The Full Facts Book of
Cold Reading by Ian Rowland
Review by Lee A. Bursten
Ian Rowland is a British writer and entertainer who has had some success staging psychic and mentalist performances, in which he performs tricks such as spoon-bending and mind-reading and then debunks them by informing the audience that they were tricks. To illustrate the techniques of cold reading, he has given completely fake 20-minute Tarot and astrology readings on television to people who were convinced he was a genuine psychic, even after it was revealed to them that it was all a fake. In some ways he is similar to the famous magician-turned-debunker James Randi. Randi, however, can be unpleasantly strident (although I usually find myself agreeing with him), while Rowland has a pleasant and entertaining style, leavened with just enough wit and sarcasm to give the proceedings some bite.
He has written and published The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, which explains in great detail how a psychic session could be faked and the client misled into believing the reader were truly psychic. This could apply to a number of fields such as Tarot, astrology, or spiritualism (i.e. the people who supposedly talk to the dead on TV). The layman would never guess the cleverness and effectiveness of the various ruses presented, and I would venture to say that the majority of people given a well-performed reading using this sort of fraud would come away thinking the reader had genuine psychic powers. You can actually see this sort of thing in operation by just turning on the TV and watching the aforementioned spiritualists, whom I am convinced are deliberately using exactly these techniques to wow the audience.
You may well be wondering at this point what interest any of this could have for Taroists who visit this site, since, Iím sure, none of you who read for others have any intentions of defrauding your clients. There are a few reasons. First of all, Rowland uses hypothetical Tarot readings (as well as hypothetical astrology consultations) to illustrate his points. Secondly, since psychic frauds are really enemies of those whose goal is to genuinely help people, itís a good idea to know as much as possible about what they do, so as to effectively fight them. Thirdly, Rowland makes an excellent point toward the end of his book, which is that it is very possible for someone to utilize these techniques without being aware of it and become convinced of the genuineness of their psychic gifts. It would surely be valuable for those Taroists who read for others to ask themselves some very honest questions about what exactly goes on in a reading and whether the client is led, even unintentionally, into believing in some sort of omniscience on the part of the reader where none may exist. Reading this book could be an integral part of that process.
The book is an entertaining read and would be quite enjoyable for anyone who has even the smallest skeptical bone in their body. Rowlandís goal is to educate the public about what cold readers do, and not to encourage people to use the techniques to mislead people, but the book seems structured as a textbook for how to use cold reading techniques for deceptive purposes. While to the layman the general concepts (making lucky guesses, drawing information out of the client, and, particularly, making the client believe you have been more accurate than you in fact have been) may seem simple, in fact there are a myriad of tricks and variations for doing so without the client noticing. The various ploys are given amusing names, like The Fuzzy Fact, The Jargon Blitz, and Pollyanna Pearls. Also included are strategies on how to conduct the session, such as Cultivating Feedback, Keeping it Clear, Reprising with Gold Paint, and Summarizing the Reading. He also provides information on "hot reading" (i.e. obtaining information ahead of time), whether anyone can learn cold reading, and how to "block" a reading, i.e. how to thwart the techniques if you suspect they are being used on you, although I must say, I wouldnít have the chutzpah required to confront a psychic in the suggested manner.
I do have a few problems with the book, at least from a Taroistís perspective. The book is entirely and single-mindedly focused on cold readers whose purpose is to mislead the client, even to the point that in the reading examples used in the book, the reader is completely ignorant about Tarot or astrology and just makes up the readings out of thin air with the cards in front of her (throughout the book Rowland uses feminine pronouns for both the reader and the client). Rowland seems unaware (or just uninterested) that in the past 30 years there has been a shift in the Tarot environment from occultism and fortune telling to more psychologically-based models, where you can use the card symbols to explore your own perceptions and assumptions and to help you create your own future. Such an activity would fall entirely outside the bookís scope. In fact, many Tarot readers would not claim to be psychic at all. However, the question then arises, if you can use the cards to explore yourself, why not use them to help someone else explore themselves? And thatís where the whole thing starts to get a little tricky, because then of course youíre actively seeking input from the client. The point of this kind of reading, in fact, is to have a dialogue, using the cards as a jumping-off place. The problem is that a transcript of such a session would probably look exactly like cold reading to someone like Rowland.
I think thereís a very fine line to be drawn here. If you draw the Eight of Cups for a card position representing the past, then there certainly isnít any deceit involved in saying to the client, "The cards tell me there has been some sort of abandonment in your past." After all, the client wants to know what you see in the cards. But if the client says, "Oh, yes, my father walked out on us when we were children," and then at some later point you refer to the fact that the cards had accurately seen that the clientís father had abandoned them, that would cross over the line, because you had not said that; you had only said there was some sort of abandonment in the past.
I think the whole question really revolves around the readerís intentions and the clientís perceptions. If the reader has no intentions to mislead the client, and in fact makes clear to the client that there are no psychic claims being made, then I donít think thereís anything unethical going on. The reader might also take the extra step and discourage the client from latching onto something the reader said and making a big psychic event out of it (anyone who has read for others will know what Iím talking about). Preventing this could be a good idea because it would lessen the likelihood that the client could invest the reader with too much power, thus making the reading less effective as a tool for personal growth.
Rowland explicitly states at the beginning of the book that the book is not concerned with the question of whether readings are beneficial to the client. However, later in the book he betrays his biases when he states, "It does not help the proceedings if the client asks how 72 bits of pasteboard, bearing coloured drawings derived from medieval European sources, are supposed to shed light on anything at all." First of all, he would increase his credibility if he would get the number of cards right. (Itís 78, Ian.) But more importantly, itís interesting to note that on the previous page he tells us his deck of choice is the Medieval Scapini (a deck I have always thought quite ugly), which he calls "beautiful" and "captivating." From the above quote, one could easily form the impression that it has not occurred to him that the reason the cards are so captivating is that they contain interesting and suggestive symbols which relate to the human condition, and that meditating on a situation or problem by laying the cards out and seeing how they might relate to each other and to the situation might indeed result in some light being shed or insight gained.
He also betrays his bias and ignorance of the present-day Tarot scene when he states, "Other [psychics] proudly display certificates from some appropriate palace of erudition, such as the ĎSomething-Somewhere Centre for Tarot Studies.í" I can appreciate a good bit of sarcasm (in fact, itís part of what makes the book enjoyable), but I think itís important to note that most Tarot organizations which provide courses that can lead to certification (at least, the ones Iím familiar with) have quite a stringent set of ethics statements that would strongly discourage the behavior described in this book. And while it would certainly be possible for a charlatan Tarot reader to get certified, itís hard to imagine a charlatan going through the trouble and taking the time to learn psychologically-oriented approaches to Tarot to the extent necessary to be certified.
I believe that by focusing on Tarot reading examples in which the reader is ignorant about Tarot and is using cold reading techniques to deliberately mislead, the author gives the impression that he believes most Tarot readers operate this way, despite his disclaimer in the beginning of the book to the contrary. Iím sure there are plenty of charlatan Tarot readers out there. But from a purely practical perspective, despite the successful readings he gives in the book which simply fake any knowledge of Tarot or astrology, I think a charlatan who knew nothing about these disciplines wouldnít last very long, for the simple reason that many people who come for readings already have some knowledge about these things, and the deception would be found out immediately upon hearing that Cups refers to belongings or Saturn represents beneficial changes, two examples used in the book.
Now, I do think that this approach serves to make a good point, which is that people are essentially susceptible to cold reading, even if they donít think they are, and a completely fake reading could very easily impress an unknowledgeable client more than a real one. And although Rowland doesnít specifically state it, one is left with the impression that a majority of Tarot readers donít even know anything about their respective disciplines, which I just canít believe is the case. I think the truth is more like shades of gray rather than black and white. I think most Tarot practitioners are quite knowledgeable about the cards, and of that group, there are probably some who use their knowledge fraudulently, some who mostly arenít fraudulent but may use some of these tricks now and again, and many who have no intention of being fraudulent but who genuinely want to help people. I do think, however, as stated before, that the latter group could benefit from examining themselves and their reading techniques to make sure theyíre not unwittingly falling into the patterns described in the book.
The 216-page book is very expensive at 40 British pounds (when I ordered it, it came to $63.65 with shipping). Itís wire-bound, and the covers are shiny but extremely flimsy (Rowland explains on his website that this was due to printing difficulties). I think itís one of those things that you would have to be really, really interested in before you ordered it. But for anyone who has an interest in the specifics of what happens with a clientís perceptions and impressions during a reading, and how the reading could be used to take advantage of the client, itís well worth the money, because this is information which you wonít find elsewhere. The book is only available from the authorís website.
The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland
Publisher: Ian Rowland Limited
Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.
Review © 2001 Lee Bursten
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes