Have you read your horoscope and felt it was spot on? I have. The description seemed accurate to the events that occurred in my life recently.
Such relevance and timeliness of the horoscope have led many people to believe that they’re accurate. But think again. Do you think your time of birth determines how your future shapes up? Can your success or failure occur due to some alignment of the sun, stars, and planets?
In reality, you are under the Barnum effect. Before you reject the theory, let me remind you that thousands of people around the world read the same horoscope.
A 2020 survey estimates the world population at 7.8 billion. If we divide that among 12 zodiac signs, it implies the horoscope that you just read and found accurate, must also apply to another 600 million people across the world.
Isn’t that absurd? The sheer numbers should serve as proof.
Not convinced yet? Try reading the 2 sentences below.
“Just for today, ignore your habit of always trying to find an explanation for everything. Something is changing inside you and in the way, you react to situations.”
Does that seem like the recent you? It sure seems like me. By the way, that was my horoscope for the day I found on the internet.
A majority of us feel the need to find an explanation. That has little to do with my zodiac sign and more to do with the fact that I am a human being. Also, with time, we change in some shape or form. The statement will seem relevant whether I read the second sentence today, 20 years in the future, or back when I was a teen.
- What is the Barnum effect?
- Research and experiments:
- Why the Barnum effect occurs:
- Common examples of Barnum effect:
- How to avoid the Barnum effect
What is the Barnum effect?
Barnum effect is a behavioral tendency where people feel that a generic description matches their personality. In most cases, the content is intentionally kept vague to match as many people as possible. It is one of the many cognitive biases of the human brain.
The effect is named after P. T. Barnum, who was an American showman. He ran dramatic theatricals, a museum of freaks, a circus, and many other shows that garnered eyeballs.
He is associated with statements like, “I have something for everyone” and “There is a sucker born every minute.” Though their origin lacks concrete proof, people consider them the reason behind naming the effect by his name.
Research and experiments:
A psychologist Ross Stagner was the first to perform research on the topic in 1947. He asked personnel managers to take a written test. After they submitted their results, he handed them a description saying he had come up with their personality based on their answers.
But, he had given everyone the same content which had nothing to do with the answers submitted. More than half the people found it accurate and almost nobody considered it incorrect.
The effect also goes with an alternate name called Forer effect. Another psychologist named Bertram R. Forer conducted a similar version of the experiment was in 1948.
During the study, he asked students to submit answers to a test and gave them a write up about their personality as shown below:
“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.”
Students rated the description with an average accuracy of 4.3 on a scale of 5. The test also confirmed the Pollyanna principle which states that positive statements gain more acceptance while the negative ones are refuted.
Why the Barnum effect occurs:
The human brain is an amazing pattern identification tool. Your day to day life goes on because your mind knows how to make sense of patterns. The route to your office, the sequence of tying your shoelaces, or the way you fold your hands over your chest are all examples of patterns.
Therefore, whenever you find a description which claims to speak about your life, you connect it with your daily events. You accept the ones which match and forget the parts that don’t.
Due to confirmation bias, you want to enhance the belief you already have. Whether it involves boosting your ego, damaging your self-esteem or claiming a victim mindset depends on your thought process.
Your belief is also influenced by 3 factors:
1. Level of personalization:
The more closer the description claims to be to your personality, the higher the chances that you’ll buy. For example, you know men and women exhibit different traits.
Though you accept some of those attributes, you know you cannot generalize every little statement. The entire population divided into two groups of men and women seems too generic to work in every single case.
Compare that with 12 zodiac signs. Now, each group seems smaller and more personalized. If there were only 2-3 star signs, you would find them less personal. The same effect took place during the experiments conducted. The candidates thought that the description was based on their answers making it very personal to them.
The higher the authority, the more you tend to accept a generic statement. Aren’t you willing to believe medical information stated by WHO more than a random blog? Yes, you would. The authority of WHO helps in making the belief stronger.
Likewise, if the statement comes from a person with prior success and fame, your brain tends to accept it. For the same reason, well-known astrologers have a stronger impact on people.
3. Type of traits mentioned
If the description is mainly positive, you accept it because you feel good. If I provided a description that highlights all your negative characteristics, you reject them even if they are true. When the description boosts your ego, you feel happy to accept it.
Common examples of Barnum effect:
1. Astrology/Tarot Card/Crystal Balls:
The most common examples of the effect are people who claim to predict your future or read your past. I visited an astrologer myself in the past once. He did seem to get some facts right. When I analyzed deeper, I realized, he had predicted a wide range of things. Some were true and some weren’t. But today, I only remember the ones he got right.
Astrology, tarot cards, crystal balls, or any other psychic predictions are full of right and wrong guesses. Besides, due to the generic nature behind the message, you find a way to connect it with your own life.
The comedy series Big Bang Theory has a funny scene where a theoretical physicist visits an astrologer.
2. Facebook quizzes
Many of the Facebook quizzes give you a set of questions and tag you to an object or a person. You must have encountered people sharing results like:
- Which celebrity do you look like?
- Which is the drink that defines you?
- What does future hold for you?
The nicer the result, the higher the chances of you sharing it on your wall. Whether the application says you look like Brad Pitt or Voldemort, you hunt for similarities and find them.
3. Personality Tests
Many organizations use personality tests to help the management know their people better. Though these tests do a careful analysis of data, many experts have debated their accuracy. Psychologists criticize and challenge some of the well-known tests like MBTI too.
They argue that the description isn’t very accurate. It only appears so because people somehow find a way to relate it with their personality.
4. Movie/song recommendations
Some of the famous applications are renowned for providing suggestions based on your tastes. The results seem fantastic for two reasons.
One, the research team and developers spend a lot of effort and money to analyze the data they have. For example, Netflix knows the most popular movies based on your and interests. If you watch 3 movies, the application finds other people who did the same. It provides you a recommendation based on what others did. Therefore, the more movies you watch, the better the algorithm gets.
Second, the Barnum effect plays a key role in your acceptance of these recommendations. Spotify is known for suggesting music based on your mood. When you see a long list on your screen, your brain can easily connect one of the songs with your current mood.
The acceptance is sometimes in your head than in the algorithm.
5. Marketing and advertising
Ads on the TV and the internet use the same effect to increase their sales. A toothpaste can use sensitive gums or a clothing brand might speak about overweight people. When the commercial flashes on your screen, you feel connected because it now appears personal.
The more targeted the ad is, the more likely you are to end up buying. While most of the sales occur because you truly need the product, some of them are simply due to the Barnum effect.
How to avoid the Barnum effect
Compared to the other cognitive biases, the Barnum effect isn’t too hard to overcome. Once you know how the effect works, you can spot your mistakes quite easily. Here are 3 ways to avoid making the wrong judgment due to the phenomenon.
1. Doubt random information
If some random information or data magically matches your life or an event, be skeptical. In all likelihood, it was either coincidence or your brain playing games with you. Question yourself how can a person, a test, or a paragraph know the story of your life? Unless you can spot a logical reason, you must doubt the authenticity.
For example, a personality test can give you a good description of your behavior because you answer a list of questions. Your answers and those of others can help in painting a picture of your attributes.
Compare that you a random person whom you’ve never met predicting your future based on a card you pick. Can’t be based on facts now, can it?
2. Don’t make major decisions
When you are relying on a random piece of information to make a decision, make sure you do not take a huge risk.
Do not quit your job because a test on Facebook said that you would make a great entrepreneur. Do not invest all your money because someone behind a crystal ball saw you with millions of dollars in the future. Do not fire your employee because his personality did not match what you believe is apt for the role.
However, making decisions that do not create a huge impact are acceptable. You can resort to listening to a song on Spotify when you’re feeling sad because it might match your mood. You can allow Netflix to recommend the best movie for you when you cannot make up your mind.
Such decisions do not put you in a soup even if you make a bad choice.
3. Pause and evaluate:
Every time you find yourself trusting random information and pulling a pattern out of thin air, pause. If you take a moment to analyze what you just encountered, you will avoid some of the blatant errors you make. While you pause, you can ask yourself questions like:
- What are the consequences if my decision went wrong?
- Can I explain what happened with logic?
- Am I connecting the information with some part of my life myself?
The Barnum effect applies to everyone, but only the gullible end up as victims in most cases. With the advancement of technology and the increase in literacy rate, people have become more mindful.
Sure, well-known celebrities still add or remove an extra alphabet from their name because someone told them that it changes their cosmic alignment in the galaxies. But in recent decades, the popularity of horoscopes, astrology, and tarot cards are on a downward slope.
Today, we are more vulnerable to the Barnum effect in many of the fun apps on social media. But thankfully, they only lead to comments, likes, and ridicule. No one faces major negative consequences due to the Barnum effect.
Now that you have read the article, you are more self-aware of the mistakes you can make. You are now a step ahead in not turning into a victim of this effect in the future.
Leave a comment on when you believed some random information when it was only the Barnum effect.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.