Wilson, Clare. "Spellbound." New Scientist 187.2510 (2005): 32. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 Sept. 2011.
Do you believe in horoscopes? Tarot cards? Palm readings? According to this article, "cold readings," faux insights into people's personalities and everyday happenings, are successful in persuasion due to the selective attention of the person receiving insight.
For example, Stacy opens up the Horoscope section in the MN Daily, and what does she find?--a reading of her day, telling her that her stress level will go up with her upcoming test and relationship issues. Maybe the horoscope will add something random about her recent, physical injury that will complicate her day.
Stacy, thinking about her first Exam in Psychology coming up, is now in awe; how did the newspaper know that she was going to have an exam?! And, how did it know that she and her boyfriend were working out drama from going out to the bars last Friday night? Never mind the fact that she does not have an injury; the other two observations were spot-on, so the MN Daily Horoscopes MUST be psychic. Right?
First, let me dish out some reasons why cold reading is considered a simple way for people to be persuaded into these false readings: Cold readings use the 'sleight of tongue' technique by suggesting a number of things that may happen within a person's day, because one of the suggestions is bound to apply; Cold readings generalize and take into consideration environmental factors, such as the temporal setting in the semester that makes it more likely for a midterm or exam to occur on a college campus.
With those simple concepts in mind, let's further apply the cold reading techniques to the horoscope situation with Stacy: Stacy is stressed out about her exam and recent boyfriend issues; so, she is already trying to find meaning in her life as to why her problems are arising now, or how she is going to manage it all. Even though she has no injury, she wants to figure out some reason or meaning for the events in her life. Therefore, she ignores the injury comment and focuses on the other two readings. According to our Psychology textbook, "humans seek meaning in our worlds and often find it when it's not there" (Lilienfield 134).
This example specifically relates to one quote from the article cited: "Even specific pronouncements can apply to many people. For example, a survey of 6000 people showed that one third agreed with the statement: "I have a scar on my left knee," and over a quarter with: "Someone in my family is called Jack." As long as the psychic makes numerous guesses, the odds are that a few will hit the mark. And thanks to our selective memories, we tend to remember the hits and forget the misses."
Cold readings are best tested using Occam's Razor, or the simplest explanation, to describe the extraordinary insights. The simplest explanation, in this case, is that there are over 50,000 people on campus who read the MN Daily. Generally speaking, most of them are going through relationship problems (whether it's a family member, significant other, coworker, etc.) or other issues related to the horoscope. It is more likely that the cold reading is a logical guess than a factual insight into someone's personal life.