Subliminal Hacking
The Art and Science of Social Engineering


June 21, 2010

Sub Zero Mind Reading.. The Art of Cold Reading

I know what your thinking! See what I did there 🙂 Seriously though this post is going to give you a little insight into cold reading, what its all about, a few facts and some ideas how you might want to put this skill to good use.

Wikipedia Definition – Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, fortune tellers, psychics, mediums and con artists to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc

So what is cold reading all about? Essentially its the process of giving general statements (Barnum Statements) that an individual will find and believe to be very specific and meaningful to them as an individual. This can be achieved by generic statements, or using information gleamed from other sources, body language and general observation.

You may have experienced this yourself if you have been to see a psychic, palm reader or similar. Now before anyone flames me, I am not saying that some people may not have a gift, or at least believe they do, but I have not seen for myself or seen anything documented that convinces me that some sort of cold reading is not at work. Depending on your scepticism you may find the experience interesting, revealing and worth the money, you probably also like to read about your star signs in the daily newspaper also.

The reason I don’t bother trying to convince people otherwise is for two reasons. First of all we are all entitled to our own opinions, and as long as you are entering into the experience with a sound head on your shoulders, and are happy to shell out the money, I guess there is no harm. The other reason is that I have tried to explain in my opinion why its all a load of crap, and I had the opposite outcome and the individuals involved believed that I had some sort of psychic abilities. I thought it was rather humorous, so I will quickly give an overview of the story.

So I was in a pub (common theme here) and a couple of friends where talking about how they had been to see a psychic and how accurate they were, and how it would help them make some difficult decisions they are being faced with. So I said I thought it was all a load of crap, etc etc, and I could prove it as I could give them a reading using a system I had partially learnt at the time. So I went through the process with the first friend, getting them to visualise, etc etc. Then gave them what they called an amazing reading, they were amazed at the accuracy for things I couldn’t have known. The other friend was then also keen after this. Another reading, totally different and again spot on. I was sure I had proven my point. Sadly the result was that as well as being a hypnotist, I must also have some sort of psychic powers, I have the gift…… I give up 🙂

From a social engineering perspective I believe there are a few benefits. With my style of SE, where I look to use a mixture of performance, mentalism, hypnosis etc to get information in a social environment it has obviously benefits as the example above gives. You can leverage a good cold reading to then have an intensive and revealing discussion, and during this time extract specific information you may be after for an engagement. Its probably not a surprise after this type of phenomena people are either very curious and want to discuss more, or have totally bought into you, rapport is at an all time high and they could be willing to share all sorts with you.

Obviously once you become more familiar with the process, and the lingo you can simply use the methods and statements in a non psychic setup. Simply use the cold reading techniques to aid with getting buy in, manipulating a subject. You can use these skills to make people more interested in you as well as making people uncomfortable. This can be done in person, via the phone and even my mail. As the statements will appear to give you knowledge about the situation, individual and context of discussion. I really do suggest people look into cold reading at some level with the mindset of applying it in a social engineering context.

If you are interested in reading about cold reading, and how it can be used for manipulation I really do recommend The Full Facts of Cold Reading, by Ian Rowland. Its contents will help you understand the techniques of cold reading, where you take and use these techniques is up to you.

Feel free to check out the Resources section regularly for my recommended readings and products.

Examples of Barnum Statements:

  • You’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs over the past few years, emotionally and financially, and that has caused some stress in your life.
  • You have a creative streak that you aren’t always able to indulge in.
  • You have a fear of rejection.
  • You feel guilty about and worry about things that are completely out of your control.
  • You are often too critical of yourself.
  • Some of your goals seem to be a little unrealistic
  • You do not accept what others tell you to believe

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    About the Author

    Dale Pearson
    has worked in IT since 1998, Infosec since 2004, and studied and performed hypnosis, mentalism etc since 2009. Dale is a full time Red Teamer with a love of social engineering and qualified hypnotherapist. He spends a great deal of time researching the various skills and techniques that make up the art and science of Social Engineering.


    1. John Smith

      The last statement is ironic. No-one wants to be manipulated, and if you asked people on the street that, I guarantee everyone will agree, but by using cold reading, you are subtly influencing their opinions.

    2. Bobert

      “I could give them a reading using a system I had partially learnt at the time”
      What was that? Sounds pretty effective for a partially learned system.

      Or maybe you’d recommend something better now?

    3. Dale

      The system I was using was “System 88” by Docc Hilford. Another system I have but have not had much time to looking into it is SRS by Mark Elsdon, I am a big fan of Mark’s thinking so I am sure its awesome. Hope this helps.

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