Horoscopes and fortune cookies: Why do we fall for them?

Horoscopes, fortune cookies, why do they often feel like they apply to our lives? They always sound like they were specifically tailored for us.

It’s called the Barnum effect.

The Barnum effect is a term coined in 1956 by an American psychologist Paul Meehl in his essay “Wanted – A Good Cookbook”.

In 1948, Bertram R. Forer conducted an experiment in his classroom with 39 of his students. He asked his students to complete a personality questionnaire and told them that they will be given an analysis of their personality on the basis of that questionnaire.

When the student’s profile results were returned so that the students could rate the accuracy of the results, Forer discovered something interesting. He gave the students a list of statements that described their individual personalities and found that on average, students rated the accuracy of the statements at 4.30 on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent).

Some of the statements were as follows:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
  6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.

The most interesting part which the students didn’t know prior to rating the results was that they all received the same profile of statements, prepared by Forer.

The whole thing was staged and the students fell for it and this is because the results contained statements that were vague and general enough to apply to most people.

This is what happens when we open that fortune cookie, when we read our daily horoscopes, we are being staged and we fall for it every single time.

The Barnum effect has been said to confirm the so-called “Pollyanna principle”, which states that individuals tend to use or accept positive words of feedback more frequently than negative words of feedback.

According to a report by Era Jain, titled ‘Barnum Effect: Influence of Social Desirability, Base Rate and Personalization’, the Barnum effect doesn’t have a definite explanation. It’s universal, unexpected by gender, age, culture etc. Several experiments have been conducted to explore its possible causes and they are just that, hypothesis and experiments, nothing more.

Marketers also use the Barnum effect to attract customers by making them believe that they are the kind of people who would benefit from a certain product.

So, next time you read that daily horoscope and before you even open that fortune cookie, think about the Barnum effect. You’re being staged.

About Mduduzi Mbiza 110 Articles
Mduduzi Mbiza is a creator. Author of the book, ‘Human Education: The Voyage of Discovery’.