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How He Read Your Mind And Became Rich - The Barnum Effect

Updated on November 25, 2014

The Philanthropic Con Man

Phineas Taylor Barnum became one of show business' first millionaires thanks, in part, to scamming and manipulating the likes of you and I. He tapped into a vast and limitless field that was, and will forever be, ripe for the picking. Namely, that of our cognitive bias, or our human tendency towards subjective validation.

By the end of this article my aim is to have clarified not just how the Barnum effect works, what it can achieve and how we can apply this knowledge today, but primarily to allow readers to begin to question their own subjectivity, and how readily it has lead to the formation of facts and truths that are nothing more than an easily exploited fantasy.

Feeling a little over your head with the nomenclature? Fret not! It will all become crystal-clear as we meander our way to the mind and successes of P.T Barnum.


Subjective Validation

Have you ever read a horoscope and thought, "woah, that is uncannily accurate?" Sure you have, and happily it is also a perfect example of subjective validation.

Subjective validation is that personal belief or opinion that ties two otherwise entirely separate events together (the horoscope's prediction and your life in this case). A generic statement written by someone who could not have possibly known about your life is validated by your subjective experience.

For the purposes of this article, we can consider subjective validation the granddaddy of P.T Barnum's reflections, and a precursor to modern cold-reading.

Prince Of Humbug

Speaking of scammers and con-artists, I have not been particularly honest with you, and I fear I have given Mr. Barnum a shadowy cast that he may not entirely deserve.

Barnum became known for his eccentric and creative advertising, using half-truths and hard work to trigger the imagination of his audiences.

Judge for yourselves:

Perhaps his most famous leg-pull was his "This Way to the Egress" sign. Curiosity seekers, thinking the 'egress' was some kind of unusual exhibit, followed the signs to it until they came, eventually, to a door that led them outside. Then they had to pay admission to get back in. - Source, The Hoaxes of P.T Barnum.

Say what you will of his work, but his methods worked based on the principle that people believed what they wanted to believe , and more importantly still, our capacity as human beings in being naively creative and our innate talent in pattern-seeking.

He was often accused of false-advertising, but technically speaking, was he? Using the example above, beyond suing him for being illegally cynical, was it him that betrayed his audience, or did his audience betray itself? Barnum preyed on his audiences' willingness to stun themselves, rather than truly stunning them.

Perhaps you feel this is a no-brainer, would a modern, educated person ever truly expect to go to a circus and see the King of Atlantis? Times have changed, but the power of this mechanism, or perhaps more succinctly, the power that our subjectivity has over our thoughts is as strong today as it was back then.

Think of it this way, every person who has loved and lost knows how much pain was due, ultimately, to the crushing of our subjective validation. We erected a statue and filled it with dreams, when reality was something else entirely. Much like Barnum, who is to blame for the anger the destruction causes? The individual who turned out to be nothing like the statue, or our self-deception in having built it? Once we accept that all our opinions are subject to our bias, the power of the Barnum effect really shines through.

Try The Test - If You Dare

Here is a free online Barnum effect test that allows you to see the results yourself.

The Barnum Effect

The Barnum effect is a specific example of subjective validation. It is the observation that people derive personal meaning and validation from a series of generic descriptions about themselves (that in reality are true for most, if not all, people). Here is a list of Barnum statements that will show you what I mean.

  • You have the tendency to be self-critical.
  • You feel that some of your life ambitions are unrealistic.
  • You prefer to trust your own instincts rather than rely on other peoples' advice.
  • You are creative and independent in your thinking.

We can tell why Barnum would be laughing with glee in his grave. Much like in his advertising antics (he was known as the Shakespeare of advertising for a reason), he knew fully well that people are prone to derive personal meaning from statements which are almost laughably generic. This is why Horoscopes are still a craze, numerology is as popular as ever, and Rorschach tests still delight psychologists! Show me a city and I'll find you a fortune teller! Business is booming.

Advertising wiz Barnum certainly supplied no shortage of superlatives in his designs.
Advertising wiz Barnum certainly supplied no shortage of superlatives in his designs.


Barnum saw a difference between deceiving (humbugging) his audiences for entertainment purposes, and doing so for solely for profit. He was famous for crusading against "spiritualists" and charlatans of all kinds, often exposing their tricks and writing novels about their scams.

The Forer Effect

Today, the term Barnum effect is used (almost) interchangeably with that of the Forer effect, named after the psychologist Bertram R. Forer. In 1948 he administered identical personality tests to a number of students and then (here's the kicker) gave them all the exact same analysis at the end (you guessed it, a compilation of Barnum statements). He then asked them to rate the accuracy of the analysis on a 1-5 basis. The result was that despite the obvious discrepancy in character, the average accuracy rating was an astounding 4.26.

This experiment has been conducted thousands of times since and the result is invariably similar to the original experiment.

Derren Brown is a modern-day Barnum, he has covered cold-reading techniques and reproduced forer effect experiments on live television. Despite how obvious these mechanisms may seem to us now, the very fact that he has become popular as an entertainer proves just how startling these simple psychological realizations are.

Much like his deceased mentor, Brown has also used this knowledge to uncover and expose astrology, fortune tellers and charlatans. Barnum, back in his day, was active and forthright in exposing the scams that profited spiritualists.

The Barnum Experiment Can Be Very Entertaining

Derren Brown

Psychologist, hypnotist and neurolinguistics expert. Derren Brown's videos are freely available on Youtube and I would absolutely encourage you to view one (the reason being if you watch one, you'll end up watching them all -- guaranteed) even though they are not strictly limited to the principles we've discussed.

So, So What?

As we've seen, the Barnum effect is very entertaining, but it is also a very important part of cognitive re-awakening. It begs many questions:

  • How much of what we take for granted is subject to cognitive bias?
  • How does this affect my life?
  • What can I use this for?
  • If I am self-deceptive, how can I free myself of these illusory chains?

I have no answers to these questions, except perhaps in a small fraction of my personal life. Nevertheless perhaps we can use the Barnum effect as the catalyst to appreciating the way in which we assimilate experience and emotion.

I don't think it is impossible to be entirely objective, nor would I wish too. But sorting through the rubbish we've accumulated, painful experiences, nonexistent judgments and destructive fantasies, will undoubtedly help us to become stronger in the way we live our lives.

After all, it certainly made Barnum both famous and happy, and some even call him a philanthropist! In his words:

“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing too much”

Thank you very much for reading this article! I would be honored to address any questions or criticisms in the comment section below!



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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Now, where did I put my cognitive bias? Thumbs up!

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 

      7 years ago from London

      Give me your hand and I'll show you the way. (*smiles*). Good hub, Channel 4 UK blocked the vid tho, you need to change it. x

    • Little two two profile image


      7 years ago from Canada

      This was a fabulous hub. Well written and entertaining, I was almost disappointed to reach the end. Voted up!.

    • thooghun profile imageAUTHOR

      James Nelmondo 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thanks Dexter! Set up a circus and make a million :)

    • Dexter Yarbrough profile image

      Dexter Yarbrough 

      7 years ago from United States

      Not only did I find your hub interesting and enlightening, it was quite entertaining as well. Bravo! Maybe I'll use the Barnum Effect myself! Voted up, up and away!


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