Although he may have never said it, the well-known quotation, “There’s a sucker born every minute” is often associated with P. T Barnum, the founder of the legendary Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the context of this quote, psychologists refer to the Barnum effect as the gullibility of people reading descriptions of themselves (eg, their personality, their history, or their future). In reality, these descriptions are so general and vague that they actually apply to many other people. In other words, they have universal validity; or in the words of German psychologist O. Bobertag, universalscharakteristik. The Barnum effect partly explains why people believe in astrology, aura reading, palm reading, fortune telling, and graphology (the analysis of handwriting).
More formally, the Barnum effect is known as the Forer effect, after psychologist Bertram Forer. In 1948, Forer had his students take a psychology test that was to be the basis of a unique personality profile for each student. Each student actually received the exact same personality profile, drawn from an astrology book; however each student believed that the descriptions accurately described who they were. Here is the content of the personality profile, often referred to as Barnum statements:
- You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
- You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
- You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
- While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
- Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
- Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure 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 pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
- You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
- At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
- Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
- Security is one of your major goals in life.
For further reading: “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility” by Bertram Forer