The Power of Compliments: Uncovering the Barnum Effect

The Barnum, or Forer, Effect has been used by many fraudsters to separate the gullible from their money.
Christopher McFadden

You are often a little too self-critical and insecure, but will defend yourself when needed! How about "You're a human being, with various thoughts and feelings that sometimes contradict." 

Did we get it right? Welcome to the Barnum Effect.

In the following article, we'll take a look at what this effect is and why it is so effective.


What is the Barnum Effect and what are some examples?

You may, or may not, have heard of the Barnum Effect, but chances are you've been the victim of it at some point in your life. The underlying 'mechanics' of it has been used by faith healers, psychics, astrologers and salesmen for millennia. 

The Barnum Effect also called the Forer Effect, is a term in psychology that describes how easily people can be fooled by positive personal descriptions.  The onus here is on the description's apparent accuracy with regard to an individual's unique and different character.

But, as anyone who has ever read a horoscope knows, the descriptions are often generic and could easily apply to your neighbor or distant cousin. The effect shows that people are often fooled by positive statements about them despite the fact that it could equally apply to anyone else.

Its name is commonly attributed to the famous showman P. T. Barnum who is best known for promoting celebrated hoaxes and founded the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He is also famed for once saying "a sucker is born every minute". 

Its other name, the Forer Effect, is named after the psychologist Bertram Forer who was one of the first to study this very same effect. He realized it was surprisingly easy to fool people with vague positive descriptions about themselves

To do this, Forer conducted a very 'sneaky' experiment. He gave personality tests to psychology students and then asked them how accurate the results were. 

The only catch was that each student was given exactly the same result irrespective of their own unique answers. 

Amazingly the vast majority of students thought the generic descriptions were perfect or very close to being correct. This was the Barnum, or Forer, Effect in action. 

Some examples of the description given included (do any of them apply to you?): 

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- You have a great need for other people to like and admire you,

- You have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage,

- Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside,

- You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations,

- You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept other statements without satisfactory proof,

- You have a tendency to be critical of yourself,

- At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing,

- At times you are extroverted, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved, and;

- While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

As you can see, if you weren't aware of the fact these were generic you might well believe them yourselves.

barnum effect zodiac
Source: Numerology Sign

It is still used on undergraduate psychology students today and is commonly employed by salesmen the world over. 

"The moral of the Barnum Demonstration: Self-validation is no validation. Do not be fooled by a psychic, quack psychotherapist, or a phony faith healer who uses this trick on you! Be skeptical and ask for proof. Keep your money in your wallet, your wallet in your pocket, and your hand on your wallet." - psych.fullerton.

Why does the Barnum effect work?

It is important to understand that this effect only works if the statement is positive or complementary in nature. If feedback is negative, even if slightly critical, respondents tend to be more skeptical. 

It truly does feed your ego

Statements like "You often think of hurting people who do things you don’t like” tend to be rated as very inaccurate or irrelevant. But if we are being honest, this is probably as equally as true as saying "You are a very strong person". 

The reason the kinds of statements above work is because they are complementary and generic. People love to be complimented and the generic nature of them tends to mean people are less likely to be critical of them.

Researchers at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences, Nagoya Institute of Technology, and the University of Tokyo, among other Japanese institutions, may have found a scientific explanation for why this might be.

Their study found that complements appear to activate the same region of the brain, the striatum, that receiving money does. Their study took 48 adults and required them to perform a simple computer test using a keyboard.

They were split into groups, with one group receiving personalized, individual compliments from one of the administrators. Another group was forced to watch as others received the compliments but received none themselves.

The Power of Compliments: Uncovering the Barnum Effect
Source: Unsplash

The third group was asked to evaluate how they did, as participants, on the test.

The next day, all participants were asked to perform the same task again. Amazingly, those who received complements outperformed all other groups. 

According to one of the study authors, Norihiro Sadata, the reason is fairly simple: 

"To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We've been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. There seems to be scientific validity behind the message 'praise to encourage improvement'. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation."

But it is important to realize this study was performed on Japanese participants and so it might not provide the same results in other cultures. 

The Power of Compliments: Uncovering the Barnum Effect
Source: Unsplash

What is a cold reading psychic?

One industry that the Barnum Effect is widely used is psychic 'Cold Reading'. This is a set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums, illusionists (readers), and scam artists to imply that they know a lot more about you than they possibly could.

Such practitioners would have you believe that, without knowing anything about you, they can quickly reveal a great deal of information about you. 

They use a variety of techniques from generic statements to analyzing your body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. 

Cold reading results tend to employ a lot of high-probability guesses that are driven by the subject's responses. This lets the 'reader' know they on the right track and reinforces the use of other chance connections. 

They also tend to quickly maneuver away from missed guesses without the respondee having time to realize what is going on. Psychologists believe that this work because of a combination of the Forer effect and confirmation biases within people.

It is used to great effect by famous illusionists like Derren Brown. Derren, for example, is one of the few illusionists who focus on educating the general public about some of the techniques used to 'fool' them, like the Barnum Effect.

Whilst it might feel nice to receive compliments if it might result in you spending some money try to be a little more skeptical. But, of course, "You're the kind of person who'd spot a con a mile off", right?. 

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