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Have you ever read a personality description based on your zodiac and wondered at the accuracy of the description? Well, then, you have just experienced the Barnum effect. This is how it is described: The Barnum effect in psychology is the feeling that a personality description applies to you specifically, more than to others, despite the fact that the description is filled with information that could apply to anyone. This is named after the nineteenth century American showman P.T. Barnum, Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), to whom is attributed the statement, “a sucker is born every minute,” though there is no proof that he actually said it.
The Barnum effect also goes by the name of Forer effect, after American psychologist Bertram R. Forer (1914-2000), who demonstrated this in his class. He asked his students to take a test in which several questions had to be answered. He told them that after analysing the answers each student would be given a personality description that would apply to each individual. About a week after the test was administered, when students were sitting not in pairs but alone, as they would do for an exam, he gave them each a paper in which a personality sketch including eleven statements such as the following were given:
(a) You have a great need for other people to like and admire you
.(b) You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
The students just after reading the personality sketch, were instructed to answer the following questions: (1) Rate on a scale of zero to five how effective they found the questionnaire in evaluating personality. (2) Rate on a scale of zero to five how accurately the sketch described their personality. (3) Turn back the paper and check as true or false each statement as it applied to their own personality, or a question mark if they could not tell.
Then they were asked to turn in their papers with their answers. Then it was revealed that the same sketch had been given to all of them. This was much to their amusement as many of them had believed it was a genuine assessment, as indicated by the scores they had given.
Forer called this the “fallacy of personal validation,” in his paper, “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility.” The paper carried the rider that it was published with the permission of the Chief Medical Director, Department of Medicine and Surgery, Veterans Administration, who assumed no responsibility for the opinions expressed or conclusions drawn by the author.
So the next time you see a prediction of your personality, note that you may be under the spell of the Barnum-Forer effect.
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