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The Barnum effect- Your horoscope just came in: There really is a sucker born every minute!

In case there was any confusion…

Hello, and welcome to your reading! While you may have come here looking for some interesting cognitive facts or tidbits, what you’re really in for is a personality profile created specifically for YOU. Through our unique system of assessment, here are your results…

-You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.

Was it accurate? Do you feel as though you can suddenly trust the powerful abilities of this post to predict your innermost emotions and traits? If you answered yes or felt that the reading uniquely matched you, then you’ve fallen victim to the Barnum effect. Named after the infamous showman P.T. Barnum, this effect refers to the tendency for people to give high accuracy ratings to personality descriptions that, although said to be unique, can apply to the general population. Barnum famously said that there is a sucker born every minute, and this tendency may explain why those “suckers” seem so gullible. From fortune cookies to the Long Island Medium to Buzzfeed personality tests, this effect explains why people are so eager to accept general profiles that have no veridical backing as the truth.

What’s your inner noodle? I got Penne!


The personality description you were given was actually part of the one given in the first Barnum study conducted. In 1949, Forer studied the extent to which individuals will accept general personality results as true. His study, in fact, gave the Barnum effect its other known name: the Forer effect. He gave a personality test to the 39 students in his introductory psychology class and, a week later, gave the same students “personalized” personality descriptions. The students were then asked to rate how accurate they thought the profile was. On a scale from 0 (poor) to 5 (perfect), the mean was a 4.3. Nobody ranked the test less than a 2 and only five students rated it less than a 4. The caveat? Each student got exactly the same profile. None of the profiles were actually based on the tests done by the students.

So, what’s the deal? Why are we so eager to make the shoe fit?

Well, most statements used in a Barnum profile, or a generally applicable profile such as the one the students received, really do fit. Almost everybody accepts broad statements such as “you have a tendency to be critical of yourself” (Bachrach, Pattishall, 1960). Often these phrases are labeled as being specifically “for you,” and subjects often fail to realize that the results apply just as well to others as it did to themselves. Why? Well, we know more about ourselves than any other person. Constantly operating in our minds is something called metacognition, or the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. This introspective process means we know the most about ourselves and have a strong sense of self. Therefore, we are more likely to find behavioral evidence that confirms a common trait in ourselves than in any other member of the general population (Johnson, Cain, Falke, Hayman, Perillo, 1985). If you’re asked if Sally is critical of herself, you may not make the connection that this is a general trait. Is Sally critical? You don’t know, but you know if you are! Given this error in assessment of self-knowledge versus knowledge of others, it makes sense that a personality test or astrological reading would appear to be tailored to us. When undergraduate volunteers were given a personality assessment and asked to say how applicable the personality traits were to themselves or how applicable they were to others, they underestimated the prevalence of the personality traits in others (even though they were warned to adjust for insufficient information) and saw the statements as more applicable to themselves (Johnson, Cain, Falke, Hayman, Perillo, 1985)! This explains why people see a Barnum style personality test as a unique assessment; if it fits me then it must be a unique assessment! The only issue is that everybody else can say the exact same thing.

This is probably not the best way to chose a future partner…

This phenomenon is found beyond Forer’s personality test. It’s used in the astrology columns that 70% of daily newspapers carry and the fortune cookies that Chinese restaurants stuff in to-go bags. On a much darker note, it’s used by the so-called “psychics” who use their cold reading techniques to scam people out of their money.  Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence to support astrology and psychics, the Barnum effect explains their continuing success. Once an individual gets a profile that they perceive as accurate to themselves, they see the source as valid and acceptable, setting the illusion that the source is legitimate.

So, I’d hate to be the barer of bad news, but you should probably select your future partner based on their personality, not their astrological sign, because astrology is absolute BS. At the same time, if astrology and fortune telling are shown to have no scientific backing, why do people still believe in it? An innocent Buzzfeed personality test that matches your personality to a noodle is one thing, but paying up to $1000 for a 1-hour session? Famous medium John Edward charges $850 for a private session and has an eight-year long waitlist. Why?

Why do people believe in it despite being told that it is bogus? More importantly, why are people spending so much money on something that is so flimsy and unpredictable? One possible explanation (although I’m not sure I will ever truly understand why somebody would spend that much on a reading) is that the odd and flamboyant nature of the operation is enough to make somebody interested. Throw in a few reality TV shows that show the “wonders” of a psychic, and people suddenly become excited to try it out for themselves despite the cost.

Come on, John. Name beginning with a letter of the alphabet? You could’ve at least tried a little harder to fake it.

This can also go by the name of the Von Restorff effect, or the tendency for people to remember things that are distinctive or, in essence, weird. John Edward’s website describes him as having an “uncanny ability to predict future events and communicate with those who have crossed over to the Other Side” (and yes, the “other side” is capitalized on the website). When people start claiming that they can predict your future and communicate with your dead relatives it is certainly bound to catch your attention. In reality, Edward has likely mastered using the Barnum effect and crowd-reaction reading to find out if he’s on the right track. His showy techniques combined with an impressive skill set create something that may be enough to draw somebody in despite warnings (learn about the sneaky tactics psychics use by clicking here). Maybe even enough to warrant the heavy tab at the end of it all.


When it comes to it, all of us need to bump up our own metacognition when it comes to the Barnum effect. Whether or not you’re a Pisces, Sagittarius, or Cancer, or one of the many other astrological code names that people have made up, it’s important that you and I keep the Barnum effect in mind when encountering a generalized personality profile. It’s all fun and games, but it’s important that you keep in mind that, even though you’re a Pisces, you could very well be all of the other signs too. They’re generalized enough just to make sure of it. Don’t let your horoscope become anything more than the randomly generated thing that it is. And next time your friend talks about astrological compatibility or how a fortune cookie will determine their lives, you can use the fancy “Barnum effect” lingo to quell any illusions of validity. As said so elegantly by the one and only P.T. Barnum, there is a sucker born every minute, and I beg you not to become one of them. And, most importantly, make sure to keep your wallet in your pocket no matter how much that carnival fortune teller claims to know your future.

I’m hoping this will be all of us after learning about the Barnum effect!



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