The tendency to take as truth the words of oracles, ancient or modern, is known in psychology as the Forer effect or Barnum effect. Psychologists define it as the fact of believing that certain statements characterize us personally, while in fact, they apply to a large number of individuals because, in reality, they are vague and generic. With this Psychology, we will try to better understand the Forer or Barnum effect, what it is, and some examples that describe it.
Origin of the Barnum effect
Phineas Taylor Barnum (P. T. Barnum) was born on July 5, 1810, in the United States of America and was a great circus entrepreneur, owner, and director of the circus called “The Greatest Show in the World“. He is famous for being a good publicist of his time, a manipulator of crowds, to the point of describing himself as a great mystifying. His circus was famous because anyone could find something fun there: the attractions he proposed in the show were so numerous and varied that there was something for everyone.
The expression Barnum effect was created by Paul Meehl who, in the 50s of the twentieth century, had conducted research on the validity of psychological tests used in psychiatric institutes. He had detected, in the reports of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, the high frequency of expressions such as “the patient has difficulty accepting his impulses”, “his affective relationships are strongly disturbed”, “suffers from sexual problems” etc. These statements were actually applicable to all patients, and several tests did not imply anything specific or useful.
Next, the expression was used to designate not only the results of the tests but also the statements of astrologers, graphologists, psychoanalysts, morphopsychologists, numerologists, etc. based on the same principle. Even today, psychological practices (including those that seem scientific) take great advantage of the Barnum effect; an inextinguishable source of success for imposters.
What is Forer effect or what is Barnum effect?
The Forer effect, also known as the Barnum effect, occurs when a person accepts as valid an assertion about himself because they believe it comes from a reliable source. In other words, people fall victim to the fallacy of personal validation and accept as their own generalizations that can be valid for any individual. The personal validation fallacy consists of believing that a description fits your person exactly when the reality is a generic explanation that could be adapted to many situations and be consistent with many people.
The Forer or Barnum effect has been the subject of numerous experiments that take everyone in the same direction, and one of the most cited is that of Forer (that is why we sometimes talk about the Forer effect instead of Barnum): this psychology professor has provided 39 of his students at the University of California with an analysis of their personality, after having been tested.
The name of this effect comes from psychologist Bertram R. Forer, who found that most people accepted these vague descriptions as personal and accurate, so he reviewed an experiment in 1948, in which he gave a set of statements to his students as a result of a personality test and asked them to evaluate their results. stating whether they were right. What his students didn’t know is that they all had the same result sheet, which said this:
“You need to be accepted by others and you want to be admired, however, you tend to be very critical of yourself. Although you have some personality weaknesses, you usually manage to make up for them. You have an incredible ability that you haven’t turned into your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to worry and be insecure on the inside. Sometimes you have great doubts about whether you have made the right decision or if you have done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and feel dissatisfied when you are cornered by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself on being an independent thinker, you don’t accept what others say without satisfactory evidence. But you have found that it is unwise to be very outspoken and reveal yourself to others. Sometimes you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted and reserved. Some of your expectations may be rather unrealistic.”
He actually gave everyone the same text from a horoscope found in a popular magazine. Each of the students had been invited to judge the accuracy of the ratio on a scale of 0 to 5, where 5 was for “excellent” and 4 for “good”. The average class evaluation was 4.26; that is, they considered that the result really defined their personalities.
How does the Forer effect or Barnum effect work?
Almost all of us are vulnerable to the Forer effect, even more so when it is related to pseudoscience such as astrology, graphology, aura reading, and so on. One reason is that there is usually nothing you can disagree with the statements, as most are presented with two options: “you are X, but sometimes you are Y”. This is vague enough to fit virtually any human being. If you say to someone, “You’re very smart, but sometimes you do nonsense,” anyone in the world could accept that analysis as valid.
“For a short time, you feel that you can know what is going to happen and you can avoid or change it.”
Another reason why people can fall into the Barnum effect is that it is even more powerful when making predictions because it offers a sense of reaffirmation and control of the unknown. Humans love to feel that we can control, so these predictions offer us a window into what we can’t control, even if this window isn’t very transparent or accurate; for a short time you feel that you can know what is going to happen and you can avoid or change it.
Similarly, the Forer effect is usually related to confirmation cognitive bias, and in part owes its success to it. Confirmation bias occurs when you read an astrological prediction that confirms your own beliefs. For example, if you feel a little sad or discouraged and your horoscope says that “complicated moments are coming from which you will succeed”, it is confirming how you feel; it gives you the reason and there is nothing more that we like than being right.
As funny as it may seem, the Forer effect can affect people’s lives, who will not only invest astronomical sums to get the astrological chart, read the palm of their hand or coffee; but they can also make important decisions based on cognitive bias, which as we see, is not usually sound advice.
Examples: the horoscope, the tarot, and astrology
A practical example of the Forer effect or Barnum effect is found with horoscopes: twelve types of psycho-physical events, one for each zodiac sign, enough to describe billions of people in the world. Anyone can read the horoscope and think it was reasonable and quite accurate, and then find out that he had read the indications of the wrong zodiac sign. Well, horoscopes take advantage of precisely the effect in question, that is, the tendency we have to accept vague descriptions as if they were cut to size for us.
- Peter Glick and his collaborators found, from a group of 200 students aged 15 to 18, that astrology skeptics who received from a supposed astrologer a flattering description of his personality changed their minds and came to think that perhaps something was interesting or true in this “science”.
- To be widely accepted, the Barnum profile doesn’t need to be performed by a prestigious expert: in the framework of an experiment conducted at the University of Illinois, a group of students was tested by a respected professor, and another by a psychology student. After receiving their “analysis”, students were invited to judge their suitability using a scale of 0 to 5; the average score was 4.38 for the first and 4.05 for the second.
Why do we fall into the Forer or Barnum effect?
This mental trap seems to explain why so many people take it for granted that the predictions of astrologers, magicians, cartographers, graphologists, and seers are so accurate; we actually make dresses of universal size. Such an effect is triggered by a set of psychological mechanisms:
- We want to believe the good about ourselves. One of the causes of the Forer effect is wishful thinking (i.e., considering true what one would want it to be). Self-deception and vanity lead us to accept the observations that others (or a horoscope) make about our character since we want those observations to be true, thinking that they apply exclusively to ourselves.
- We need everything to be explained. We tend to find an explanation and a meaning to things, even where the meaning is vague, general, and sometimes contradictory.
- When we create something, we look for examples that confirm it. For example, if those born under any zodiac sign define themselves as “critical of themselves”, it is easy for any of them to have had to do self-criticism; it is a cognitive process known as confirmation bias, which causes people to accept information that confirms their conviction, rejecting others. Given the multiplicity of situations experienced in the past, the diversity of behaviors adopted, and their possible interpretations, it is easy to remember the concrete illustrations that “confirm” the traits and trends in question.
- We believe what others believe. In general, if the Forer or Barnum effect is used by someone considered authoritative and followed by a large number of people, to it is added the perception of the mass: “If others believe in it, it must be true.”
- We want to know everything quickly and easily. A series of mental traps that work, unfortunately, also thanks to the desire to obtain easy and satisfactory answers, instead of investing time and energy to fully understand a situation in all its implications.
- We don’t know ourselves well. Subjects particularly sensitive to the Forer or Barnum effect are those who ardently desire to know themselves, those deferents, those who doubt themselves and resort to psychology. However, the vast majority of us believe that we can easily find in ourselves psychological traits or unconscious tendencies.
How to avoid being a victim of the Forer or Barnum effect?
Knowledge is power, so just knowing what the Forer effect is can prevent you from falling into the traps of pseudo-sciences. Research, inform yourself and discard weak sources. Also, look for solid evidence. An online test can’t tell you much about your character, but psychologists have psychometric tools that could help you. Reading between the lines the intentions of those who try to make you believe what they say and elucidating between vague and general statements is of vital importance to determine the reliability of an instrument. Finally, if you need advice or help, it is better to go to a professional (a psychologist or therapist, for example) who is trained to accompany you in your processes. Don’t fall into the trap, use logic and reasoning instead of believing in horoscopes and cheap predictions.