“You’re an independent thinker.”
“You seem very intuitive.”
“You’ve got a sharp sense of humor.”
“You’re a good judge of character.”
“You’re not living up to your full potential.”
Seems relatable? Well, as a matter of fact, every individual who will ever come across such a set of statements will find it relatable to his or her own self. The people targeted by such flattery suggestions are likely to fall for it. In other words, they are likely to think the lines are genuine and that they apply to them (whether they do or not). Why wouldn’t they? These ideas apply to all of us, especially from our own perspectives. These personalized yet generic statements are the offspring of what is known as the ‘Barnum Effect’.
Barnum effect is a psychological concept that occurs when people believe that general descriptions are accurate descriptions that relate to them. This occurs most commonly when describing personality traits. It comes from the 19th century American P.T. Barnum (you probably know who he is from the Hugh Jackman starred The Greatest Showman movie). He said that a “sucker is born every minute” – people are gullible and want to believe what they’re told, so they’ll think general sweeping statements are exclusively about themselves.
The science behind this magnificent concept is was studied as the cognitive bias stems by Professor Bertram R. Forer born in 1914, who was an American psychologist. His paper “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility” brilliantly elucidates on the scientific aspect of this effect. We’ve seen this trick being used for years with psychics, magicians, palm readers, horoscopes and now on digital media platforms. Major social media and digital platforms use this technique to showcase as if the user has a personalized relation with that platform. Music and podcast app Spotify’s automatically generated generic “your daily mix” playlist is a perfect example of this effect which attracts the user with a “personalized” experience. Another product which banks on this psychological effect is the famous Fortune Cookie. Each cookie has a generic statement which people believe to be a description of their future life events. Worth more than 30 billion dollars, the Astrology and numerology industry primarily flourishes on this concept only.
Labeled as the most manipulative persuasion technique, elements of the Barnum Effect can be useful in online CRO and marketing strategies. Personalization campaigns, for example, can use ‘generalities’ (messaging to audience segments) to make customers feel like they’re being interacted with on a one-to-one basis at an individual level. There’s a well-tested idea that people do business with people they like. Barnum effect puts an end to the struggle to find a specific business-related compliment to woo a potential business contact. Saying something generic like “I think first impressions count for a lot, and you guys come across as being well on top of your game” not specific is likely to have the same effect as a specific one.
So how do you avoid falling prey to this phenomenon? Studies suggest a good rule of thumb is to think about your worst enemy. Does the same trait that’s supposed to describe you also describe them? Do they also experience “some alternation of happy and unhappy moods” and “have a great need for other people to like and admire” them?
If they do, the statement is probably too general to be useful to you — and whoever is delivering the description probably thinks they have a “sucker” on their hands making you a gullible prey to their sweet talk. All in all the Barnum effect can help you stay vigilant against fake hopes the horoscopes give and also help one to climb the corporate ladder, winning hearts.