blue and gold zodiac wheel

That’s So Me: The Barnum Effect

Who doesn’t love a personality quiz? Sit down and get comfy, and tell us…do these sound like you? 

  • You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  • At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  • You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  • You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  • You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  • While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them
  • Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
  • Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. 
  • At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  • You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  • You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. 
  • Security is one of your major goals in life.

If you find these statements to be eerily accurate depictions of your character and tendencies, ironically, you’re not alone. These “Barnum statements” (or “Diagnostic Interest Blank” as they were officially called) were created by American psychologist Bertram Forer to elicit an effect he called the “fallacy of personal validation”. Later Paul Meehl, a psychologist, coined the widespread term (and concept/theory) “Barnum Effect”. He named it after the manipulative leveraging of gullibility by popular showman, and fraud, P.T. Barnum.  

The Barnum Effect describes our subconscious willingness to accept general self-statements as very unique and individualized observations of ourselves, especially when they’re carefully packaged that way. This effect is also comparable to its adjacent “cold reading” effect, which often takes place in tandem with the Barnum effect in multiperson scenarios like psychic readings

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias that affects just about everyone, often without us realizing it. Those who are aware of the effect have a long history of leveraging it/people’s suggestibility for their benefit and profit. 

The effect is successfully deceptive because it plays on our ego’s need for individuality (being special) and self-preservation, since it seems we accept more positive Barnum statements as accurate, than negative ones. We identify with the things we wish we were, as well as the things we (and most others) are. We also just like to make sense of the things we don’t understand; if something helps us to compartmentalize something meaningless into something interesting, we’ll prefer that over obscurity. 

Now, while you probably found that the personality questions above were relatable, they were found to be even more accurate to Forer’s unsuspecting test subjects because of the context in which they were presented. He had all of his students fill out personality quizzes (not the questions above), with the understanding that they would then receive a personalized summary of their character (the statements above). They were then asked to score the accuracy, before finding out that they had all actually received the exact same personality summary. They had all rated it as extremely and uniquely accurate to themselves (the average accuracy score was 4.3/5) and couldn’t believe they’d all gotten the same assessment. This has been recreated in various ways since. 

Our craving to feel seen and understood can sometimes take over, tricking us to bend slightly to fit the perceptions of those trying to reach us (the ‘sorta’ becomes ‘close enough’, and the ‘close enough’ becomes ‘that’s so me’). Wanting to feel like a part of something communal (pertains to communal traits like zodiac, MBTI, Hogwarts house, pathologies, etc), or to yield more accurate ways to communicate our tendencies efficiently to others, is perfectly normal. 

We’re going to cover three major contexts where the Barnum Effect often prevails over critical thinking. There are many more than these, and many moments in daily life where the effect presents, but these areas have prevalent case studies and social context. We see the Barnum Effect strongly at play with:

  • Astrology/Zodiac
  • Psychic Readings
  • Diagnostics.

Let’s get into it! 

Astrology and the Barnum Effect

While this will ruffle some feathers, it has to be said: the moon in mars isn’t going to get you that raise, you are going to get you that raise. Isn’t that way cooler?

The reason that dissecting something like astrology is so tough to stomach is because believers (more than 50% of us) are attaching their identities to these concepts. When the concepts are proven wrong, it feels like a personal attack on the self instead of a detached concept. The nature of astrology is to become part of identity, so scrutinizing the science behind it can be alienating. We’re prepared for that. Even if we can evoke some curiosity or cognitive dissonance, that’s a good start. All we ask is an open mind. 

quoted text from twitter post, remarking that if you attach identity to beliefs its difficult to accept new information that changes those beliefs

That being said, the truth about astrology is that it’s largely, well, untrue. While there’s some evidence that the season in which you (mainly males) are born can have a slight effect on your mental health, neuroticism, and personality, it’s got nothing to do with the planets and stars, and more to do with the sun (more on that another week). Contrastingly, females are more likely to be interested in astrology, so even this subtle seasonal effect is rendered fairly moot. 

Horoscopes seem accurate mainly because sometimes they are. Much more often they’re not, however our brains are programmed to remember the times they are accurate rather than all the (many more) times they’re not. This happens because multiple (similar) tendencies are at play: the Illusory Correlation, the Pollyanna Principle, and/or the File-Drawer Effect. Instead, we must remember that “correlation doesn’t equal causation” and that we tend to focus on only the satisfying outcomes. With those perspectives in mind we can see our biases. 

Horoscopes may also end up accurate after a pursuit of confirmation bias (you forced it true because you wanted it to be). 

Studies have shown that the prior knowledge of one’s assigned zodiac (and exposure to multiple prior descriptions) directly affects their perception of a description’s accuracy, real or fake, compared to when they don’t know their sign. They’re more likely to relate to the one they know they’re supposed to be. Wording/tone preference, exposure, and subject emphasis also played a part in correct or incorrect identification of their zodiac sign. 

Studies attempting to find zodiac career or romantic compatibility patterns amongst thousands of individuals and couples turned up with no patterns. Some studies also presented hundreds of random people the horoscope of a mass murderer and 94% found it described them accurately. Another, has astrologists match multiple personality profiles with the correct sign, only to end in failure (30% success). One study even flipped every detail of the horoscope description to be oppositional (stubborn changes to laid back, for example) and still got the same accuracy ratings from all those who were presented with it as its opposite as those presented with the original. Dozens more studies like this, both big and small, turn up empty-handed. I mean…how do you explain twins? My siblings are twins and they couldn’t be any more different, yet they’re born just minutes apart. 

Many will compare the Barnum Effect in astrology to its effect within personality organizers like MBTI or Enneagram. While its presence may fill in some blanks with those too, they’re not quite comparable. The difference being that zodiacs are fixed (one can’t choose the date they’re born and therefore are assigned their category), whereas MBTI, for example, is just a translation of your truth (or at least the one you choose to present). If the Barnum Effect worked as strongly for personality sorters, we would all be the same idealistic one. Instead, here I am, a rigid and minority INTJ. Oh well. 

See, with personality sorters (Hogwarts, mbti, etc), we give the description and it directly translates that into the most accurate category. It bends to our truth. Because zodiacs are fixed, we must bend to fit them. MBTIs won’t ever be perfectly accurate, because we are individuals at the end of the day, but they’re much more likely to be accurate ways to present our essence than the zodiac we landed with. Don’t even get us started on daily horoscope predictions. 

Psychics and the Barnum Effect

We believe in three possibilities when it comes to psychics: 

  • 1. They’re scammers
  • 2. They’re victims of the Barnum Effect like their subjects are
  • 3. They exist and the science is wrong. 

For now, we explore the first two. Intentional frauds within the pseudoscientific community have always been abundant. Where there are vulnerable people, there will always be predators ready to make a buck. These asshats are usually well-versed in psychological proclivities, like the Barnum Effect, and cultural milestones which they use to take advantage of the seeker. Shame on them. 

The more complex scenario involves two victims in an endless catch 22 of illusion. One day, someone is told, by someone insightful or deceptive, that they’re gifted and have the capability of reading people accurately. They then go on to practice developing what they believe is their ‘gift’, which is really just a series of coincidentally and observationally accurate insights. They’re the victims of a cold reading that presented something enticing about themselves they wished were true. They go on to give cold readings to others, who gobble up the cool things they’re being told. Theoretically, they truly believe they’re psychic due to the acceptance phenomenon of others.

Likely to say things like “you’ve had a hard life, but will soon find love” or “you’ve been underestimated in your job but you’ll soon get to shine, something big is ahead”, etc, they want to mention things likely to be true so their ego and illusion is preserved. Therefore, anyone could relate to these things.  

On the off chance that this ‘psychic’ isn’t being intentionally deceptive, it is possible that their subconscious could profile their subject and read their body language in a way that leads to some instinctive general statements that apply accurately. The subject’s reactions then lead the suspicions further along the right track, while ‘confirming’ their ‘gift’. We’ll call this accidental cold reading. While they do have an impressive observational gift, it’s not paranormal. This all seems convoluted but happens far more than you’d imagine. Most spiritualists aren’t inherently evil, they’re just prone to the illusion they’re special or ‘chosen’ for a glorified magical gift – an illusion of the ego we’re all susceptible to in some way.

We remain open to the idea that some psychics have genuine paranormal abilities and may present much more specific insights. 

Diagnostics and the Barnum Effect

Have you ever googled your symptoms and become convinced you had brain cancer? Where there’s character criteria, there’s the Barnum Effect, especially when the normalization of self-diagnosis is currently prevalent. There’s plenty of benefits to the rise of self-diagnosis, especially for marginalized communities, but with great responsibility comes great misunderstanding. At the end of the day, we’re not doctors and judging ourselves is a conflict of interest and a blind spot. The proximity and ego make it so. 

The DSM-5 is the officially recognized manual of pathology and conditions, including, but not limited to, personality disorders. Patients must meet a certain number of criteria points to be formally diagnosed with something. This amount varies, especially since most disorders exist within a spectrum. The fact is, however, that most of us meet at least 1-3 points of many of these conditions; this doesn’t mean we have it. 

Symptoms usually must exist in some conjunction with other qualifications and contexts to be considered for a diagnosis; taking into account comorbidities, frequency, and impairment degree. Some disorders make it impossible to accurately self-evaluate because of their sheer nature of self-deception and delusion; conditions like paranoid personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and hypochondria, for example.

It’s in our nature to read through a list of human experiences and to go “oh I do that” – well, we all do. But does it inhibit your daily activities? Do you do it all day long? Does it affect your relationships? Those answers may be much more telling. 

While having a personality disorder may not be the typical ‘positive’ traits we’re inclined to, the stigma surrounding mental illness is lifting and the acceptance of those unique qualities is on the rise (finally!). In some ways, some disorders are being romanticized and embraced in the Western media and some micro demographics. This is mostly wonderful, but it does have an impact in terms of the Barnum Effect and it can be dangerous. 

Bottom line is we’re creatures of connection – we like to relate familiar things to our, sometimes very confusing, experience here on earth. We’ve also never really had an original thought or experience. This is both comforting and annoying. Next time you’re being presented a group of features ‘catered’ to you, ask yourself if they could apply to most people. Ask also if the person presenting them has reason to impress you with their insight. Are you bending to the ‘truths’, or are they bending to you? 

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