Organisational psychics

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I caught an interesting piece of TV with Derren Brown recently.  I like his style, but I also like the fact that he debunks so much nonsense.

In three different parts of the world, he took a group of people, asked them for a couple of personal effects from their pockets, disappeared and reappeared with personal profiles for each of them.  Cue voxpops of emotional and tearful people amazed at how accurate the assessments were – “he got me like 90% nailed”, “there are things here I didn’t even realise myself”, etc.

Then he invited them, if they wished, to share their profiles with each other.  At which point it became apparent that they were all exactly the same profile.  The technique’s called “Cold Reading” and relies on the “Forer Effect“, by which we interpret generic information as being specific about ourselves.  It’s, of course, how horoscopes are put together.

It works best when [from Wikipedia]:

    • the subject believes that the analysis applies only to them
    • the subject believes in the authority of the evaluator
    • the analysis lists mainly positive traits


Which, it strikes me, describe an awful lot of consultants’ reports and proposals.  It struck me recently when talking with a colleague in a government department that a high proportion of consultants’ analyses of problems is straight cold reading.


“I’m getting a picture of an organisation with a problem in communication.  It’s a big organisation, run by someone with a history in accounting.  Or there’s an accountant in the organisation, perhaps in the Finance department.”

If that’s you, you know where to find me.