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Info > What Are The Ethics Of Cold Reading?

Short: Cold reading is neutral and can be used for good or bad purposes. I prefer 'good'.

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Longer: I do not think the ethics of cold reading is a simple subject, easily reduced to a few soundbites. I can’t write a few paragraphs and resolve the subject to everyone’s satisfaction. What I can say is that I have been experimenting with personal readings and mentalism for decades. I’ve performed all over the world. I’ve been involved in skeptics groups and have performed at skeptics conferences. I am familiar with many shades of opinion about people who give readings, ranging all the way from “It’s wicked!” to “What’s the problem?” via “Who cares?”.

I’m not saying anyone should care what I think about the ethics of giving personal readings, and I never discuss this question in a defensive or argumentative way. I don’t have anything to be defensive about and I’m not trying to persuade anyone to agree with me. However, in case anyone is interested, I would make the following points.

The Surgeon’s Knife

When law students study ethics, they are given the example of a sharp knife. The knife itself is neutral: it can be used to harm or to help. A bad person can use a sharp knife to attack someone else. A surgeon can use a sharp knife to perform a life-saving operation. It’s the same with giving personal readings. You could give readings for harmful purposes or for good ones. I only give readings for good ones.

You can find examples of people who had readings and say they feel conned and exploited. But this is an incomplete data set. You can’t arrive at a sensible conclusion unless you take in all the data. There are also many people who say they really enjoyed their reading, and found it to be useful, helpful, positive and comforting. What if for every single ‘bad’ experience, there are a thousand ‘good’ experiences? Should we still condemn personal readings?

It’s true that some people who give readings are guilty of extortion. They may deceive some people into parting with very large sums of money that they can’t afford. But what’s wrong is the extortion, not the process of giving readings.

Let’s say there are three hairdressers in a town. They all charge ‘the going rate’ for a haircut. Suppose an unscrupulous con artist hairdresser comes along and opens a shop. He manages to con someone into parting with a few thousand pounds or dollars for a haircut. This is bad. But it’s the extortionate amount of money that makes it bad, not the act of cutting someone’s hair.

You may say that some people who give readings are unethical and exploitative. I agree, but this is another incomplete data set. Many readers are very ethical, helpful, kind and generous. Some always give readings free of charge (like I do). Others may charge the going rate but never take one penny for readings that the client isn’t perfectly happy to pay. You can find bad apples in every bunch. There are probably some opticians that are unethical, as well as some car mechanics, shop assistants, magicians, skeptics, carpet fitters and plumbers. But nobody suggests getting rid of all the opticians and car mechanics.

Blanket condemnation and the ‘tar them all with the same brush’ approach is never a good idea. It isn’t fair, wise or just. If you say you care about right and wrong, you must first learn to tell the difference. Of course, this involves more work so it’s always going to be the road less travelled. It’s far easier to just condemn a particular group or activity out of hand without any care for analysis, evidence, data, thought, nuance or shades of grey. You can teach a parrot to squawk ‘Readings are bad!’. If we’re going to have these debates, let’s aspire to do more with our minds than merely be parrots of prejudice.


Value For Money

Some people say that cold reading offers terrible value for money. First of all, let me remind you that many people give readings free of charge. This is what I've been doing for decades. In my book, 'Super Psychic Readings', I focus on giving free, informal readings to people. I think 'free' is pretty good value for money.

Nonetheless, let’s consider readings that people pay for. Value is always subjective. If I had two tickets for a major sporting event, these would have zero value for me because I have no interest at all in sport. I would give the tickets away to someone who would enjoy going to the event. Other people might find those tickets tremendously valuable.

If you don’t think a psychic readings has any value, don’t pay for one. You probably spend money on things that I or other people might consider worthless. You are free to spend your money just as other people are free to spend theirs.

Here’s my ethical stance and the one that I promote: when I give someone a reading, my intention is to give them an enjoyable, intriguing experience. I hope to give them a sense that they matter and they are important. In some cases, I may be able to help them to make sense of life, and to gain a sense of confidence, hope and optimism. Some readings can also give people a feeling of healing and closure.

I maintain that there’s nothing wrong with this. When you give someone a reading, it might be the best thing that has happened to them all day, or all week. It might be the only time someone has given them some attention, made them feel special or offered a word of hope.

Cold reading doesn't have any ethics. People do. When people use cold reading for good, I applaud this. When they use it for harm, I condemn this. That's my take on the ethics of cold reading.

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