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Barnum effect

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A tendency for people to accept vague, ambiguous, and generalized statements as being accurate descriptions of their own personalities. The effect was first demonstrated empirically in 1949 by the US psychologist Bertram R(obin) Forer (1914–2000), who constructed a personality profile consisting of the following 13 statements, drawn largely from an 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. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented 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 extraverted, affable and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.’ People who are presented with this profile and are told that it is based on a personality test, handwriting analysis, or some other plausible data typically rate it quite highly as being applicable to them personally. In Forer's original experiment, the profile was supposedly based on a personality questionnaire that a group of 39 students had filled in a week earlier. The students were asked to ‘rate on a scale of zero to five the degree to which the personality description reveals the basic characteristics of your personality’, and most of them chose 4 or 5, with a mean of 4.26. They were also asked to ‘check each statement as true or false about yourself’; the average number of statements accepted as true was 10.23 out of 13. See also illusory correlation. [The term Barnum effect was introduced in 1956 in an article in the journal American Psychologist by the US psychologist Paul Everett Meehl (1920–2003), quoting an unpublished comment by the US psychologist Donald G(ildersleeve) Paterson (1892–1962) about ‘personality description after the manner of P. T. Barnum’, alluding to the US showman P(hineas) T(aylor) Barnum (1810–91), co-founder of the Barnum and Bailey circus, and by implication to one or both of the following quotations attributed to him: ‘My secret of success is always to have a little something for everyone’ and ‘There's a sucker born every minute’]

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