Have you ever noticed how horoscopes tend to be so general that their predictions could apply to almost anyone? In psychology, this is an example of the Forer effect (also known as the Barnum effect), which refers to the tendency people have to consider descriptions of their personality accurate even if these descriptions are so vague that they apply to many people.
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How Does the Barnum Effect Work?
Elsevier’s Dictionary of Psychological Theories explains: “The Barnum effect, named after the American showman, charlatan, and entrepreneur Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891), refers to the fact that a cleverly worded “personal” description based on general, stereotyped statements will be accepted readily as an accurate self-description by most people” (Roeckelein, 2006).
The famed circus 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:
“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.
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)
Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior with concept maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Roeckelein, J. E. (Ed.). (2006). Elsevier’s Dictionary of Psychological Theories. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
Forer, B. R. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118-123.