The Barnum effect or Forer effect is the tendency of an individual to personalize a generalization that could apply to anyone. It is a type of cognitive bias that was characterized by psychologist Bertram Forer as a logical fallacy of personal validation.
In the late 1940s, Professor Forer demonstrated to his psychology students how easily a client and a psychologist could be fooled by a poor assessment instrument
The instrument Forer used for the demonstration was a personality test in which each student was asked to provide information about his hobbies, what he liked to read, his personal characteristics, his job duties, and his role models
Students were told that the test creator would review each student’s answers to create a personalized personality profile.
After students received their individualized profiles, they were asked to rate the accuracy of the test as a diagnostic tool using a Likert scale from 0=very poor to 5=excellent. The class rated the usefulness of the test as a diagnostic tool with a mean of 4.26. What the students did not know was that they had all received the exact same profile, which consisted of 13 general statements taken from an astrology book.
How does the Barnum effect work?
The Barnum effect is based on the logical fallacies appeal to vanity and appeal to authority and exploits people’s willingness to personalize flattery if they believe it comes from a credible source
Given that this effect exploits our credulity, which may have an impact on making life-changing decisions, it is important to know how this effect works in principle.
Preference for sympathy
First of all, as humble human beings, we are predisposed to believe positive affirmations about ourselves. We especially take them as accurate predictions if these statements include a reference to a desirable future event
Simply because the positive descriptions we attribute to ourselves feed our ego. Not to be rude, but we like positive adjectives that make us feel flattered. Therefore, we automatically accept them as truths.
Now I have an example for you. Below you can find two personality descriptions. I would like you to choose the one that most closely resembles your personality.
- You are a bad listener and don’t take others seriously when they have an idea.
- You are an independent thinker who likes to go outside the box when solving problems.
I think you’ve chosen the second description: an independent thinker. That’s because most of us probably prefer to have the second personality quality. That’s how our reasoning works when we also handle horoscopes and personality tests; we like the nicer one.
So the question is: Why do we prefer socially desirable traits and how does it help us? By presenting ourselves with these positive characteristics, we aim to better integrate into society and become part of a social group. This is an innate instinct that has helped us adapt to ever-changing living conditions since the beginning of our history.
Preference for relatedness
Second, we are naturally prone to take information that we can relate to ourselves and connect it to our everyday life events. In other words, we believe the information that fits our expectations and ignore the parts that do not. In this way, we take the generally written descriptions as unique and attribute the parts that fit to our life experiences. Since we ignore the part that doesn’t fit, we forget about it and focus more on the relatable parts.
For example, my horoscope says Today is the day I will be productive and accomplish a lot in my job. Isn’t that wonderful? This is exactly what I wanted to hear and needed as motivation to catch up with my tasks, like writing this article right now… So I totally relate to this information and I believe it will come true.
Another psychological phenomenon that explains the working principles of the Barnum Effect is the Pollyanna Principle (also known as positivity bias). This bias consists of the tendency of people to remember pleasant events more accurately than negative ones
It makes sense, doesn’t it, why would anyone want to remember things that make them feel unhappy or unpleasant? Basically, we love happy memories when we recall them
It is the same idea in the case of the Barnum Effect; we prefer the positive descriptions attributed to us. That is why he also thought that these two biases could Forer (1948) also thought that these two biases could explain each other’s presence in our decision making.
Where is the Forer effect used?
In addition to being used in the world of fortune telling, the Barnum effect is also used in marketing and advertising to quickly connect with potential customers
In advertising, the effect is often used to encourage an individual to think that a product, service or advertising campaign has been designed specifically for a select group of special people. A popular example of how the Barnum effect has been used effectively in advertising is L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it” campaign for hair coloring.
The Forer experiment remains a popular tool for teaching psychology students and human resource managers the challenges inherent in selecting personality test instruments. The practice of referring to the Forer effect as “the Barnum effect” is generally attributed to psychologist Paul Meehl, author of “The Dynamics of ‘Structured’ Personality Tests.”
Phineas Taylor Barnum was a 19th century American showman and entrepreneur who studied human nature and effectively used his knowledge to attract customers and increase revenues. In addition to being remembered for his marketing skills, P.T. Barnum is known for inventing the three-ring circus and is often associated with the quote “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Example Text, Phrases or Forer Statements
- You have a strong need to be liked and admired by others.
- You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
- You have a great unused capacity that you have not tapped.
- Although you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
- Your sexual adjustment has posed problems for you.
- Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worried and insecure on the inside.
- You sometimes have serious doubts about whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
- You prefer a certain degree of change and variety, and feel dissatisfied when cornered by restrictions and limitations.
- You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept the assertions of others without satisfactory evidence.
- You find it unwise to be too outspoken in revealing yourself to others.
- At times you are outgoing, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, suspicious, reserved.
- Some of your aspirations tend to be unrealistic.
- Security is one of your main goals in life.
How to avoid the Barnum effect?
As in many situations, awareness and skepticism are crucial to avoid certain cognitive tricks. Even if a person likes to consult his or her horoscope, awareness of the Barnum effect can prevent one from being gullible and help one make informed decisions about it in the future.
Although merely being aware of cognitive effects such as the Barnum effect does not guarantee that one will not fall for its illusion, awareness provides a starting point to ensure that both individuals and organizations avoid using Barnum’s claims maliciously, or being affected by the bias subconsciously.