Barnum Effect
The Barnum Effect is the name given a psychological process
which some psychologists feel explains why people except
what they term ‘‘pseudoscientific’’ explanations of events. The
process is also called subjective validation effect or the personal
validation effect. In the 1940s, one of the more famous demonstrations
of the Barnum Effect was made by psychologist B. R.
Forer. He gave his class a sophisticated personality but instead
of calculating the results he developed a statement from an astrological
sun-sign column of a local newspaper. In their confidential
psychological report, each student received the following
‘‘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
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Barnum Effect
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.’’
He then asked each student to evaluate their assessment on
a scale of one to five (with one being bad and five being excellent.
He found that the students accepted their evaluation, the
class average being 4.2. Forer assumed human gullibility as the
explanation of the student’s acceptance of the reading. He argued
that a variation of what he demonstrated in his class accounted
for the public’s acceptance of psychic readers and
counselors. His colleagues have argued that his explanation
was limited. Other reasons, ranging from human vanity to an
attempt to make sense of a very chaotic world, were additional
Forer’s test has been repeated numerous times with amazing
similar reports on the results. It has not been applied to more
general audiences. It is a simple and fairly easy test to administer
and calculate results. Other psychologists have offered profiles
of more elaborate tests that would the several hypotheses
that have arisen for Forer’s original test. These generally require
a great deal of additional effort by those running the tests
and no one has as yet followed up on the suggestions.
In like measure, no longitudinal studies have been done on
subjects taking the test to determine what if anything they
might do with the test if the nature of the experiment were kept
from them. Does it in fact simulate what it purports to do, the
mechanism by which a person might visit and accept the words
of a fortune teller Given the rules governing experiments on
human subjects, such tests are not likely to be done by Western
psychologists in the foreseeable future.
Beyerstein, Barry, and Dayle F. Beyerstein, eds. The Write
Stuff – Evaluations of Graphology, the Study of Handwriting Analysis.
Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus Books, 1991.
Dickson, D.H., and I.W. Kelly.’’The ‘Barnum Effect’ in Personality
Assessment A Review of the Literature.’’ Psychological
Reports 57 (1985) 367-382.
Forer, B.R. ‘‘The Fallacy of Personal Validation A Classroom
Demonstration of Gullibility.’’ Journal of Abnormal Psychology
44 (1949) 118-121.

Previous articleBaal Shem Tov (1698–1760)
Next articleBeraud, Marthe