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What is the Barnum Effect?

Whenever you catch yourself relating to a generic piece of information thinking that it specifically applies to you, you may be influenced by the so-called Barnum Effect. This marketing trick aims to pull in consumers by making them feel valued. But did you know how it started? 

The Barnum Effect is a psychological phenomenon where people tend to gullibly believe that generalized information that applies to most individuals is unique to them.

The Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect also called the Forer Effect, it is a psychological phenomenon where individuals believe in generalized descriptions as if they were accurately describing their own unique personality. Most people tend to think that a vague narrative is specifically about them even though it is a generalized statement.

The Barnum effect demonstrates how people are susceptible to this kind of trickery because they link the information they read to themselves when in fact, it applies to others as well. This psychological trick is often used by psychics, magicians, palm readers, and crystal ball gazers. (Source: Neurofied)

This psychological trick works best if the statement provided is positive. It rarely works with negative statements as people tend to veer away from negative remarks. The effect works best if the statements are vague and general. The secret is combining mostly positive statements and sprinkling some negative insights while including phrases at times to describe their personality. (Source: Britannica)

How Did The Barnum Effect Start? 

The term was first coined by psychologist Paul Meehl in 1956. Meehl related the phenomenon to a remark allegedly uttered by The Greatest Showman, Phineas T. Barnum. Allegedly, Barnum stated that his success was brought about by the fact that there’s a sucker born every minute. (Source: Neurofied)

This psychological phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Forer Effect, it was named after the psychologist Bertram Forer and his 1948 study. Forer administered a fake psychology test to 39 of his students. The bogus personality test was called Diagnostic Test Blank and claimed to reveal personal motivational factors in perceptual selectivity. His study was published with the title The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility.

After a week, the psychologist gave each of his students an alleged individualized result. Here are some of the generalized statements, as listed on Trait Lab.

  • 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.

He then proceeded to survey them, asking them to rate the results on how well they related to them. He then asked his students to rate the statements in terms of how well they applied to them personally. He got an incredibly high accuracy for this test.

Of course, the results were fake. Forer pieced together bits and pieces of each of the students’ generalized traits he found in an astrology book. All the participants of the study received the exact same list of statements instead of what Forer claims were custom ones.

He then discovered that universally valid statements easily deceive people. They tend to underestimate how many thoughts and experiences are ordinary. He uncovered that the perceived accuracy of an assessment speaks about its validity. (Source: Trait Lab)

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