About you

One person who is reading this post has been on my mind this afternoon. I have good news for you, Reader: things are not as bad as they seem. I know you have financial concerns, but I can assure you that what you need will be provided for you at just the right time. I know you are also worried about a dear one who is ill, but that person is receiving the proper medical care and will improve. I know that you recently had a strong disagreement with someone you love, and that you feel guilty about some of the things you said in the heat of anger. I can tell you that your loved one also regrets things that were said. A few gentle words from you, and an affirmation of your love, will calm the troubled waters of your relationship.

I know a lot about you. You are generally confident, but sometimes can be bewildered by the problems life throws your way. You like and respect most people, but a few kinds of people make you feel agitated and irritable. You are a good person, but not without faults, and you hope you have been able to keep those faults hidden. You aren’t sure how other people feel about you, and sometimes you are embarrassed by things you say or do that may seem peculiar to others. Yet you believe in the right to be yourself, and you do your best to avoid putting on an act for other people.

How do I know these things about you? Let me explain. Earlier today I was reading something on the Internet, and one thing led to another, and I went on an entire chain of interconnected items. One of those items was the Barnum effect (also called the Forer effect). What seems like a personal analysis can be built out of vague statements, combined with mentioning situations that are so common that they apply to almost anyone. When someone you trust tells you something about yourself, it sounds true—especially if the message is positive and comforting. People who experience the Barnum effect are frequently surprised that a stranger knows them so well.

The Barnum effect is used by astrologists and fortune tellers to draw and to keep an audience. It is especially effective in a crowded room, wherein general statements like those I used above produce a response from some of the people in the room. The performer then uses “cold reading” to make more precise statements to those people who respond to the initial statements. Cold reading involves watching a person’s facial expression and body languages to confirm facts about the person that a stranger wouldn’t know. Victims of cold reading are unaware how much information they are revealing during the conversation—they easily forget every wrong guess the performer made, but they remember all the right guesses that seemed to grow more detailed as they unconsciously confirm what the performer is saying.

A famous example of cold reading occurs in the movie The Wizard of Oz when a traveling performer meets Dorothy, gazes into a crystal ball, and tells her things about herself. (He also uses a bit of “hot reading” when he peeks into her purse and sees a photograph of Auntie Em.) His intentions toward Dorothy are kind, as he persuades her to return home. In most cases, people who practice cold reading are taking advantage of gullible people, often for money, but sometimes just to earn their respect and their thanks.

The Barnum effect combines with cold reading to make the performer appear to have genuine knowledge. When we are anxious to hear some good news, we will take the most general of statements and assume they apply uniquely to us. Personality profiles are popular for this reason—I generally am identified by Meyer-Briggs as INTJ, but I don’t really believe that the world’s population can be sorted into only sixteen types of personality. Quite the reverse; I’m convinced that many elements of personality exist, and that most of them flow on a scale rather than existing at one extreme or the other.

That said, I’m fascinated by the number of applications that exist for the Barnum effect. From making friends and influencing people to establishing a career based upon fraud and deception, the possibilities seem almost endless. J.