P.T. Barnum and You

Imagine, if you will, that someone gave you a personality test and provided you with the following feedback on your personality:

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. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the 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 also pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

How likely are you to endorse this as an accurate description?   If you were to rate it on a scale of accuracy with "1" being completely innaccurate and "10" being extremely accurate, where would your score fall on the continuum?    In an average group of people, the majority are going to endorse it as being fairly to extremely accurate with only the occasional dissenter suggesting that the report was not a good personality 220px-PsychicBoston[1]description. 

Certainly that was the result that psychologist Bertram Forer got when he administered the personality test to the students in one of his classes in 1948.   More than forty percent of his students described the personality description as being a perfect fit to their personality while more than half the class rated it as being at least a "fair" description.   Except, of course, for the fact that every student in the class received the same personality description you see above.   Forer, an arch-skeptic, had previously tried to debunk a nightclub graphologist by accusing him of providing vague personality descriptions during his "readings" with clients that would be true of everyone.   The graphologist fought back and insisted that the personality descriptions had to be accurate.  After all, didn't his clients agree that the reading he provided was correct?  Surely they knew themselves best!

As a test of how gullible people could be, Forer bought an astrology book from a newstand and wrote out the general personality sketch you see above.  Ever since he first published his results in 1949, this tendency of people to endorse generalized statements as being true for them specifically has been known as the Forer effect.    Also called the P.T. Barnum effect,  why this happens stems from the fact that personality is never fixed and often changes depending on the situation in which we find ourselves.  Sometimes, we're shy, sometimes we're confident, sometimes we're calm, sometimes we're worried.   Given a vague statement about personality, we usually find something there that matches up how we can be at some point in time. 

With the generalized description that Forer provided, at least some of the statements that make up that description are so broad as to be almost meaningless.  More importantly, many of the statements are almost polar opposites, i.e. "You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself."     Since statements such as this are going to be true at least some of the time, people will endorse them as being accurate.  As a resut, we often end up "picking out" the statements that happen to apply to us and ignore the rest.

Psychologists have come to refer to these kind of overgeneralizations as Barnum Statements after circus showman P.T. Barnum who was famous for saying "A circus should have a little something for everybody.”    What Forer discovered, and what fortune tellers had known for generations, was that people often view these vague statements as applying to them uniquely and often regarded them as accurate descriptions of their own personality.   This is especially true if the statements tend to be flattering rather than critical (people like to be complimented).  Many of Forer's students were enthusiastic about how the personality description matched what they thought of themselves.   In the decades since Bertram Forer first ran this experiment, it has been repeated hundreds of times in psychology classses around the world.  Overall, students have been remarkably consistent with over eighty percent endorsing or partially endorsing the accuracy of the personality statement.

Further research looking at the Forer effect also suggested that people were more likely to regard a Barnum statement as being accurate if they were told that it applied to them specifically.   In one study, research participants were given a bogus horoscope and asked to rate its accuracy.   What the researchers found was that they viewed it as more accurate if told that the astrologer who prepared it knew the month, day, and year of their birth (a.k.a., a natal horoscope) as opposed to being told that it was based only on the year and birth month.   It is this belief in the accuracy of astrology and other systems intended to "reveal" hidden aspects of personality based on a horoscope that helps explain its staying power (along with the selective recall that seems to "prove" the power of the star in predicting the future). 

And it isn't just astrology.  Whether it involves Tarot card readings, palmistry, numerology, biorhythms, graphology, or predictions based on blood type, the Forer effect is a standard tool of almost all fortune tellers.  It is also one of the major features of cold reading by which "psychics" appear to deliver devastatingly accurate estimates of the sucker's (er, sorry, client's) personality.   Every time someone gets a false validation of a fortune teller's powers, he or she also becomes overconfident that the fortune teller can accurately predict future events.  This tendency  to embrace vague statements as being personally meaningful is known as subjective validation.  If people have enough confidence in what they are being told, they often ignore statements that are contradictory or just plain wrong in favour of statements that they feel are completely accurate. 

Unfortunately, this isn't just limited to fortune tellers.  The personality tests used by psychologists, psychoanalysts, social workers, etc. can also be vulnerable to the Forer effect.   It can also lead to the overuse of certain tests of only limited validity including projective tests such as the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test.  Part of the popularty of the Myers-Briggs Test and other misused tests of personality largely stems from the misplaced faith caused by the Forer effect.   It is hardly a coincidence that the Church of Scientology offers "free personality readings" to draw in new members.

So, what is the solution?  We certainly need better education to teach people to be less trusting of Barnum statements and the role they often play in the acceptance of bogus "personality readings".    It is also important to be wary of how these readings are often used as "foot in the door" techniques to gain the trust of clients by convincing them that the "readers" ability is real.   Even with psychometric tests that are supposedly valid, you need to be more critical of what you are being told and how specific the personality description really is.    Personality is a lot more fluid than you might think.

In the end, you need to have a healthy degree of skepticism about what people are trying to tell you about yourself. 



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