The Barnum effect: why we believe our horoscopes

Flazingo Photos/Creative Commons

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Have you ever taken a personality test and found the results to be scarily accurate, checked your horoscope and had everything come true or taken a BuzzFeed quiz that told you precisely what your favorite Disney princess means about you? Well, we at the Clog certainly have done so too many times, so we decided to do a little investigation into how Internet quizzes, magazines and horoscope books seem to know us so well.

We discovered that we’ve all been falling victim to the Barnum effect. The Barnum effect was named after P.T. Barnum, a prominent 19th century showman and businessman known both for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus and his uncanny con artist abilities. He would famously say, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Indeed, Barnum proved to be right, as pseudoscience — such as astrology and personality tests — remain popular to this day. The Barnum effect explains why extremely general statements, such as the results of your personality test, seem so specific to you. Don’t believe us? Well, late psychology professor Bertram Forer offered some proof.

In a historic study, Forer administered a personality test to his students. Forer copied statements such as: “You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself” from the newspaper’s astrology column and gave a test to every student.

Forer asked his students to rate the accuracy of the test from one to five, with “one” being the least accurate and “five” being the most accurate. The average rating was 4.26. The universally high ratings from students on the personality test supported the Barnum effect.

According to Forer, people tend to believe in generalized statements such as these because of a combination of wishful thinking and hopefulness. Basically, each time we read our horoscope, we’re exposing our naivete, egotism and human gullibility. People want to believe that the statements are true. People will often ignore generalized statements about them if they’re at all negative or will accept false statements if they’re flattering enough.

So, Bears, keep in mind that we are not immune to the Barnum effect. Be wary and take everything you hear with several grains of salt.

Image source: Flazingo Photos under Creative Commons

Contact Zainab Ali at zal[email protected].