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How Do, "Psychics," Trick Us Using Barnum Statements?

Updated on December 19, 2013

The Barnum Effect

Psychology even has a term for the mechanism by which we assent that generalized propositions and vague descriptors apply uniquely and accurately to us individually. This is called the Barnum Effect and it was demonstrated most effectively by Forer in his 1948 demonstration detailed in the next section.

The Barnum effect was first coined by Paul Meehl in his 1956 essay, "Wanted-A Good Cookbook," in backhanded deference to P.T. Barnum, the famous huckster, American showman, and scam artist.

P.T. Barnum famously states, "We've got something for everyone!," describing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He could just as easily be describing the phenomena that made him such a successful showman. People will consistently assert that vague personality descriptions were tailor made for them.

Paranormal practitioners of all stripes, from Astrologers to Tarot Card Readers to Palm Readers to Mediums use this consistently reproducible and highly reliable effect. We, are more than ready, as somewhat credulous, pattern seeking primates to lend personal meaning to vague utterances.

What's more the language used is also important. Statements such as, "You often...," or "Usually you..." or, "Most people think you are..." provide a selective caveat to the assertions concerning one's personality that make the assertions much more subliminally enticing.

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Forer's Demonstration

Psychologist Bertram Forer performed a convincing test with his students that has since been replicated ad naseum. He told the students they would receive individualized personality assessments based on their answers to personality test questions. He asked them after receiving the results to rate the accuracy of the description on a scale of 0-5.

The students answered the questions, the results were, "analyzed," and they received their individualized personality assessments on average rating the accuracy of the assessment at a mean of 4.26. It was not revealed until afterwards that they had all been given the same assessment which read;

"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 pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life."

This test is replicated informally in hundreds if not thousands of undergrad and grad Psychology classes each year with much the same results.

In another study, The subjects took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test (MMPT) and were provided with their actual assessment and a faked assessments ripe with generalities and vagueness. They were asked to choose which of the two was their actual MMPT assessment. Fifty-nine percent of the time they choose the dummy assessment.

A Universal Phenomena

Cross cultural studies have shown that the Barnum effect is more or less universal. A 2009 study that compared the Barnum effect in Western populations and in Chinese populations showed no notable variations.

Three conditions seem to greatly enhance the Barnum Effect;

1. The subject must believe the statements are personalized toward them specifically.

2. The Test administrators must seem to be respected authorities on the subject of personality assessment.

3. The statements made about the subject should be mostly positively oriented. (i.e. "You enjoy some alone time," rather than, "You do not always like being around people.")

"Self-Serving Bias," (People's propensity to attribute success to personal attributes and failures to outside factors) has been show to negate the Barnum effect in studies involving Barnum reports laden with positive traits and Barnum reports rife with negative traits. Though equally vague, people tend to consistently apply the positive descriptors to themselves rather than the negative ones.

Aside from the Barnum Effect being a convenient blind spot in Human self-assessment that benefits Paranormal frauds, it has also added to debate as to the efficacy and validity of Psychometric testing amongst Psychologists.


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    • RealityTalk profile image

      RealityTalk 4 years ago from Planet Earth

      Very interesting read. I guess you could probably as easily entitled "The Barnum Effect, The Salesman's Pitch." Salesman & woman are successful by knowing how to play on potential buyers & the common denominators amongst the potential buyers' personalities. Remember John Edward? What a pitchman he was.

      I enjoyed the Hub. Thumbs up & interesting.