"The unique world of Cold Reading" Part 2

The Barnum Effect

That there is a sucker born every minute is the cynical slogan
most often attributed to the great nineteenth-century circus
entreprenuer Phineas Taylor Barnum. Though there is in fact
no record that he ever made such a remark, Barnum did claim
that his success depended on providing in his shows “a little
something for everybody.” Both the cynicism and his recipe
for success are relevant to understanding the persistent
tendency for people to embrace fake personality descriptions
as uniquely their own. This in turn gives a particular aptness
to Paul Meehl’s phrase, the Barnum Effect, to describe the

Modern interest in the Barnum Effect among psychologists
dates from Forer’s classic experiment in which a group of 39
undergraduate psychology students were given the Diagnostic
Interest Blank. A week later every student was provided with
the same personality description, but was led to believe that
each description was uniquely different, having been derived
from the test results. The students were then asked to rate the
accuracy of their “individual” personality descriptions on a
scale of 0 (poor) to 5 (perfect). Of the 39 students, only 5
rated it below 4, and no one rated it below 2 (average). The
average rating was 4.3.
Forer’s initial concern was with personality theory and
assessment, and the relevance of this effect to understanding
“psychic” and apparently paranormal effects was not to begin
with widely recognized. As late as l962, P.A. Marks and W.
Seeman were calling for the term “Barnum Effect” to be
restricted to test-derived clinical personality descriptions of
patients which are so general (and trivial) that they apply to
everybody.18 But the fact that Forer had obtained his
generalized personality description not from standard texts in
personality theory but from a newsstand astrology book
indicated that the Barnum Effect might be significant in
contexts far beyond the clinical.
Forer’s original personality description is perfectly servicable
even today. It was presented as numbered sentences; here it is
as a continuous paragraph:

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 some 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.