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Barnum's Bewitching Phenomenon

Have you ever ordered Chinese take-out just for the fortune cookie, hoping it might offer you desperately needed words of wisdom? Or, have you flitted through the newspaper trying to pretend that you don’t care about the horoscope section but still nonchalantly read it? It’s not news that our fortunes are not tailor-made for us, nor are the Buzzfeed quizzes that we take online, but still, we find them extremely relatable. Such is the bewitchment of Barnum statements.

The effect got its name from Paul Meehl, a psychologist and one of the former presidents of the American Psychological Association. Back in 1956, Meehl published an essay titled, ‘Wanted - A Good Cookbook’, where he christened the phenomenon Barnum Effect after PT Barnum, not in appreciation but more to make others aware of this logical fallacy. PT Barnum was one of the most famous showmen of his times. His success was all thanks to his impressive marketing skills that were mostly exaggeration and lies but attracted thousands to his circus and museum.


The Barnum effect is our tendency to think that general vague descriptions about our personality are actually made specifically for us. Bertram Forer discovered this effect in 1948 after he conducted an experiment with college students to see how it works. He found out that the fake individualised descriptions he made were found to be accurate in the eyes of the students.


Whenever this effect comes into play, there is a receiver and there is a source. To put it simply, there is a seller of an idea and there is a consumer of the said idea. To know the effect more in depth, let’s first see how consumers get caught up in this marketing trap.


Seeking Validation Through Personality Quizzes


At 1 a.m. in the morning, when you’re slipping into the “Who am I? What is my purpose?” mode, tarot card readers and personality tests would be your go to solution. The idea that a stranger (human or bot) can predict our future or pin-point our subtle behavioural traits is what drives us to take these quizzes.

If you have ever taken the viral ‘16Personalities’ test online based on the extensive Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), you would’ve probably gotten an accurate description of your key traits. Though these tests are only to understand ourselves better, for the sake of critiquing let's look at two opposite personality types in the test. If you get the ISFJ (Introverted, Sensing, Feeling and Judging) personality type, then you’re described as warm, practical, and sensitive but also someone who avoids confrontation and dislikes change. In apparent contrast, the ones with an ENTP (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) personality are innovative, enjoy debating and value knowledge but also dislike routines, are unfocused and insensitive. Clearly, the ISFJ and ENTP don’t match but both can apply to an individual if they wish so. Looking at the big picture, our personality is an amalgamation of all sorts of traits from different personality types. Thus, it becomes very easy to accept assessments of personality quizzes because almost all of them apply to us.


A Mind Game Of Compliments And Fortunes


What makes us vulnerable to Barnum statements? Are some people more susceptible? Researchers have had very limited success with trying to find a certain type of people or certain characteristics that make people more gullible. This means that any person who identifies with certain feedback can fall for the fake Barnum statements.


For people who like to be complimented, Barnum statements can easily be accepted without thought because these statements are self-enhancing, however unoriginal and vague. Studies also show that insecurity in an individual raises their acceptance rate. The Pollyanna principle (also called positivity bias) makes people more accepting of favourable and positive statements instead of relatively negative statements, as they make us feel better about our image.

Cold-reading psychics and performing mentalists use the Barnum effect to give the appearance of having supernatural abilities. Psychology considers pseudo-scientific beliefs (like astrology) and paranormal beliefs as causal illusions. A causal illusion would be thinking that the stars’ position is responsible for your bad day, but in actuality, it is unrelated. These illusions hamper our critical thinking and make it easy for us to get manipulated. So, people who already believe in supernatural powers and spiritualism, are more susceptible to accepting the fortunes and readings sold to them.


Marketers: Marketing Their Way To Your Heart


With the internet now reaching almost all parts of the world, it has become easier to collect data about people and their preferences, and use this information to create a personalized world for each. The Barnum effect is a powerful tool wielded by marketers.

The product recommendations you get on your Instagram are almost perfectly curated for you. If you’ve seen ad posts captioned “Have you ever felt the need to be free and walk through quiet fields? Then our cottage stay is just what you’re looking for”, they contain hidden Barnum statements. These may seem harmless, but it’s interesting to see how the caption alone plants a seed in our head to know more about the place and live out our cottagecore, field running dreams. Instead of depending on the technique of persuasion, here marketers rely on a consumer’s personal validation. Most of us want to take a break and relax in a quiet place; this does not apply to just one person but it feels like it does.


Words hold power; in some studies conducted, it was found that a mere use of the words “for you” in a statement, made people think it was an accurate description of themselves than when the words were not included. By addressing people individually and giving them an illusion that you know them personally, makes people let their guard down. Spotlighting a person who is otherwise insecure, makes them feel noticed and important. Through this, brands are able to form a personal (in the eyes of the consumer) connection and retain their customers - driving their sales up.


Danger That Is Seemingly Harmless


Our susceptibility is decided by our awareness, causal illusions and insecurities. We have a certain inclination to be validated by an external force not in our control. Even when we know that the astrology meme posts on twitter are just some random person's perceptions about what an Aquarius likes and what a Capricorn hates, we still identify with it and it makes us feel like we are part of something. It can only be dangerous when we let it interfere with our decision making, hampering our daily lives in the process.


Brands manipulating customers surely seems unethical, especially when it spreads misinformation and drains someone’s money. The surefire way to not be swindled though is by doing what training therapists are taught. Psychology students are taught to develop their critical thinking skills and identify the causal illusions and cognitive biases they hold to make more accurate interpretations. So, by identifying your own vulnerabilities, you can too escape being bewitched by the Barnum statements!


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