Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Barnum Effect, or, It's Like You're Reading my Mind

The Barnum Effect, aka the Forer Effect, is the tendency of people to think that generic statements about humankind describe them in particular. This is how mediums and psychics generally work. The science of this was further developed by psychologist Bentram Forer, who came up with this lest of questions that invoke the effect.
  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  5. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
  6. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  7. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  8. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  9. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  10. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  11. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  12. Security is one of your major goals in life.
In Forer's original experiment, his subjects said those items described them well, rating an analysis that included those twelve items 4.3 out of 5.0 for accuracy. Incidentally this only works when the experimenter focuses mainly on positive traits.

Obviously this is to some extent culturally determined, and this particular list would not work nearly as well for people who are not 20th or 21st century Americans.


Unknown said...

It is interesting to me that the Wikipedia discussion emphasizes the (self-) deception aspect of this phenomenon, without looking much at why these statements and not others cause people to recognize themselves in the statements and think the speaker has some insight into them. The article does mention the importance of "the ratio of positive to negative trait assessments," but doesn't give any specifics on this, either the ratio or what is considered positive or negative.

On the different cultures aspect, the article mentions that "In 2009, psychologists Paul Rogers and Janice Soule conducted a study that compared the tendencies of Westerners to accept Barnum personality profiles to the tendencies of Chinese people" and says they found no significant difference--but, again, doesn't give specifics, such as whether they mean that members of both cultures displayed the effect in response to the same statements.

I note that yes, the statements are so general they could apply to almost anyone, but that is not to say they have no specific content. Many of the statements seem, to me, to reflect feelings of anxiety and/or inadequacy, feelings that individuals may not talk about much with others. I wonder if hearing one's unspoken feelings of anxiety reflected back in this way may provoke feelings of trust toward the speaker, whereas hearing one's other unspoken but common feelings, such as anger, might put the listener on guard.

The anxiety emphasis may be significant for our ongoing discussion of teen anxiety. Perhaps teens have a lot of anxiety because, well, people do--at least if they're older than, say, eleven.

John said...

The two things that jump out at me are anxiety, yes, but also changeability. Statements like "sometimes you are this way but sometimes the opposite" often show up in these lists. Does that maybe suggest that we see other people as more consistent than we feel ourselves?

I got into this little digression from a Scott Alexander post on people who think they are particularly sensitive to criticism; apparently a lot of people think they are more sensitive to criticism than others are. This feeds back to David's point that anxiety is one of the universals.

I suspect that in such a subjective area it would be hard to know whether teenagers in general are more or less anxious than they used to be. What we know is that more are too disabled by anxiety to work or go to school. The relationship between that number and the amount of anxiety among the non-disabled is not obvious.