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Fakes and Frauds: The Forer Effect

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Frederick The Monk
319328.  Fri Apr 18, 2008 11:02 am Reply with quote

Question: Alan, You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic. What am I doing?


Answer: Ive been demonstrating the Forer Effect or Personal Validation Fallacy, by which fraudulent astrologers pretend to know your mind by stringing together apparently specific but in fact almost universal statements.

Notes: The Forer Effect is what horoscopes make use of - making very generalised statements that could apply to a large number of people and then letting the Forer effect do its work in making people think that the predictions are tailored exactly to them.

The effect takes its name from psychologist Bertram R. Forer who, in 1948, gave his students a personality test followed by a personal interpretation of the results. He then asked the students to grade how accurate they though his analysis was. The average grade was 4.26 out of 5. But - ha ha - it was all a trick! Forer had been proving the Forer effect in that he gave all the students the same analysis based on sentences he cobbled together from horoscopes. Because they believed the results were tailored to them and respected the man giving the results they thought the analysis to be tailored to them. It also helped that he mainly said nice things about them.

The Forer Effect is also known as the Barnum Effect (after old PT) and the 'Personal Validation fallacy'.

'Barnum Statements' are generalised phrases which seem personal and hence make use of the Forer Effect.

Examples include:

"I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don't know very well."
"You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house."
"You had an accident when you were a child involving water."
"You're having problems with a friend or relative."
"Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen."

Links to:

Forer BR (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 44, 118-123.

Pictures/Props: Bertrand Forer/ Mystic Meg/ Crystal Ball


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