- Myth vs Science: How the Forer Effect isn't Normative Science
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July 17, 2023

In the late 1940s, a cunning psychologist named Bertram R. Forer cooked up a crafty experiment, a psychological sleight of hand that would reveal something quite extraordinary about the human mind.

Picture the scene, Forer's students eagerly opening their individual personality reports, penned exclusively for them based on their responses to a personality test. Each one found the report strikingly accurate, scoring it a whopping 4.26 out of 5 on average for accuracy. They felt seen, understood - but there was a catch.

Here's the twist, Forer had given every single student the same report, stitched together from various horoscope readings. His experiment showed how easily we can be fooled into thinking generalized statements are bespoke insights into our individual personalities. This came to be known as the Forer effect, or the Barnum effect, after the legendary showman P.T. Barnum.

Barnum was a master of manipulation, captivating audiences with broad statements that seemed to speak personally to each listener - just like the Forer effect. He's often associated with the quote, "There's a sucker born every minute," summing up the idea that we're all susceptible to believing vague statements are specifically about us. The Barnum effect is often seen in action in pseudosciences like astrology or fortune-telling, where general statements masquerade as personal predictions. Even when the illusion is revealed, many still enjoy or find value in these general 'insights,' just as Barnum's audiences reveled in his grand spectacles.

Forer's experiment showed how we naturally want to find personal significance in broad statements. The man himself put it best, stating: "People tend to accept descriptions that apply to almost everyone as applying specifically to them." We yearn for personal significance and validation, even in the most generic of descriptions.

It's a powerful cognitive bias, demonstrating our tendency to see generic descriptions as personal when they're packaged as tailored insights. The Barnum effect reveals our inclination to connect our experiences and perceptions to broad statements, believing them to be tailored just for us. Imagine cracking open a fortune cookie to read, "You are about to embark on a great experience." Your mind races - could this be referring to your recent career contemplation? You feel a rush of validation, but then you discover everyone at the table has received the same fortune. Does it make it any less relevant? Often, our answer is still no - the Barnum effect hard at work.

But there's a crucial contrast to the Barnum effect; normative measurement. This method, widely used in psychometric assessment, similar to the TTI Assessments that I run, compares individual scores to an average, or 'norm.' It gives genuinely personalized feedback based on a broader context of data, rather than falling into the trap of generalities that the Barnum effect sets.

This contrast is key when evaluating any information or feedback. In education, normative measurement offers a solid foundation for understanding a student's needs and abilities in relation to others, leading to personalized learning plans. The Barnum effect, however, might result in generic recommendations that don't fully address individual needs. In marketing, the Barnum effect is used to make consumers feel uniquely understood, while normative measurement allows for truly personalized experiences based on data about customer behaviors and preferences.

Looking back at Forer's experiment, it's clear that the allure of the Barnum effect can lead us astray, causing us to find personalized significance in generic statements. However, normative measurement provides genuine personalization based on objective data, giving us a more accurate understanding of ourselves. We must discern the comforting but misleading generalizations of the Barnum effect from the valuable, personalized insights of normative measurement. This knowledge helps us navigate the fine line between what makes us feel special and what truly sets us apart.

author avatar
George Morris
I use my 20+ years of entrepreneurial experience and training to coach businesses on scaling up rapidly using Verne Harnish's Scaling Up framework. By doing so, my clients are more efficient and profitable, giving them the ability to make bigger impacts in the world. I deeply believe entrepreneurs are the best equipped to be the vehicle for meaningful change, and in the decade ahead, we'll see a substantial shift in how business is done. We'll move to a model where company purpose, impact, curiosity, and team health will be differentiators in overall business success. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, the finite games are the legacy of the past; we're moving to an infinite game.