Cold Reading: Sylvia Browne, Amanda Berry and Recruiters


Sylvia Browne claims she is a psychic.  She told Amanda Berry’s mother that her daughter was dead back in 2004.

Amanda Berry is alive.

Being a psychic is a full-time job that can pay pretty well. I thought it might be helpful to tell you how Sylvia Browne makes money. Beyond lying and being a total piece of shit, she employs another technique. It’s called cold reading.

Cold reading is a series of techniques used by some mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists 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. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.

Psychics size you up. Quickly. And because the human condition isn’t tremendously complex, they often get important things right. Love. Loss. Heartache. Death. Financial struggles.

Recruiters use cold reading, too. If you are lucky enough to actually pass the six-second resume test and meet with a recruiter or HR professional, many will judge you based on the same criteria listed above — even if those judgements are illegal.

I wonder why we have interviews at all. HR professionals could easily do background checks to verify data on a CV. We can do assessments to determine competencies. We can test for values and work ethics. And we could actually meet a candidate via Skype or HireVue before the first day of work.

But no. Recruiters want to see you in the flesh. They want to look you in the eye and make sure you’re likable and you are a good cultural fit.

I get it . . . . but I think it’s a version of cold reading. It seems unreasonable to believe that someone can meet with you for 30 minutes and judge your motivation, aptitude and ability based on a simple conversation. To me, it feels nothing more than an unsophisticated psychic trick. And I think that technology can solve for bias and discrimination in the hiring process.

But my opinion is not widely held among HR and recruiting professionals.

So what can you do to protect yourself from cold reading and have a fighting chance?

I dunno. You can follow the shitty career advice you see out there.

  • Do your research on a company.
  • Wear clean clothes.
  • Don’t smell.
  • Don’t be too ethnic or too religious.
  • Don’t be too fat, too old or too expensive to employ.
  • Don’t talk too much.
  • Don’t stutter.
  • Sit up tall.
  • Don’t say anything negative about your previous employer.
  • Be cheap.
  • Be available.
  • Show loyalty without being too desperate.


If you can pass the cold reading test and get a job in 2013, you let me know.

Previous post:

Next post: