The Barnum Effect in Psychology

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  • 0:00 Definition of the…
  • 1:46 Causes of the Barnum Effect
  • 2:32 Forer's Experiment
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
The Barnum effect causes us to see connections where there aren't any and validates things simply because we believe them to be true. In this lesson, you will learn the definition of the Barnum effect and gain insight into how it affects our perceptions.

Definition of the Barnum Effect

About a year ago, a friend convinced me to go to a psychic for a tarot reading. I agreed, but as a steadfast skeptic in all things mystical, I set my expectations very low. Nevertheless, the psychic was entertaining and even provided a tarot reading that was surprisingly accurate and insightful. In most cases, I would have admitted that my skepticism was perhaps misplaced, but as soon as I got out of the building it occurred to me that he hadn't been all that accurate and that I had just experienced the Barnum effect.

The Barnum effect is a type of bias that causes a person to believe that certain things are real or accurate despite the evidence being vague or ambiguous. The concept is named for American showman and circus magnate, P.T. Barnum, who claimed that his sideshows and attractions had something that would appeal to everyone. Barnum's claims drew large crowds, who believed that they would experience something unique, even though they actually had a limited number of attractions.

If you think back to my story about the psychic, there is a rational explanation for my experience. Psychics claim to possess supernatural abilities that allow them to see the future or gain insight into a person's past with little to no information given to them beforehand. This makes the experience seem deeply personal and unique, even though what they really provide is vague and generalizing assessments that could be applicable to most people at one point or another.

For example, if I were to give you a psychic reading, I might ask some basic questions about your life and present problems and then suggest that you feel as though things are out of control or that you fear that you're not making enough money. Because the experience seems personal and the things that I say are probably true, your brain might conclude that I am indeed psychic, even though what I've told you are things that most people feel at one time or another.

Causes of the Barnum Effect

We all like to think that we are in control of our own minds and emotions most of the time and that we could avoid giving in to the kind of bias that causes the Barnum effect. This effect, however, is not entirely conscious, which makes avoiding it incredibly difficult.

The Barnum effect exploits something called subjective validation, which is our brain's tendency to make connections between unrelated things because we already believe that a connection exists. If this is confusing, think of the psychic: you enter into an environment where you are told the experience is specifically for you, but you're given information so vague that it is basically meaningless. Because you already believed that the experience was tailored to you alone, your brain interprets the information as accurate and, therefore, seems to validate the whole experience.

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