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  • Writer's pictureCat Ward


Have you ever read your Horoscope? Opened a fortune cookie? Had a Tarot reading, a palm reading, or a crystal ball reading? Been to see a psychic? How accurate did you feel any of those were? We are all aware that Horoscopes are written for the masses, but sometimes we can't help but feel they're specifically referring to us. And we are likewise aware that, whilst there are some good examples of honest psychics, mediums, tarot, palm or crystal ball readers, there are also others who will employ underhand tactics, cold-reading techniques, zeroing in on a client's body language in order to give further "insight", and also sweeping generalisations in their readings. Yet we still may sometimes leave a reading feeling we've been given some insight into ourselves.

This is caused by something commonly termed as the Barnum Effect. Its informal name comes from the 19th century American showman, Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, who famously said "there's a sucker born every minute". More formally, it is named the Forer Effect, after Professor Bertram R. Forer, the American psychologist who first experimented on the hypothesis in 1948.


Forer's objective was to test the hypothesis that a universally valid personality description was more likely to be accepted by someone as a truth about themselves, even though that description could apply equally to anyone in a group.

Forer had previously discussed with the 39 students in his class his Diagnostic Interest Blank, or D.I.B. (which consisted of a list of hobbies, personal characteristics, reading preferences, job duties, and personal hopes and ambitions), and the role of personal motivation in perceptual selectivity- in other words, the motivational factors that make people believe what they wish to believe, or perceive something as being personally applicable to them.

The students requested that they be given the D.I.B., and also an evaluation. Forer agreed, and in the next class the students were given the D.I.B., and were told that each of them would also be given a personality evaluation, once he had had time to evaluate their test papers.

One week later, every student was given a typed personality evaluation, with his or her name on it. Forer encouraged the desire for secrecy that was expressed by the class regarding the personality evaluations, and as there was also a quiz scheduled for that day, no suspicion was aroused when he seated students two seats apart from each other.

Forer actually did not want any students to see the evaluations of others, so everything had fallen into place perfectly there. From his point of view, it was actually essential that no student saw another's evaluation, as he had given each of them identical evaluations, merely personalising them by writing the student's name on them. Forer's "personality evaluation statements" were as seen in the picture below.

Before the students read their evaluations, they were given the following instructions by Forer:

A: Rate on a scale of zero (poor) to five (perfect) how effective the D.I.B. is in revealing personality.

B: Rate on a score of zero to five how effective the degree to which the personality description reveals basic details about your personality.

C: Then turn the paper again and check each statement as true or false about yourself, or use a question mark if you are unsure.

After the papers had been returned to Forer, students were asked to raise their hands if they felt the test was effective. Virtually all hands were raised. Forer then read the first item in the evaluation out to the students, and asked them to raise their hands if they had found anything similar in their evaluations. All hands went up this time, and the class burst out laughing, having now realised that they had been tricked.

Forer pointed out to the students that the test had been used as a lesson to demonstrate people's tendency to be highly impressed by vague or generalised statements, and to therefore believe that the person who had made the diagnosis had a large degree of insight. He pointed out the similarities between his demonstration and the tactics employed by charlatans. The experiment had meaning for many in the class, for apparently at least a third asked for copies of the "evaluation" so that they might try the trick on their friends!

By the way, how many of the traits in Forer's evaluation did you feel applied to you? I could spot a few that would be applicable to me, but in reality many of them are common to many people. That's the trick in the use of generalised statements- they can make someone with little insight seem like they have much more, with the help of a little personalisation. In Forer's case, all he needed to do was write the student's name at the top of the evaluation, and have them fill out his D.I.B. beforehand, thus creating the illusion that the evaluation would be personalised according to their responses.

If you're interested, here's a link to Forer's original research paper, which includes a table of results from his analysis of his students responses and ratings..The median, or average, effectiveness rating assigned by students, and indicated on the table, was 4.26 (out of 5).

There's a few other ways the Barnum/Forer effect could apply in other respects more relatable to this day and age too though, so let's have a look at those..


The picture above is one of the many examples of what's commonly referred to as a "be like Bob" meme. These are often seen in the online personality quizzes every second person seems to post on facebook, but there's a trick used- the publishers use a first name to personalise the content, and then add some widely-applicable, generalised statement which in reality would apply to a large part of the general online populace. In reality, Rose, Susan, Kate (or Tom, Dick or Harry) probably all got the same messages, but applying their name the message was made to feel personal to them.

Do you use Spotify? They use the Barnum effect too. On a daily basis, Spotify users are sent a "Your Daily Mix". Two simple words (as shown in the picture above), "You" and "Your", and hey presto, this makes what is most probably an entirely automated process seem personal to you.

There are many other examples I could use regarding the online world. As companies become smarter with customer data, and use of little tricks, sometimes only one or two words can make what is a generic frame filled in with your data seem more personal to you.

The Barnum/Forer effect has been employed with impressive results over many years now, in many different contexts. When you next read your horoscope in the daily paper, keep in mind that Just as the forecast for your own sign could apply to you, it could also apply to anyone born on any day of the month your sign covers. Try also reading all the forecasts for the other signs.. how many of them may apply to you too?

And think likewise when you view tarot reading results, or fortune cookie scrolls..or Facebook personality quizzes..

A very clever man worked out an experiment decades ago that showed that all it takes is a few little words to make the generic seem personal..Personally, I feel his lesson worth remembering..

As always, feel free to share your thoughts in comments, as I'm always happy to hear them!

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