THE FORER EFFECT: WHY HOROSCOPES ALWAYS HAVE IT

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The Forer effect (also called subjective validation effect, or Barnum effect) is a phenomenon according to which everyone, faced with any profile that he believes refers to him, tends to identify with it, considering it precise and accurate, without realizing that that profile is vague and generic enough to fit a very large number of people.

According to Forer, providing a person with a description of their personality in the form of a short, very vague, and generic text with not entirely absurd sentences, implies that they always recognize themselves in it because, as one can easily guess, these are characteristics extremely superficial and potentially identifiable in each of us. (Forer, 1949) This effect would be strongly influenced by the confirmation bias, i.e. a cognitive bias that sees people move within the sphere of their own beliefs.

In 1948, in order to test this hypothesis, Forer administered the Diagnostic Interest Blank, a personality test, to 39 of his students, at the end of which he provided each of the participants with a personality analysis as a result of the performed test. He asked the students not to confront each other and to keep their assessment private. (Forer 1949) Thankfully they complied with the request, because all evaluations were identical and consisted of the following sentences:

  • You have a great need to be liked and admired by others;
  • You show a tendency to criticize yourself;
  • You have a large amount of unused talents, which you have not been able to exploit to your advantage;
  • When you feel some weakness you are easily able to compensate for it;
  • Your sexual maturation presented critical issues;
  • Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be internally insecure and preoccupied;
  • Sometimes you have serious doubts and wonder if you are making the right decision or doing the right thing;
  • When you are surrounded by restrictions and limits you feel dissatisfied, you prefer change and complexity;
  • You pride yourself on having your own ideas and do not accept other people’s statements unless supported by satisfactory evidence;
  • You have found yourself being careless, talking too openly about yourself with others;
  • At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, distrustful and reserved;
  • Some of your inspirations tend to be unrealistic;
  • Safety is one of your goals in life

After reading each personal description, Forer invited the students to rate the received profile from 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) based on an evaluation of the adequacy of the judgment. The mean was 4.26. (Dickson & Kelly, 1985) Only at the end of the experiment did Forer reveal to the students that they had all been given the same psychological profile, completely independent of the test results. In fact, the phrases used in compiling the “universal” profile were formulated from an astrology magazine. With this experiment he tried to demonstrate that individuals faced with a generic description of personality tend to adapt it to them without realizing that it could be adapted to many other people. Thus, the Forer effect has provided a partial explanation for the widespread use of some pseudosciences such as astrology and divination, as well as some personality tests. (French, 1991)

Consequences in society

The Forer effect is exploited by many categories in society without even realizing it. A striking example is that of advertising. In marketing, for example, a personalized message “made especially for you” attracts the consumer and gives him a need he didn’t have before, making a product perfectly in line with his personality necessary, or so the buyer believes. Even politics uses subjective validation to create slogans aimed at a specific target, though in reality they are nothing more than content suitable to everyone. In this way the voter feels involved and involved in public life, making the concepts his own in the moment preceding the vote. (Hamilton, 2001)

In an era in which there is more and more information to manage, it is even easier to stumble upon contradictions that we cannot explain on our own. Justifying this logical void with crass motivations saves us time and headaches, in fact, generic statements provide shortcuts that allow the mind to resolve the cognitive dissonance between conflicting trends in our personality.

The continuous search for a favourable response is a mechanism that is not easy to get rid of, making us fall into cognitive traps like this. Therefore, it is up to the attentive and rational reader not to settle for a trivial explanation and emerge from the vortex of pseudoscience.

Di Selene Amonini

selene.amonini01@icatt.it

Bibliography

Dickson, D. H. e Kelly, I. W., The Barnum effect in personality assessment: a review of the literature. Psychological Reports, vol. 57, 1985, pp. 367-382. 

Forer B.R. The fallacy of personal validation: a classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 44, 1949, pp. 118-123. 

French, C. C., Fowler, M., McCarthy, K. e Peers, D., Belief in astrology: a test of the Barnum effect, in Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 2, 15ª ed., 1991, pp. 166-172.  

Hamilton M. Who believes in astrology? Effect of favorableness of astrologically derived personality descriptions on acceptance of astrology. Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 31, 2001, pp. 895-902.

Sitography

Effetto Forer (1948) di Bertram R. Forer – Esperimenti di Psicologia (stateofmind.it)

https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effetto_Forer

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