Astrology is one of the world’s oldest natural sciences. From the dawn of time, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered about the future. Cities have been built, and wars fought from starry information handed out by cryptic astrologers. Is this a science? Perhaps we should take more responsibility for our actions rather than believing it was all in the stars. Are we too afraid of the future to put behind these ancient practices?
The Barnum effect is coined in 1956 by psychologist Paul Meehl. It is an everyday psychological phenomenon whereby people believe that advice is based on supernatural or quasi-scientific knowledge. Also, general information could apply to anyone as humble human beings are predisposed to believe vague yet positive personality descriptions. Especially if the descriptions foreshadow desirable future events.
What is Barnum effect?
The Barnum Effect explains why millions of people subscribe to astrology, fortune-telling, tarot cards, and online personality tests every day. A psychological phenomenon that we have all likely fallen for at some point. The Barnum effect describes people’s tendency to accept generalized personality descriptions as accurate descriptions of their unique personalities.
- In psychology and persuasion circles Barnum effect is a key NLP seduction technique that can be deadly effective when used correctly. Brain and subconscious mind edit the facts of the event to fit your perception or narrative.
A 2015 YouGov survey asked participants in the US and Britain about their beliefs in astrology and horoscopes. 14% of Americans and 20% of British said that they believe in horoscopes. Horoscopes can tell you something about what will happen in the future. This might seem like a small minority, but that equates to roughly 50 million people. 30% of Americans and 20% of Britains believe that star science can tell you something about yourself.
That’s 109 million people, whether astrology or horoscopes, fortune tellers, or psychic mediums. There is a long history of people claiming to possess paranormal insight, with an even longer line of believers wanting their advice. But why might someone believe in such claims? One explanation is known as the Barnum effect.
Barnum statement: You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. Also, You tend to be critical of yourself. And you pride yourself as an independent finger and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. These are Barnum’s statements. These are vague true for most people and often describe positive desirable qualities to which almost anyone can relate. The Barnum effect is equally relevant in understanding beliefs in astrology in horoscopes.
Working process: Barnum effect is strongly related to paranormal beliefs. In that, it has a bi-directional relationship with paranormal beliefs. Those who claim to have paranormal powers exploit this effect to get more believers in their powers. Those who believe in the paranormal are significantly more likely to fall victim to the Barnum effect, creating a gullibility loop. It is what makes cold reading possible. Cold reading is a very learnable skill that’s often attributed to paranormal abilities.
Somebody skilled at cold reading will make some very generic and general statements to get some facial feedback from the other person. The other person does not respond or has no strong facial response to any of the thrown-out statements. The person doing the cold reading will change it up and throw something else out.
Eventually, the cold reader will say something that sparks some excitement or emotional reaction in the person they’re doing the reading for. As this process continues, the participant usually offers information to add details to what the cold reader threw out in the first place. Due to the confirmation bias, anybody who believes in these psychic abilities is more likely to forget all of the events. They’re also less likely to remember that they were the ones who volunteered a lot of the information.
Barnum effect experiment
Bertram Forer asked 39 of his students to take the diagnostic interest blank test in a famous experiment psychologist. Each student received an individual personality sketch based on their test results and was asked to rate a scale of 0 to 5. They were also asked to rate how effective they thought the test was in revealing personality.
The students were convinced! They gave their personality sketches an average accuracy rating of 4.26 while scoring the test’s effectiveness an average of 4.31. What did the students know? However, was that they all received the same personality sketch. Not only were they all the same.
Barnum effect personality test & study
In a 1972 study, Snyder and Larson told one test subject that their personality sketch was explicitly created. And the second group was told that their sketch was generally true of people. Those who had received the personality sketches were labeled specifically for them and rated them. Also, they have a more accurate description of their personalities than the generally true group.
In another study, test subjects were presented with twelve sun-sign personality descriptions and asked to choose the four best matched their personality. When the descriptions were merely numbered, the test subjects did not pick the description matching their sun sign. However, subjects were more likely to pick the description matching their star sign when the descriptions were labeled with star signs.
A study by Norman Sundberg presented subjects with two different personality sketches. A genuine one and a fake one made up of Barnum statements. The Barnum sketches had five times as many socially desirable statements compared with the genuine sketches. The test subjects were asked to rate the accuracy of the two personality sketches. With 59 percent rating the Barnum sketches as more accurate. No one likes their faults being pointed out to them. And this is perhaps an essential tactic of psychics and fortune-tellers.
The Barnum effect is just one reason why people might believe in those who claim to know our most profound personality traits or what awaits us in the future. Statistics show that over 90% of Americans know their star sign, and as many as 50% read their horoscopes. But it is not clear how many believe what they read. Perhaps horoscopes are consumed more as entertainment nowadays, with a group of hard-core fixed believers in the minority.
History of Barnum effect
The term Barnum Effect comes from the “a sucker is born every minute” phrase widely attributed to the American showman PT Barnum. Born on July 5th, 1891, Barnum is fondly remembered for promoting outlandish hoaxes and founding the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He traveled the world collecting human oddities, or freaks, to be exhibited for a fee. He introduced the world to General Tom Thumb, The Four-Legged Girl, Pinhead, The Siamese Twins, The Living Torso, and, let’s not forget, The Wild Men of Borneo.
Barnum, an author, publisher, and philanthropist may not have been responsible for the “sucker born every minute” phrase at all. It is unlikely that a business person as successful as Barnum would mutter such words. Why would he publically insult his client base? It is more plausible than the actual “sucker” quote from rival businessman David Hannum, who Barnum had one-uped in exhibiting a fake giant in New York.
Hannum owned a fake giant model that Barnum wanted to buy from him to exhibit. He wouldn’t sell the fake giant, and Barnum went on to build the fake that he exhibited with great success.
- Hannum probably referred to Barnum’s business model of aggressively promoting and displaying hoaxes, including the fake giant scam. He uttered the sentence, “a sucker is born every minute.”
Since living in caves, humans have come to believe in astrology. We all seek some order or sense for the random events that happen in our lives. Since the beginning of time, we have been scared of the future and have felt vulnerable to everyday life’s chaotic disorder. We need to travel back 4,000 years to look at the first organized astrology system that arose during the Babylonian age during the 2nd millennium.
The Babylonians were the first to describe the 12 zodiac signs. The Egyptians refined this system before the Greeks took hold of it and shaped it into its modern form. During Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia, the Greeks were introduced to Syria, Babylon, and Persia’s cryptic cosmological systems and made them their own. Astrology is just as famous in the modern world, with almost all magazines and newspapers having astrological sections.
The Mayan religion blended several aspects of nature, astronomy, and rituals. They developed calendars around the stars and the planets. They built astronomical buildings where they practiced human sacrifice rituals. They used many methods, including heart extraction, shooting with arrows, and placing the live sacrificial body into a ball for a ritual reenactment of the Mesoamerican ballgame, followed swiftly by mandatory disembowelment.
So, what do you think? Do you believe in your horoscope? Can we tell our future from the stars? Let us know in the comments!
“Barnum Effect | psychology.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved.
“The Barnum Effect.” Seeking Alpha. Seeking Alpha.
Meehl, Paul E. (1956). “Wanted – A Good Cookbook.” American Psychologist.
Carroll, Robert. “Barnum effect.” The Skeptic’s Dictionary.