’t work. But all you’re doing is preaching to the converted. And that’s what belongs at the top of Skeptical magazine. You know, if you founded a skeptical magazine in 1990, then the strapline at the top should be preaching to the converted since 1990, because that’s exactly what they’re doing. Secondly, they could learn they could get hold of a basic textbook on marketing, because it seems to me no one in the skeptical community knows the first thing about marketing, how to get a message across to the right people in the right way at the right time. It seems to me they willfully run in the opposite direction. And thirdly, they could take a look at this word skeptic and they can ask themselves in the English speaking world, what other word does that most sound like? 

Shinnick. Is that what are you suggesting? Septic, huh? Okay. 

It’s not a good title. It’s not a good banner. Now, there are some people that I adore and respect and love in the skeptical community because I think they get it right. I think Michael Shermer is a man deserving of hero worship. He gets it right. He knows how to write about this stuff. He does great media appearances. He does great lectures and talks. He’s fantastic. I think the work of Richard Wiseman here in the U.K. is brilliant. The books he writes are brilliant. And he’s getting a skeptical message across, but not in not in an overtly skeptical way is brilliant stuff. Our friend in Australia, Lynne Kelly, he writes these get. What would it be? Get these guys to the paranormal or something, which is a great way of, again, getting the right information across in a more palatable way. 

She also has a brilliant lecture, Colter preaching to the unconverted, which is very useful. 

Yeah. I mean, she’s great. And when she liked his live until five, he he thought just fantastic stuff. It’s it’s seemless gold. And she knows how to present. She knows how to get the information across without you looking smug and preachy. I think your writing is fantastic. You’re a brilliant, gifted writer and you have to say that’s a way of summarizing your own adventures in exactly the right way, which is of journalistic reportage. You see an advert that says we only use very qualified, highly trained psychics. And you think, well, I wonder what would happen if I applied to be a psychic. And so that’s what you did and you went through the application process and you found that actually, of course, it it’s just a load of rubbish and nonsense. But you write about it. There’s a brilliant way and you make it an interesting adventure and an interesting story without being judgmental about it. You say this is what happened. I’ve done the exploring. You don’t have to. And you report and you presented and you do it in a very fun way with a great sense of humor. 

And that’s fantastic. Thank you. There are various people who I think are out there who are doing it right and getting the message across in a right way. 

But they are in a minority. And I don’t think I don’t think a large swathes of the skeptical community can be very proud of what they’ve done, apart from just preaching to the converted. I know it’s not a nice thing to say. I don’t expect anybody to like me for saying that. I’ll probably be very unpopular. So what? But I think that I just think that’s the way it is. 

No, I think it’s good for us to be self-effacing. Hopefully we can take your advice and your comments and take those on board and improve our outreach to people. So I wanted to ask as well that you recently raised funds for Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti with your magic is real benefit. And so this is a new interest for you. And do you have other charitable projects underway? 

I will have. 

I came up with an idea for a TV show and the TV show was going to be called Magic is Real. And it was basically wish fulfillment through magic. So you sort of go to someone in the street and they have a particular wish or dream that that that they don’t think is going to come true and you make it come through, but it’s through magic. So I’ve so far, I’ve been the world’s worst and least successful pitcher of TV ideas. 

All my life. 

I’ve talked to people, producers in this country, America, Australia. I’ve pitched ideas never, not even once has anybody paid any attention to anybody. And this was the same. I went and pitched it to various people and. 

It has never actually been made into a TV show. So I figured I could go one or two directions. I could either go down, which was just to forget the whole thing or I could go up, which was, hey, let’s not do it as a TV show. Let’s do it in real life. So that’s what I did. And magic is real, is going to exist as a concept and a Web site, possibly as a registered charity, but I’m still in the process of setting that up. And the point is to make wonderful things happen, to be a kind of almost like a dating agency or a brokerage between those who can produce a bit of magic in their life for one reason or another. 

And those who can actually make it happen. And magic is real exist in the middle to put those two in touch with one another. And recently, the terrible, awful events in Haiti just gave me an opportunity to sort of do a little dry run of this. 

And so in three weeks, with the help of many, many, many of the wonderful friends I know, we’ve got a venue. We converted it into a place where you could do a live show. We persuaded over over 250 people to turn up and pay to see the show on a very chilled, frozen, wet Wednesday evening in the heart of London. We all had a great time and we raised 5000 pounds for Haiti relief, which is know a drop in the ocean compared to the international relief effort. But it is more than doing nothing. 


So finally, when people go searching for your book online, they often come across copies sold on eBay or Amazon for hundreds of dollars. So where can listeners purchase the full facts book of cold reading? 

They can get it from two official sources. One is my Web site, which is very easy to remember. It’s just my name with dot com at the end of it. Ian Rolands, dot com. Or they can go to the U.K. version of Amazon. Not Amazon.com, which is the American one, but Amazon, Dakoda UK, where I actually sell it legitimately online. 

Ian, thank you very much for joining me. It was a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. If you would like to donate to Ian’s charity event, visit my charity page dot com backslash. Ian Rowland. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.