#14: The Forer Effect

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You are a social person, but you also like to recharge and rejuvenate alone. You work hard and have fun, but you often take on more than you can handle. You care about your health and fitness, but you could be doing more. There are parts of your life that deserve more attention than you're currently giving them. There's something you've been worried about lately - let go and let live!

Does that sound like you?

We tend to give high accuracy ratings to personality and value descriptions that we believe are written ‘just for us’, when they are typically vague and general enough to apply to anybody. This is known as the Forer effect, or Barnum effect, in Psychology.

This is in large part why ‘paranormal’ beliefs such as astrology and horoscopes, fortune telling, aura reading and Buzzfeed personality tests have such widespread acceptance. The Forer Effect is a specific example of the acceptance phenomenon which describes our tendency to accept almost any (bogus) feedback with regard to our personalities. We are particularly predisposed to do so when these descriptions are positively inclined, or at least sympathetically framed as being ‘understandable’. We’re far less inclined to rate accurately a description of us as being “a very stubborn person who seriously loses their temper as soon as something goes wrong”, though arguably just as many of us are likely to be so.

When we read a horoscope, for example, perhaps without realising or intending it, our minds are predisposed to actively seek out correlations between its contents and our own personalities, beliefs, thoughts and experiences. As these descriptions are typically vague and generic, there is far greater room for our projecting and personalising their content to apply to ‘unique’ and ‘individual’ us.

The Forer Effect takes its name from Psychologist Bertram Forer who conducted a canonical experiment in 1948 in which he asked some of his students to ‘reveal’ their personalities by filling in missing words in a series of phrases. A week later each student was given an individualised personality sketch ‘tailored to their results’, which in reality were identical descriptions, and asked to rate their accuracy (much like you would have done if you completed our Gravity Personality Test).

The description they received read as follows:

You have a great need for others to like and admire you, but you tend 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. 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 acceptance others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, 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

Doesn’t this sound like you? Bear in mind that this would have been given once asking some pretty revealing questions, and by an internationally respected Psychologist. Also consider that this ‘individualised sketch’ was drawn from that day’s horoscopes in the local newspaper. Forer’s descriptions received an average accuracy rating of 4.26 out of 5, an 84% degree of accuracy. Our demonstration, though using a much smaller sample, elicited an 87.5% accuracy rating among participants.

In a second demonstration of the Forer effect, Forer got another group of students to complete a well-respected and credible personality assessment within the field. Forer gave each student both their accurate assessment and another ‘fake’ assessment written in vague generalities and given to every student as their substitute. 59% of the sample chose of the ‘fake’ assessment over their accurate results.