Have you ever read your horoscope and thought that it was amazingly accurate? You might just be a victim of the Barnum Effect.
The Barnum Effect, also known as the Forer Effect, occurs when people believe that vague and general descriptions are accurate representations of traits that belong to them personally. The phrase indicates a level of gullibility and comes from P.T Barnum.
Psychologist Paul Meehl coined the phrase in 1956. In those days, psychologists used general terms to fit all patients:
“I suggest—and I am quite serious—that we adopt the phrase Barnum effect to stigmatize those pseudo successful clinical procedures in which personality descriptions from tests are made to fit the patient largely or wholly by virtue of their triviality.”
But who exactly is P.T Barnum and how did the phrase originate?
Anyone that has seen The Greatest Showman will recognise P.T Barnum as the incredible 19-century circus entertainer behind the story. What many people don’t know is that in his early life, Barnum ran a touring museum.
This was a carnival full of live freak shows and sensational attractions, many of which were hoaxes. In fact, although he may not have said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” he certainly believed it. Barnum was famous in his early years for pulling off incredible hoaxes on his audiences.
Examples of P.T Barnum’s Greatest Hoaxes
George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid
In 1835, Barnum actually purchased an 80-year-old black slave and claimed she was President George Washington’s 161-old nursemaid. The lady was blind and disabled but sang songs and regaled audiences with stories of her time with ‘little George’.
The Cardiff Giant
Barnum wasn’t the only one scamming audiences in the 19-century. In 1869, workers on William Newell’s land ‘discovered’ the petrified body of a 10-foot giant. The giant was, in actual fact, a statue placed there for the hoax.
So started the exhibition with audiences paying 25 cents to see the giant. Barnum wanted to buy it but Newell had already sold it to another showman – Hannah, who refused.
So Barnum, realising an opportunity, built his own giant and called the Cardiff version a fake. This prompted Newell to say “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
The ‘Feejee’ Mermaid
Barnum convinced New York newspapers he had the body of a mermaid which had been captured by an American sailor off the coasts of Japan.
The so-called mermaid was actually a monkey’s head and torso sewn onto a fishtail and covered in paper-mâché. Experts had already proven it to be fake. This didn’t stop Barnum. The exhibit toured and crowds flocked to see it.
What is the Barnum Effect?
So Barnum started off his career with elaborate hoaxes and fooling large audiences. And that’s how we come to the effect. This effect occurs most commonly when describing personality traits. As a result, mediums, astrologers, mentalists and hypnotists will use it.
Examples of statements that show the Barnum Effect:
- You have a great sense of humour but know when to be serious.
- You use your intuition, but you have a practical nature.
- You are quiet and introspective at times, but you like to let your hair down.
Can you see what’s happening here? We are covering all bases.
One study showed it was possible to run a personality test on college students and then give every student exactly the same description about themselves. Moreover, the students believed the descriptions.
In the now-famous Forer personality test, Bertram Forer gave his psychology students a personality test. A week later he delivered the results by providing each and every one of them a ‘personality sketch’ made up of 14 sentences which, he said, summed up their personalities.
He asked the students to rate the descriptions from 1 to 5. The average was 4.3. In fact, the majority of students rated the descriptions as ‘very, very accurate’. But how come? They all got exactly the same descriptions.
Here are some examples of Forer’s descriptions:
- You are an independent thinker and need proof from others before you’ll change your mind.
- You tend to be critical of yourself.
- You can at times doubt whether you’ve made the right choice.
- Sometimes you are sociable and extroverted, but at other times you need your space.
- You need the admiration and respect of other people.
- Although you may have some weaknesses, you can generally overcome them.
- You are easily bored and need variety in your life.
- You are not using your full potential.
- You may appear to be disciplined and controlled on the outside, but inside, you can worry.
Now, if you read the above, what would you think? Is it an accurate reflection of your personality?
Why we get fooled by Barnum Descriptions?
Why do we get fooled? Why do we believe general descriptions that could apply to anyone? It could be a phenomenon called ‘subjective validation’ or the ‘personal validation effect’.
This is a cognitive bias by which we tend to accept a description or statement if it contains something that is personal to us or is significant to us. So, if a statement resonates powerfully enough, we are more likely to believe it, without checking its validity.
Consider a sitter and a medium. The more invested the sitter is to make contact with their deceased relative, the harder they will try to find meaning in what the medium is saying. They want to find validation and make it personal to them. But that doesn’t mean it’s true.
The next time you find yourself agreeing with something you’ve read, ask yourself, does this apply to me specifically or is it a general description applicable for anyone? Remember, some people use this as a method of deception.
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