Get Suckered by Horoscopes – Barnum Effect

The Barnum effect, also referred to as the Forer Effect, is when people believe that general information that might apply to anyone was specific to themselves.

Read the horoscope in the newspaper today. 

It’s surprisingly accurate. 

Sucker!

We all know that horoscopes are written for the masses, but I can’t help but feel it’s meant for me.

That’s the Barnum effect, also referred to as the Forer Effect, is when people believe that general information that might apply to anyone was specific to themselves.

Barnum Effect

It comes from the 19th century American P.T. Barnum (from The Greatest Showman film/circus). He said that a “sucker is born every minute” – This refers to people’s gullibility and their need to believe what they are told about themselves, referring to the circus industry P.T. Barnum worked in. Professor Bertram R. Forer, an American psychologist, researched it and hence it is also known as the Forer Effect. 

An experiment was carried out on his students in 1948, where he gave them a personality test. He told them that each test would be analyzed and then given back with an individual personality assessment. Instead of evaluating each test and providing individual feedback, he gave a paragraph full of generic statements such as “you have a great need for other people to like and admire you,” “you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others” and “you tend to be critical of yourself”.

Afterwards, the students were asked to evaluate their evaluation, rating it between zero and five, with five being the most accurate and zero being the least. The average rating was 4.26. To this day this experiment continues and is usually accurate

Individual effects

The incapability to differentiate between general and personalized information/ products could lead to poor decisions. This tendency takes benefit of the naïveté and concern, which can have an impact when decisions are made especially with larger implications. Decision-makers who are affected by this effect are incapable to rationally evaluate decisions and their possible consequences to make the right decision.

Systemic effects

The effect can influence how large companies interact with their clients and build customer relationships. The Barnum Effect is often used in marketing and engagement campaigns, giving customers the impression that they are customizing the product. Done right, the Barnum Effect can increase customer purchases and increase loyalty. The company makes customers feel like they are interacting with the brand in person. 

Why does it happen?

This cognitive bias is associated with subjective validation, also known as the validation effect. Subjective validation occurs when individuals perceive information to be true when there is personal relevance, which we unintentionally do by recognizing a relationship between two distinct events. Likewise, the Barnum effect occurs when people take general information and, by connecting two separate things, find relevance that is specific to themselves.

Moreover, Barnum Effect works better with positive statements, which in turn means that more critical remarks are usually met with scepticism.

People like to receive compliments, are more receptive to them and believe they are true, even if they are broad. This positivity bias is akin to Pollyanna’s Principle – positive expressive accounts are more believed when they are positive. Without realizing it, people tend to accept praise more and easily reject censure.

Where is it seen?

  • Facebook “personality quizzes”

A quiz throws up this statement – “Sanjay is kind to the people that are kind to him. Sanjay likes Kindness. Be like Sanjay”

Your first name is used and then adding some wide-reaching trait making it more personal – most people do value kindness (or would like to think they do), so the majority appreciates. The reality is Tom, Dick & Harry would have probably had these same messages but with their name instead.

  • Spotify’s “handpicked” music

Regularly, Spotify sends a “your daily mix” which is “packed with your favourites”. Though rule-driven and automated, it makes you feel that Spotify has created these handpicked playlists only for you.

  • Horoscopes

Susan Miller, the famous Astrologer, creates monthly charts for each zodiac sign. Although Susan Miller has incorrectly predicted many world events, she still is famous. Her success is due to her ability to write long vague phrases that are generally pleasing to readers. Susan gives readers a sense of connection with her writing. Many people believe that her predictions are relevant to themselves.

How to avoid it

As in many circumstances, knowledge and cynicism are needed for avoiding certain cognitive ruses. While it’s fun to check your horoscope, knowing the Barnum Effect can prevent you from becoming gullible and making informed decisions about it go ahead.

While awareness of the Barnum Effect does not mean a person will not fall for it, it provides a basis for safeguarding that people and organizations avoid malicious use or get affected by it.

1 Comment

  1. Though merely being aware of cognitive effects such as the Barnum effect does not ensure that one will not fall privy to its illusion, awareness does provide a starting point to ensure that both individuals and organizations avoid using the Barnum statements malicious, or are affected by the bias subconsciously. “A sucker is born every minute.” The statement refers to people’s gullible nature and their desire to believe what they are told about themselves, explicitly referring to the circus industry P.T. Barnum worked in.

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