The Clowns in Our Brain: The Forer Effect, AKA The P.T. Barnum Effect

with No Comments

Frown Clown

Maybe you’re into them, maybe you aren’t, however, one thing stays constant: How do we read arbitrary, pseudo-predictive text, like horoscopes, and attribute them to be personal? Do these people have extra perceptive powers? Does the universe really align in this way? Or is it something else? Is it something scientific?


Well, this is what renowned psychologist Bertram R. Forer sought to figure out. And like nearly all psychological studies, it involved a trick. The trick? Convincing people that the results of their personality tests were genuine, rather than a blanket statement about all humanity.


So how did this tomfoolery unfold?


Well, in all groups, Forer promised a vignette of a participant’s personality — which back before all of the free online personality assessments — was a big deal. Only a minority of people had the opportunity to learn something about themselves, let alone something quantified and scientific.


Thus, this created an intrinsic motivator that enticed his subjects.


He then gave them a legitimate personality test, based on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI for short). However, rather than giving them the results, he gave them two sets of results: the real one, and another one, which he gave the same copy of to everyone.


This copy read:


1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.


2. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.


3. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.


4. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.


5. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.


6. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.


7. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.


8. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.


9. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.


10. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.


11. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.Security is one of your major goals in life.



So, did the people choose the real assessment or did they choose the generalized one? Obviously, they chose the real assessment. Nah… just kidding. People aren’t that logical. What really happened was that 59% of people selected the broad, sweeping generalization over the scientific profile. And while 9% isn’t that much of a difference, it does say a lot about people.


For one, we aren’t that dissimilar. Those traits seem to be universal. And two, we easily subscribe to labels if they seem customized to us.


Now, how can we, as entrepreneurs, use this productively? Well, for one, say everything is custom and personalized. Two, make your brand the authority on the subject. According to replicated studies, this only worked because people saw the administrator as being an expert in their field. And third, keep it positive. Notice how all of these traits are never entirely negative (this has been confirmed over and over again in research regarding self serving bias)?


While we are not advocating that you go out and manipulate people into doing things they otherwise wouldn’t, we think this is a powerful tool in nudging people into doing good things. Want people to volunteer for your cause? Say you think they’re a philanthropic person. Want someone to do the things they said they were going to do? Say that they are a dependable person, and give an example.


The possibilities are endless here. Go forth and make the world a more productive place!


Leave a Reply