All of a Sudden Cold Reading is Clear to Me

I just turned a classroom full of astrology-believers into skeptics.

A little while ago my Astronomy professor told us that we would be doing a research project on anything of our choosing. I had originally thought that I’d do something along the lines of the Earth-centred Ptolemaic model of the Solar System, but the class before I was supposed to do my presentation I overheard a few of my classmates talking about their astrological signs and how accurate their horoscopes always seemed to be.

I didn’t immediately speak up and say “you know that’s all just a bunch of vague statements that sound specific to you” but from past experience I knew that they probably weren’t going to listen anyway. Who, after all, cares about my objections based on those funny words like “the inverse square law” or “cold reading techniques” that nobody understands without having somebody explain it to them?

They wouldn’t listen to me, but they would listen to their horoscope. Thus, instead I got an idea for a way in which I could demonstrate to them what I wanted to say in such a way that they would understand and that they would be willing to listen. A few friends of mine from a skeptical group I’m a part of once told me of how they went to a high school and gave out horoscopes to the students, telling them that it was for their sign.

They then asked the students to rate the accuracy of the horoscope on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest level of accuracy, and a 1 being the lowest level of accuracy. They got an average of 4.3.

Then they told the students to pass their horoscope to the person sitting next to them. The students came to realise that they all had been given the same horoscope despite whatever sign they had.

The experiment was meant to demonstrate a psychological phenomenon known as the Forer effect. Bertram R. Forer was a psychologist who gave a personality test to a group of college students. He then completely ignored the results and gave them all the same vague assessment and asked them to rate the accuracy in a similar way. He found that the average rating in the group was a 4.26.

Long story short, people look at vague things that could apply to anyone and believe that it’s specific to them.

I decided that this was the small experiment I would do with them. I was riding on the train home, thinking about where I would get the horoscope that I would give to everybody, but instead something that a fellow skepchick had done floated into my mind. I was reminded of how Elyse had proven to herself how easy cold reading was by trying it herself. ‘Why not?‘ I thought and I took out my laptop.

I had never read a book about it, or even Googled any sort of techniques like Elyse had done. All I knew was that basically all you needed to do was say things that could apply to anybody, and I knew the sort of things that people wanted to believe about themselves. We all want to believe that we are smart, charismatic, kind, and all sorts of positive stuff… so that’s what I did. I wrote whatever flattering, vauge things I could pull out of my mind, then added a prediction that was bound to come true with anybody. This is what I wrote:

Being where you are in the zodiac you tend to have a better intellect than other signs. Even if you don’t always show it, you can always be called upon for a deep insight into whatever situation life has you in. You have a very likable personality. Your friends greatly appreciate your wonderful sense of humor and they love hanging out with you. You tend to want to avoid conflict, but can’t help it when you get fired up about something. However, the influence of Mars will be coming into full swing in the next few weeks and conflicts may erupt. Being the compassionate, kind person that you are you might worry for your friends, but be assured that no permanent damage will occur for the stellar movements indicate it will only be temporary. Just keep up your charismatic charm and calmly use that intellect to find a solution and you are sure to resolve that conflict in no time.

Since I’ve already told you what I did, and since you’re probably already thinking a little more critically about it than somebody who just glanced at it passively, you can probably see what I was doing and how I was doing it. But, if you weren’t reading into it much can you see how easy it would be to feel like it’s very specific to yourself.

I let it sit in the memory of my laptop for a few days and this morning I copy-pasted it three times onto a page with 1.5 line-spacing. I printed off four copies and cut a total of 12 strips of paper. I briefly Googled astrological signs, found the symbols and birthdays you were supposed to have, and drew them on the backs of the strips of paper with a marker (surprise, surprise, sharpie tends to bleed through) and put a paper clip around them.

I wondered if it would work and showed it to the secretary in the science department and to my Spanish teacher. The two comments I got from them were “it’s right on the money” and “oh my gosh, it’s so true!” I then handed them the horoscopes from the other “signs” and they gave a good chuckle as they realised they were all the same.

The time when I would do my presentation in astronomy was fast approaching. As surprised as I was by how well it had worked on the two people I tested it on, I still wasn’t entirely confident. Could something I pulled out of thin air which I had so intentionally made vague and flattering really work?

As students began to come into the class I laid out the strips of paper with the signs facing upwards on the table in front of me. When they were all settled I began…

“My project is on astrology.”

I began by saying that I had taken the horoscopes from a newspaper and typed them up onto those pieces of paper. I had the ones who shared the same sign get in a group and they all came up and got theirs. I told them to read silently and then asked them to rate it.

To my “dismay” a couple of students spoke up and said “this seems pretty vague” or “all horoscopes really do is flatter people” but the comments were ignored and fingers were held up. I counted.
Out of the 10 students I’d tested my horoscope with 5 of them gave it an accuracy rating of 5 out of 5. 2 students gave it 4 out of 5, 2 students gave it a 3 out of 5, and only one gave it a rating of 2 out of 5. I did some quick arithmetic and found that the average was 4.1 (I’d like to make it clear that my group was too small, and that this was by no means a scientific test although the result corresponds nicely with other tests of the Forer effect).

Then I randomly reached for one of the untouched horoscopes and said “this is my horoscope, I’m going to read it out loud to you.” It was, of course, exactly the same as every single other horoscope they had. They began laughing as they all simultaneously came to realise what I had done. “Okay, I lied… I didn’t get this from a newspaper, I wrote this on the train ride home last Tuesday.”

Some had been so flattered by my horoscope that they still wanted to believe it was true, but then I started going through things like the inverse-square law. I made a simple analogy. As a balloon gets bigger the rubber material gets weaker which is why it pops when it has too much air. As a star radiates energy outward the energy gets weaker in a similar way.

I told them about sun-signs and how there is actually a 13th sign of the zodiac that astrologers never mention called Ophiucus.

I pointed out that some people actually do believe that their sign is better than other signs and judge people based on the time at which they were born. I told them that if they objected to racism and sexism because it’s judging people based on skin colour or gender then they ought to object to judging people based on their stars.

And finally I said “science is a method of gaining knowledge… don’t just apply it to what you learn in your classes, apply it to everything.

I was applauded.

We then settled down to watch an episode of Cosmos, but I still was, and still am, stunned at how easily you could write something like a horoscope.

If you’d like to do this experiment with some of your other friends, you have my permission to use the horoscope I wrote (as long as you do a plug for Teen Skepchick), but if you’re up to it I encourage you to try writing your own to see how well you can do. And please drop me a line after you’ve done it letting me know how it went.

Seriously, you have no idea how easy it is until you try cold reading for yourself. Make this a learning experience for you and for your friends. Try it!

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  1. Jenny
    November 21, 2008 at 2:03 am —

    Wow, that’s really impressive! I wish I’d thought of doing that in my theory of knowledge class. I did a presentation on mediums and something like that to demonstrate the Forer effect would’ve been perfect.

    I had a chemistry teacher who did something similar – he gave us each a set of 12 horoscopes and asked us to pick which one was ours.

  2. Amanda
    November 21, 2008 at 8:52 am —

    Elles, this is an amazing post! I’m bookmarking it to keep on hand for future use whenever someone brings up how weirdly accurate they think astrology is.

  3. jackiestone
    November 21, 2008 at 12:31 pm —

    That was a great idea Elles! Well done.

    Jenny- my Chemistry teacher did the EXACT same thing!

  4. November 21, 2008 at 3:07 pm —

    Fantastic, Elles. Way to go! I hope more kids try this out in their classrooms.

  5. November 21, 2008 at 11:57 pm —

    Oh, and don’t forget to smugly laugh at them at their gullibility. ^_^ I am just kidding, you know, perhaps I should try this out too…

  6. tkingdoll
    November 24, 2008 at 3:04 pm —

    I used to work for a major newspaper group, and whenever the guy who did the horoscopes was on vacation or ill, we’d just pull some old ones from the archives. No-one ever wrote to complain that their fortune wasn’t accurate. Can’t think why…

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