November 04, 2003

The rhetoric of cold reading

Start with a few Barnum statements, and then move on to the push.

According to an article by James Wood and others in the Skeptical Inquirer, that's how Rorshach Inkblot testers, astrologers and fortune tellers do it.

P.T. Barnum said that "a circus should have something for everyone" and "there's a sucker born every minute". Barnum statements (like "you work hard but your salary doesn't fully reflect your efforts", or "though you appear confident, you're really somewhat insecure inside") are designed to apply to (nearly) everyone; and to convey to every sucker what seems like a special and individual sympathy.

According to the article:

After being warmed up with Barnum statements, most clients relax and begin to respond with nonverbal feedback, such as nods and smiles. In most psychic readings, there arrives a moment when the client begins to "work" for the reader, actively supplying information and providing clarifications. It's at this critical juncture that a skillful cold reader puts new stratagems into action, such as the technique called the "push" (Rowland 2002). A psychic using the push begins by making a specific prediction (even though it may miss the mark), then allows feedback from the client to transform the prediction into something that appears astoundingly accurate:

   Psychic: I see a grandchild, a very sick grandchild, perhaps a premature baby. Has one of your grandchildren recently been very sick?

   Client: No. I. . . .

   Psychic: This may have happened in the past. Perhaps to someone very close to you.

   Client: My sister's daughter had a premature girl several years ago.

   Psychic: That's it. Many days in the hospital? Intensive Care? Oxygen?

   Client: Yes.

By using the push, a cold reader can make a guess that's wildly off target appear uncannily accurate. The push and other techniques are effective because, by the time the cold reader begins using them, the client has abandoned any lingering skepticism and is in a cooperative frame of mind, thereby helping the psychic to "make things fit."

In reading this article, I was struck by the kind of (informal) discourse analysis that the authors are doing. They discuss dimensions of interpersonal interaction that are often crucial to communication, but seem to be missing from the worldview of (most?) linguistic discourse analysts.

For example, what is the formal pragmatics of a Barnum statement? Why is its effect measured in nods and smiles?

The "push" is said to depend on the client being in a "cooperative frame of mind" -- is this the same kind of cooperation that's assumed by the Gricean cooperative maxims that arguably underly all communicative interaction?

How could a theory of discourse frame (and test?) the hypothesis that Barnum statements "set up" the push?

Such questions are not mysterious from a common-sense perspective, but (in my limited understanding, anyhow) they aren't easy to ask in the framework of linguistic pragmatics. They deal with rhetorical (?) structures that don't reflect the the management of reference, or the logic of an argument, or even the expression of attitudes, but instead seem to have something to do with the dynamics of interpersonal emotion, and the way it affects communication. Or subverts it...

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 4, 2003 12:14 PM