The Barnum Effect - Why your horoscope describes you perfectly

Updated on 14th November, 2022


The Barnum Effect Definition

Have you ever been out with your friends talking about astrology or horoscopes, and you hear one of them say, "Wow, that's such a Capricorn thing to do" or "It's because I'm a Libra" as an excuse for their behavior? Well, one of your friends may be suffering from the Barnum Effect. The Barnum Effect, also known as the Forer Effect, is a cognitive bias that makes people believe that personality descriptions they read in books or online apply specifically to them.

Not looking as random as the roll of a dice
Not looking as random as the roll of a dice

The funny thing is that these descriptions are highly generic and could apply to everyone. However, someone suffering from the Barnum Effect will believe that they fall precisely within the described category, and more so than others. The Barnum Effect plays on people's gullibility when reading descriptions intended to make them feel special or unique. Personalities are typically very different from person to person. However, this does not exclude the possibility of giving everyone the same personality description and having them rate it as a highly accurate description of themselves.

For example, although most of us may differ in many qualities, there are things that most people collectively enjoy doing, including doing things that make them happy, being kind to others, thriving professionally, or being a good friend. Considering this, we can see why there is a high prevalence of accepting practices that administer personality assessments such as fortune telling, astrology, and even the interesting "which game of thrones character are you quiz?" Ultimately, we all want to be something special, and judging from the popularity of these personality assessments, we want to belong to something that makes us feel unique.

What is the Barnum Effect?

The Barnum Effect is a good representation of how our brain works and what sort of information we tend to lean in towards. Essentially, it illustrates how most humans crave individuality and personal validation.

Did you know? – The Barnum Effect is closely related to the Personal Validation Effect, which shows how humans will always consider a particular piece of information more if it has personal meaning or significance to them. This is another example of our tendency to validate our feelings and thoughts irrationally.

Science shows that we are generally prone to believe positive statements about ourselves. This is why the Barnum Effect is so widespread and powerful! The Barnum Effect is especially potent when the descriptive statements include a reference for desirable future outcomes. This could sound like: "Your ability to treat others kindly will lead to everlasting happiness in later life." We accept these statements for the simple fact that these optimistic predictions feed our overinflated egos!

Only Barnum - Nothing paranormal
Only Barnum - Nothing paranormal

Without being rude, we can all admit that we enjoy receiving flattery or compliments, but that is precisely what the Barnum effect plays on. Before moving forward, consider the following example and observe which statement your brain tends to veer towards more:

1. No one likes you because you behave weirdly and barely speak to others when presented with the chance.

2. Your unique style of thinking differentiates you from the rest and allows you to connect more to your inner world instead of your external one.

Clearly, most people would pick the second option, as the first one is a very harsh characterization of individual traits that most people would prefer to avoid being identified with. Hence, this tendency to identify with positive character traits drives the Barnum Effect. It is also using this Effect that con artists employ to convince people of certain things that are true, leading them to spend their hard-earned money based on these false personality attributions.

The hidden secret of the fortune teller
The hidden secret of the fortune teller

Did you know? – Although people tend to believe positive assessments of themselves, they will equally believe negative assessments of themselves when it comes from a person of authority. They make the cognitive error in attributing authority to truth even though the two are completely unrelated. This is another factor that gives the Barnum Effect its strength.

Unlike most cognitive biases, it is vital to be aware of the Barnum Effect as it could lead us to make poor decisions based on our illogical beliefs. Due to our unconscious tendencies to identify with false personality assessments, we could behave in a way that is congruent to these false beliefs and act in accordance with them.

Unfortunately, people who fall into the Barnum Effect's trap cannot logically analyze the reasons behind their decisions and behavior. To avoid the risks of the Barnum Effect, it is encouraged that you remain aware and skeptical every time you are faced with identifiable personality descriptions. However, the knowledge you will have after reading this article will greatly help you avoid future Barnum traps.

History of the Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect was coined in 1948 by American Psychologist Bertram Forer (1914 – 2000), who discovered the Effect during an experiment investigating the fallacy of personal validation. During this experiment, Forer gave his students a survey to complete and informed them that he would produce an individualized assessment of their personality based on their responses. Each student received the same list, which consisted of items such as:

• You have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage.

• Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.

Forer then asked them to rate how accurate his assessment was from 1 to 10, but little did his students know that Forer actually gave them all the exact same assessment. Whether it was expected by Forer or not, all of his students rated his generic assessment of them as very accurate, and so the Barnum Effect was officially presented to the world. Forer attributed these results to people's gullibility and tendency to accept positive statements about themselves. Seventy-four years later, his conclusion is still valid, demonstrating how relevant the Barnum Effect is.

Was the speaker talking about me?
Was the speaker talking about me?

Case Examples of the Barnum Effect

Case 1: You may be surprised that companies frequently employ the Barnum Effect to make a product or service seem more personal. Have you ever seen websites offer a quiz that will "carefully" analyze your responses to provide a customized product that will fit your needs? By doing this, companies directly play into the Barnum Effect to make these custom products seem hand-picked and unique only to yourself. In a sense, after believing that the system deliberately analyzed your responses to bring about the most suitable product, you will at least feel a sense of flattery that will nudge you closer to consuming the product. An excellent example is Netflix's 'Top Picks For You' section, which creates the impression that you were procured a uniquely tailored selection of movies.

Barnum is often used in quizzes and personality tests
Barnum is often used in quizzes and personality tests

Case 2: Star signs are the perfect example of the Barnum Effect impacting large swaths of the population. Although star signs have been practiced for millennia, their rising popularity within modern society has prompted their adoption by thousands of newspapers, websites, and companies. Millions of people worldwide believe that horoscopes, which are forecasts of a person's future, are accurate because they fall under specific star signs signifying their time of birth. For example, if you were born in April, you would be considered an Aries and possess a "determined" or "fiery" personality. However, if you were born in November, you would be a Scorpio, which means that you would be more cunning and devious. These horoscopes provide a set of personality traits and include predictions on future outcomes regarding love, career, success, and personal development, which is why they appeal to thousands of people.

Is the universe conspiring to tell me something?
Is the universe conspiring to tell me something?

Case 3: In 1977, author Ray Hyman wrote about how street vendors use the Barnum effect to manipulate victims into buying their product or service. For example, these street vendors, or con artists, will come up to you with an air of confidence and say something along the lines of "you seem like a person who knows what they want" or "I usually won't sell this to anybody, but you seem to be different from the others." This flattery, paired with the street vendors oozing confidence, is the perfect way to coerce someone into buying your items. They will also often employ a gimmick such as tarot cards or a crystal ball as an additional strength in their conning. Without you realizing it, they are using phrases and items that soften you up, making you more likely to buy whatever they are peddling. During these situations, tread carefully, and be aware that everything they say is to appease you — and take your money.

A Beautiful Quote

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

- Winston Churchill

Questions and Answers

What are Barnum statements?

Barnum statements are based on the Barnum Effect, also called the Barnum-Forer Effect. The statements relate to generalized or vague personality descriptions that people often ascribe to themselves. Astrologers often use these statements to convince their clients that they know something about their lives. Here are some examples:

1. You are often insecure with people you are not familiar with.
2. As a child, you had one favorite friend, who you lost touch with later in life.
3. You had an accident as a child, which your parents never forget.
4. If something doesn't happen out of the ordinary, you are generally a positive person.

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