What Is The Barnum Effect?

NOV, 21; 2020

The Barnum Effect refers to the human tendency to be susceptible to vague and generalised statements that are supposedly specific to oneself, but are in fact, applicable to most people.

'You have been through some really difficult times in your past, and have managed to survive them. '
'You've often felt misunderstood by the people around you. '
'There is an opportunity for something food waiting for you today'
'You tend to be overly critical of yourself sometimes. '
'You had a dangerous accident when you were a child.'
'You open up to people when you get comfortable around them, but otherwise you keep a few things to yourself'

If you've ever read your horoscope, consulted a fortune teller, a psychic or quote pages on social media, chances are that you've come across at least one of these statements. And more often than not, you have believed such statements to be completely true about yourself. And you aren't wrong, because such statements - known as Barnum Statements - are true for most people.

Barnum statements are often used by fortune tellers, psychics, and even mentalists and astrologers to get people to believe that the person in front of them can see into their lives and into who they truly are. Listeners often tend to believe that these statements are personal and unique truths about themselves. This, in turn, helps establish faith in the paranormal or extraordinary abilities of the person making these statements. Barnum statements also find wider application through personality quizzes, advertisements and the like.

In the year 1956, an American clinical psychologist called Paul Meehl coined the term, 'Barnum Effect' after American showman and businessman, P. T. Barnum. He founded the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the late nineteenth century, and it had been active up until 2017. (His life and his circus have been captured on the silver screen through films like The Greatest Show on Earth [1952] and The Greatest Showman [2017]). P. T Barnum capitalised on the gullibility of people and offered them ambiguous and general statements in the name of individually tailored personality assessments.

Meehl coined the term to call out fellow practitioners who used such generalised statements with their clients. He identified these statements as irresponsible and unprofessional in nature.

The Barnum Effect is also known as the Forer Effect, after the 'classic experiment' conducted by psychologist Bertram Forer. Thirty Nine psychology students were told that they would be given individualised assessments of their personality, which they had to rate on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 being completely inaccurate and 5 being extremely accurate. Every student received the same assessment, which comprised generic statements such as 'Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic'. All of these statements were picked out of an astrology book by Forer. The average rating (4.3/5) given by the students revealed a very high tendency to ascribe accuracy to such statements.

There are several mechanisms that contribute to the success of Barnum statements. Firstly, the acceptance phenomenon, which refers to the general tendency to accept almost any feedback in the name of personality assessment, is at play. This is further fortified by a self serving bias which increases the chances of accepting any statement that enhances one's self esteem as true. Barnum statements couple these concepts with that of subjective validation, wherein a link is drawn between two unrelated events due to beliefs and expectations. For example, while reading one's horoscope, accepting one Barnum statement as true will foster the belief that the statements that follow must also be true. In this process, one bends their perception of reality to accommodate whatever is written as true. Lastly, such statements also have the tendency to act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Reading that one is going to have a good day early in the morning colours one's perception for the day, and creates a bias wherein only positive events are registered. Similarly, reading that one will have a bad day will enhance the tendency to focus on negative events. At the end of the day, this is used as evidence in favour of the statements and a cycle if belief is formed.