7/3/12 - people want to believe

In today's excerpt - people embrace stock personality sketches as unique portraits of themselves, and want to believe what psychics say about them:

"In 1948 the American psychologist Bertram Forer conducted an experiment in which he administered a personality test, called the Diagnostic Interest Blank, to a group of thirty-nine college students. A week after conducting the survey, he handed each student a personality description that was suppos­edly based on the data he'd collected. The students were then asked to rate the accuracy of their profiles on a scale of zero to five, with five being a perfect match and zero being poor. The results were impressive. The average score was a 4.26, meaning that a majority of the students thought the personality descrip­tions were spot-on. Only 12.8 percent of the students ranked their profiles below a 4.0 ('very accurate'), and none scored theirs lower than 2.0 ('average'). Typical responses from the students included statements such as:

- Surprisingly accurate and specific.
-On the nose!
-Very good. I wish you had said more.
-Applies to me individually, as there are too many facets which fit me too well to be a generalization.

"The Diagnostic Interest Blank seemed to be a sharp tool indeed. Except for one thing: Forer never used it. In reality, he had scrapped the test and given every student identical 'per­sonality descriptions' that consisted of a list of generic state­ments lifted from a newsstand astrology book:

- 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.

"Forer had not unearthed some divine trove of universal truth at his local magazine store, but he had discovered a fasci­nating and surprisingly universal psychological principle, one that lies at the heart of every horoscope and palm reading and psychic divination, a multibillion dollar industry in the United States alone. Forer's original result has been replicated dozens of times -- to this day, the average rating hovers around 4.2 -- and psychologists have since given a name to the astonishing eagerness with which people will embrace stock personality sketches as unique portraits. They call it the Barnum effect, after P. T. Barnum's famous dictum 'We've got something for everyone.'

"One interesting corollary to Forer's original study is that the more personal information a subject willingly discloses, the higher that participant tends to rate the accuracy of his reading. In a demonstration at the University of Kansas, volunteers were separated into three groups. A person claiming to be an astrolo­ger asked one group for their exact birth dates—day, month, and year. The second group was asked to disclose only the month and year in which they were born; while the third group gave no information. The participants then received identical horoscopes allegedly based on the information about them­selves they had given. Remarkably, the three groups rated the accuracy of their readings differently. Those who had revealed no information about themselves gave it an accuracy rating of 3.24, an above-average score but nothing extraordinary. Those who had given the month and year of their birth averaged a 3.76. And those who divulged their exact birth date, 4.38. In other words, the perceived accuracy of the astrological reading was a function not of what the astrologer told them, but of what they told the astrologer. Astonishingly, this means psychics can boost their powers just by letting their sitters talk more.

"That's not to say that the content of a reading has no bear­ing on the result. For one, it must be generic enough not to be flat-out wrong. (Even so, this isn't as important as one might think, because people selectively remember accurate statements while forgetting inaccurate ones, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias.) Moderate praise also tends to be more compelling than outright flattery or severe criticism. Beyond that, there is remarkable latitude in the kinds of readings that will succeed. Crucially, Barnum descriptions work not because they are suf­ficiently ambiguous to ring true in most cases, but because, on some fundamental level, people want to believe them."


Alex Stone


Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2012 by Alex Stone


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment