Before I start talking about the Barnum effect, let me tell you that I know a lot about you. Allow me to talk about you!
– You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
– You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
– You have a great deal of unused potential, which you have not turned to your advantage.
– While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
– Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
– Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.
– At times, you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
– You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
– You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
– You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
– At times, you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
– Security is one of your major goals in life.
– Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
Can you find yourself in the text above? Yes? Well, you’re not the only person in this situation. All those who read the text find themselves to a lesser or greater degree.
This is the Barnum (Forer) effect.
The Forer (or Barnum) effect is a term used in psychology that defines the tendency of people to accept very general or vague characterizations of themselves as being very accurate.
A good example of this can be seen in people who think they are true and exactly match descriptions of those who guess them in coffee, tarot, astrological predictions or other bizarre practices.
“A sucker is born every minute,” said Phineas Taylor Barnum, the discoverer of the circus, and the one after whom this effect was called.
In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a number of 39 students a personality test, then asked them to assess the degree of veracity of the profile described. Students evaluated the accuracy of their own personality profile on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 was considered a profile that did not correspond to any of their own personalities, and 5 had a perfect correspondence with their own personality. The average of these ratings was 4.2. Then students were asked to raise their hands if the test was considered to be an appropriate and accurate tool in describing their own personality. All students raised their hand, being convinced of the veracity of the instrument. They later found out that they had the same interpretation.
The Barnum effect has some explanations. According to researchers, it seems that, first of all, we like flattering and discourses that value us. Then, often, we do not perceive in an analysis anything other than that which suits us or favors us. Thus, we abstain from elements that do not characterize us, although they are mentioned. The effect also increases when people think they have a particular description made for them, when the description is more favorable than unfavorably, when the description is not specific, and the characteristics and traits mentioned are common in the population from which they were selected as subjects. All these features are met when the horoscope is presented to us. We do not even have to be careful to see which sign is coming. Anyway, all the signs fit us.
The effect of Barnum is a technique that is also the basis of palm reading, predictions, and other forms of past or predictive predictions.
Those who claim to have paranormal powers exploit this technique along with cold reading, a set of techniques by which relevant information is obtained by general assertions, by observing body language and subject’s reactions.
This effect appears to a greater extent in the case of people with a particular need for approval or tendencies of obedience, conformism to authority. Those are people who take things as they are, because they can not do anything anyway, things are predestined to be so. The truth is, no matter how unique we are, we have the same quests, the same dilemmas and the same cognitive viruses.
In order not to let this effect deceive us, I think it is important to keep in mind Forer’s words:
“Thus, the individual is a unique configuration of characteristics, each of which can be found in everyone, but in varying degrees.”