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What Is the Barnum Effect in Psychology?

The Barnum effect is a type of cognitive bias that involves a tendency to believe that vague, general personality descriptions apply specifically and uniquely to them. Horoscopes are a good example of this phenomenon. While each horoscope is general, generic, and can apply to virtually anyone, people often feel like their own horoscope is strangely accurate and personalized to them.

Also Known As: The Barnum effect, the Forer effect, the Barnum-Forer effect, or the fallacy of personal validation.

How Does the Barnum Effect Work?

According to this effect, most people will accept carefully worded “personal descriptions of themselves as accurate, even though they contain only general, stereotyped statements.

The Barnum effect was named after Phineas T. Barnum, the famed American showman.

P. T. Barnum had a formula to explain his success: “Always have a little something for everybody.” It is this simple observation that explains why many pseudoscientific practices such as astrology, palm readings, and fortune-telling are so popular. The predictions offered by such practices are typically stated in such general terms that they can pretty much offer something for anyone.

The effect was first described and named by psychologist Bertram R. Forer. In 1948, Forer gave a personality test to a group of students and then presented them with what was supposedly a detailed analysis of their personality based on their results. The students were then asked to rate the accuracy of the description on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent). The average accuracy rating was 4.26, but in reality, every single student had received the exact same personality description, included below:

Barnum Effect Descriptions

“You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused energy 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 some problems for you.

Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure 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 on being an independent thinker and do not accept other opinions without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extraverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.”

The thing to take away from this demonstration is that just because something seems valid and applicable to your life and personality does not mean that it is accurate or valid. Be skeptical, especially of sweeping generalizations that probably apply to almost everybody.

What Causes the Barnum Effect?

So why do people fall victim to the Barnum effect? Like other cognitive biases, it stems from the natural ways our minds work. We all try to find relationships and patterns in the world around us, including trying to attach personal meaning to things that apply to many others. It’s why song lyrics and works of art often seem so specific and personally meaningful.

People also often have a desire for validation. They want to understand themselves better and feel seen by others. Having a description that seems to offer personalized insights can increase a person’s motivation to believe in such generic statements.

Factors That Influence the Barnum Effect

Researchers have also found that certain factors increase the likelihood that the Barnum effect will occur.

  • Positivity: The ratio of positive to negative assessments plays a major role in whether people believe the descriptions apply to them. A higher ratio of positive statements increases belief.
  • Trust and authority: It is more likely to occur if the subject trusts the source of the description. Statements from people high in authority are more likely to be believed.
  • Vagueness: Statements must be vague and allow people to place their own personal meaning on the descriptions.
  • Personality traits: Certain personality characteristics increase the likelihood of people accepting Barnum statements. People with authoritarian or neurotic personality traits are likelier to fall victim to the effect.

People who are trying to manipulate or exploit others often utilize the Barnum effect to take advantage of other people. They do this by projecting confidence (authority), presenting information to back up their claims (to inspire trust), and flattering their victims (emphasizing positivity).

Examples of the Barnum Effect

The Barnum effect is very common; in most cases, you probably don’t even realize it’s happening. Some examples you might encounter in daily life include:

  • Reading your horoscope and feeling like it is accurate and helpful
  • Believing that a fortune cookie is a correct prediction of your future
  • Taking a personality type test like the MBTI and feeling like your result is correct
  • Getting your fortune read or future told and believing that the psychic or medium has unique insights into your life
  • Seeing memes on social media websites and feeling like they specifically apply to you

Belief in many paranormal practices, including fortune telling, aura reading, astrology, phrenology, and some personality type tests, are related to the Barnum effect.

Impact of the Barnum Effect

The problem with the Barnum effect is that it can contribute to poor decision-making. It can leave you vulnerable to deception if you fall for false information that tries to make general predictions seem personal. 

For example, if you believe in the veracity of your daily horoscope, you might adjust your behavior in ways that affect your life in negative ways. You might make a major life decision based on a general statement in your horoscope, or you might base your career plans on a vague statement in a personality type inventory.

Observations About the Barnum Effect

“Like the all-purpose personality profile, palm readings, fortunes, horoscopes, and other products of pseudopsychology are state in such general terms that they can hardly miss. There is always “a little something for everybody.” To observe the Barnum effect, read all 12 of the daily horoscopes found in newspapers for several days. You will find that the predictions for other signs fit events as well as those for your own sign do. Try giving a friend the wrong horoscope sometime. Your friend may still be quite impressed with the “accuracy” of the horoscope.” (Coon & Mitterer, 2010)

“Some researchers report that people are more willing to believe flattering statements about themselves than statements that are scientifically accurate. Various suggestions have been offered by researchers to avoid falling prey to the Barnum effect, such as be aware of all-purpose descriptions that could apply to anyone, beware of one’s own selective perceptions, and resist undue flattery.” (Roeckelein, 2006)

How to Avoid the Barnum Effect

So what can you do to minimize or avoid the Barnum effect? While the Barnum effect can sometimes be hard to spot, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of falling for it. Some things that can help include:

Being Aware of the Barnum Effect

Just knowing that the Barnum effect exists can play a part in reducing its impact on your choices and decision-making. Now that you know a bit more about how it works, start paying attention to situations in your daily life where it might play a role.

Ask for Specificity

When you are evaluating information, pay attention to specific statements that are backed up by legitimate sources. The more specific and precise the information is, the less likely it is to apply to a wide swath of people.

Think Critically

As you are evaluating descriptions and statements, try to apply a critical eye. Ask yourself if the information really applies to you individually, or if it could possibly apply to many, if not almost all, individuals.

Look at the Evidence

Is there any evidence to support the accuracy of the statement or prediction? How accurate have such predictions been in the past?

Be Skeptical

Adopt a certain level of skepticism when approaching subjective information. Question the source and be cautious about things that seem highly flattering or too good to be true. If it feels like someone is trying to “butter you up,” they probably are.

Like other cognitive biases, it can be difficult to 100% avoid the Barnum effect. But adopting a critical mindset and being willing to question the information you encounter can help you become less susceptible to gullibility and deception.

Key Points to Remember

  • The Barnum effect describes the tendency for individuals to accept vague and general personality descriptions as highly accurate and applicable to themselves.
  • It operates through factors like vagueness, subjective validation, positive framing, and a desire for validation.
  • Awareness, specificity, and objective evaluation can help individuals avoid falling prey to the Barnum effect.
  • Embracing skepticism and seeking out objective evidence can lead to more accurate self-assessments and reduced susceptibility to vague or generalized descriptions.


American Psychological Association. Barnum effect.

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