The Forer Effect (aka The Barnum Effect)

Read the following paragraphs and think on them for a few minutes and then rate the statement as it applies to you:

You often try to leave an impression on your surroundings that you are stern and rigid, while you are actually an emotional and vulnerable person. Sometimes you are bright, communicative and social, but you can turn into yourself, and in those times it is hard for people around you to reach your thoughts. You live changes and dynamic, and lack of freedom can make you discontent, even melancholic and depressive. You know that you are a person that has an attitude and you don’t take random opinions without hard evidence. You have an amazing ability to understand people who surround you and who you love. You also have a well-developed sense for rightfulness, and it is hardest for you to accept human greed and a lack of feeling for others.

In your love life you had lesser problems. Still, aside for a few weaknesses, your inner strength provided you with means to successfully diminish them. You are often expressing criticism about yourself, even more than it is necessary. The main cause is that you have a strong need to be accepted and loved, and you turn too strict when it comes to your character. You are aware that you hold significant potential that you still haven’t completely put to work because of your reticence and insecurity. Soon you will learn how to put your abilities to full use.

Now that you have had time to think on the statement and have had time to rate it, how accurate was it? Did it describe you or did it seem to describe someone other than you? Would it surprise you if I said that you have probably rated it as around 80-90% accurate? Am I right?

What you are witnessing is the “Forer (Barum) Effect”. In 1948, Bertram Forer, a psychologist, gave his students a personality test and told them he would provide a personal reading for each of them. He then went away and put the statement above in envelopes with his students names on them. They all received identical readings. The statement was assembled from horoscopes.

He handed out the statements and asked his students to rate them as they believed the statement applied to them. He asked his students to rate the statement from 0 to 5 – with “0” being not at all accurate and “5” being “spot on”. The class average was 4.26. Over the years, the same experiment has been carried out in different countries with different ranges of people and the average is still very similar – 84%.

This Effect relies on a few things: by making it seem personal (using “you” and “your”) the recipient is far more likely to believe it has been put together for them and so make them more presdisposed to believe it. The intentional vagueness of the “reading” will allow it be absolutely meaningless while at the same time be instantly recognisable by most people who read it, on re-reading the statement who hasn’t felt some of those things? It also relies on wishful thinking, we all believe that despite our hardships (or shortcomings) that things will turn out for the best. The statement is also positive enough to make you think better of yourself. In short, it tells you nothing you don’t already know, but seeing it written down by a relative stranger will make you believe these things because this perceptive person must have seen your true inner wonderfulness!

This is one technique used by psychics and other reader. This is not the only thing that will be used, but compare this to the readings given by psychics and mediums and even your daily horoscope – see any similarities? This is also known as “The Barnum Effect”, because one quote from the late, great PT Barnum says “there is something for everybody”.

Further Reading:

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Posted on 21 October, 2007, in Skeptical Stories and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. heh. I’d love to know your opinion about the so called Jung types- INTJ, ESFP (and various combinations of) 🙂

  2. Not totally sure I agree with them – they seem a bit “horoscopy” to me. Though that’s probably a mix of showing that they are summaries only and that I haven’t dug into the methodology and probably don’t fully understand it 🙂

  3. Thanks Ray; a very interesting article indeed!

    Forer cheated on his initial experiment though.. I mean, a range of 5 between max and min choices? That is outright *cheating*! 😀

  4. very interesting 🙂

  5. Winken de Worde

    For background about Jung types check out http://www.skepdic.com/myersb.html

    Ray’s horoscope comment is bang on. It’s simply Old Age ‘wisdom’ recycled for the New Age.

  6. They do seem a little ‘old horoscope’ type comments to me. Its hard to tell now as some of the new horoscope reports seem more meaningful these days. I visited a small town in America that was full of psychics and I was a little nervous.

  7. gunluk burclar

    informative and interesting article
    thanks for that

  8. I read about the Forer effect a few years ago. It convinced me that all the cold-reading stuff is not real. Made me skeptic about the fortune tellers in our world.

  9. HaHa.. this technique is widely used by the road side cold readers in my country, India! Forer (Barum) Effect at least helps some people to earn for their living, they should thank him for this!!

  10. This experiment was repeated by English psychological illusionist Derren Brown on different people from different countries with similar results- he asked for birthday, and some personal object and went away to "produce" his "personal" readings. Most people were amazed at the "accuracy" of their readings- until Derren asked eveyone to swap readings, even then they swapped them several times before they realised that all the radings were the same!
    My recent post Quiz: How much do you know about Derren Brown? updated Tue Dec 1 2009 3:01 am EST

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