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The Forer effect (also called personal validation fallacy or the Barnum effect after P. T. Barnum or gullibility) is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. The Forer effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some pseudosciences, such as astrology, graphology and fortune telling.
In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students, and then gave them a personality analysis, supposedly based on the test's results. He invited each of them to rate the analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) as it applied to themselves: the average was 4.26. He then revealed that each student had been given the same analysis:
- "You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. 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. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. 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."
Forer had assembled this text from horoscopes.
Variables influencing the effect
Later studies have found that subjects give higher accuracy ratings if the following are true
- the subject believes that the analysis only applies to them
- the subject believes in the authority of the evaluator
- the analysis lists mainly positive traits
See (Dickson and Kelly 1985) for a review of the literature.
- Forer, B. R. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118-123.
- Dickson, D. H. and Kelly, I. W. (1985). The 'Barnum Effect' in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature. Psychological Reports, 57, 367-382.
- An autotest
- Online test demonstrating the effect
- Skeptic's Dictionary: the Forer effect
- The Forer effect demonstrated with horoscopes (video, RealMedia format)
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