The inestimable Orson Welles offers lucid insight into the skill of cold reading and the danger of “becoming a shut-eye” in this 1970 television interview conducted by David Frost. Here follows an excerpt from a 1967 Playboy Magazine feature, with Welles touching on the same themes:
Interviewer Kenneth Tynan: Another prevalent rumor is that you have the power of clairvoyance. Is that true?
Orson Welles: Well, if it exists, I sure as hell have it; if it doesn’t exist, I have the thing that’s mistaken for it.
I’ve told people their futures in a terrifying way sometimes – and please understand that I hate fortunetelling. It’s meddlesome, dangerous and a mockery of free will – the most important doctrine man has invented. But I was a fortuneteller once in Kansas City, when I was playing a week’s stand there in the theater.
As a part-time magician, I’d met a lot of semi-magician racketeers and learned the tricks of the professional seers. I took an apartment in a cheap district and put up a sign – $2 READINGS – and every day I went there, put on a turban and told fortunes. At first I used what are called ‘cold readings’; that’s a technical term for things you say to people that are bound to impress them and put them off their guard so that they start telling you things about themselves. A typical cold reading is to say that you have a scar on your knee. Everybody has a scar on their knee, because everybody fell down as a child. Another one is to say that a big change took place in your attitude toward life between the ages of 12 and 14.
But in the last two or three days, I stopped doing the tricks and just talked. A woman came in wearing a bright dress. As soon as she sat down, I said, ‘You’ve just lost your husband’; and she burst into tears. I believe that I saw and deduced things that my conscious mind did not record. But consciously, I just said the first thing that came into my head, and it was true. So I was well on the way to contracting the fortune-teller’s occupational disease, which is to start believing in yourself; to become what they call a ‘shut-eye.’ And that’s dangerous.