Richard G. Petty, MD

The Barnum Effect

Whoever would have thought that the quintessential nineteenth century showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, best known for his claim that, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” would one day lend his name to a psychological principle known colloquially as the Barnum Effect or more accurately as the Forer effect.

Barnum was a marketing genius long before Madison Avenue had been built. Born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810, by 1835 he purchased an 80-year-old slave and displayed her as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. He went on to create “The Greatest Show on Earth,” in which he displayed everything from performing elephants to people with an array of medical maladies displayed for the masses.

The Barnum Effect is a term said to have been coined by the psychologist Paul Meehl, to describe a very real psychological phenomenon in which people tend to accept as accurate a general statement about themselves, especially a flattering one. Even though the statement could describe just about anyone. Add a few numbers, letters or aspects to the statement, and it is accepted even more quickly, because then it appears to be in some way scientific.

The original experiment was done by Bertram Forer in 1948. He gave his students a personality test, and then gave them an analysis supposedly based on the test’s results. He invited each of the students to rate the analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) as it applied to themselves: the average was 4.26. He then revealed that each student had been given the same analysis.

What he wrote for the students is worth duplicating, because you may have seen similar things written about you, and it is very easy to be taken in. This is what Forer said:

  • “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.”

I recently saw this in action when I was persuaded by a friend and life coach to pay almost $50 to do an online evaluation, which turned out to be valueless. Though P.T. Barnum would have been proud of it! Let me explain.

Questionnaires and rating scales can be fun and interesting. After all, books and magazines are full of them. But it is essential not to take most of them too seriously. Designing a rating scale is a huge job. We first begin with an aim for the scale, so that we can later test its face validity: the degree to which it has succeeded in meeting that aim.

After we create it we have to test it and see whether different people can agree on the results. The next step is to see if the findings can be generalized to men and women and different ethnic groups. And finally we have to see whether the results actually tell us anything meaningful from which we can adopt a course of action.

When someone tells me that, “I did a Gnobbly-Komonsky rating scale and it made me see my relationship in a completely new way!” the chances are that the rating scale has nothing to do with it. The only things that can make you see something in a new way is you. Unless validated, tests and scales are rarely more than catalysts. It does not matter if the test has been administered to a million people. If it has not gone through all of the steps to see if its okay, it will never be anything more than a piece of fun that may or may not help catalyze change.

So how do you protect yourself against the Barnum Effect?

  1. First, be skeptical, second be very skeptical, and third be very very skeptical
  2. Whenever you are given a personal interpretation, whether it comes from a psychologist or astrologer, have a look to see how specific are the interpretations?
  3. Next see whether any parts of the interpretation would apply to someone else. (You can test this by taking a horoscope in a newspaper, cutting out the twelve interpretations, without the title, “Virgo, “Scorpio” and so on. Then shuffle them and see which apply to you. Pop astrology is very different from a detailed and personalized evaluation by an intuitive who happens to be using astrology.)
  4. Ask how the test was created, and in whom it was tested? Not how many people have taken it, but what independent measures have been used to validate it?
  5. Don’t take any action on what you are told until you have objective, external validation.
  6. Research has shown that people with higher indices of neuroticism are more likely to fall for the Barnum Effect. If you have fallen for it, see if some of the balancing techniques that I describe on the website might help protect you from making the same msitake again.

If you are interested in going into this in a bit more detail, there is quite a nice article on how to read a medical journal article, that looks at some of the better known fallacies.

Finally here are some more Barnum-isms:
“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing than by believing in too much.”

“Every crowd has a silver lining.”

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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