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The Barnum Effect: What is It and 5 Ways to Overcome It?


Did your last fortune cookie have a statement that felt like it was made just for you? I had one this weekend that said, “You are going to have great success next year.”

It’s tempting to want to believe these types of statements are individualized to you, but this is the Barnum effect taking hold of your mind. The Barnum effect can unfortunately place you at risk of being manipulated by external sources and believing statements that don’t serve you. You can learn to see through these generalizations and take control of your own destiny.

This article will help you identify the Barnum effect and learn tricks to help avoid letting vague statements inappropriately influence your mind.

What is the Barnum effect?

The Barnum effect is a fancy name for a psychological concept that says we tend to believe generalized statements that could apply to anyone are specifically designed for us.

It’s important to understand that the Barnum effect is related to ambiguous statements. Because there are times when someone is giving you information with your individual needs in mind.

More times than not, the person implementing the Barnum effect is trying to influence your behavior or receive your money in exchange for general advice that could apply to anyone.

And while sometimes the Barnum effect can be spun to inspire us, it’s important to recognize when someone is inappropriately skewing your view of your reality.

What are examples of the Barnum effect? 

At this point, you’re probably wondering where you come across the Barnum effect in the real world. You might be surprised to find that you encounter this effect more than you know.

A common example of the Barnum effect can be found in things like horoscopes. With a simple Google search, you can find a horoscope regarding your love life, your career, or anything else you can imagine.

When you read these statements from Dr. Google, they are usually broad statements that your brain twists into believing were meant to find you. You may then go about changing your behavior or perceptions based on this information if you’re not careful.

Now I’m not saying that horoscopes are bad. I’m just saying that if it can apply to anyone, you may not want to go about assuming it is specific to you and your circumstances.

Another place where we often become a victim of the Barnum effect is personality tests. Scroll Facebook for five minutes and you’re bound to find a link to a test that claims to pinpoint your personality after answering some questions.

When you read the results, you may find yourself thinking, “Wow-that sounds just like me!”. Once again, I’d caution you to look at the results critically. Because in reality, what are the odds that one survey of questions can really identify millions of individuals' unique personality traits?

It only takes a few questions to start to realize that what you may have thought was made for you may have been made for everyone.

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Studies on the Barnum effect

When you learn of the Barnum effect, it’s easy to think that you won’t fall prey to it. Unfortunately, the research indicates otherwise.

A study in 2017 found that participants who took a personality test believed that the interpretations of their answers were highly accurate. And there was no difference between males and females indicating that we’re all subject to the Barnum effect.

Researchers have also found that we tend to be more prone to believe astrological-based interpretations related to ourselves than non-astrological interpretations. This was the case even when the interpretations were practically the same

And in addition to trusting astrological interpretations, the same study found that we’re more likely to consider positive interpretations of ourselves as accurate when compared with negative interpretations.

It’s as though we only believe what we like to hear. I also find it fascinating that we have some strange sense of trust in astrology compared to non-astrological sources when it comes to our personalities and futures.

How does the Barnum effect impact your mental health

So how does this concept of believing vague generalizations about yourself impact your mental health?

Research indicates that if you believe generalizations about your personality based on a simple test, it has the potential to both serve and harm you depending on your interpretation.

If your personality test says you are a genius, the Barnum effect could take hold and you may develop self-confidence that propels you forward in life. 

On the other hand, if your results indicate you are terrible with relationships, this might cause you to self-sabotage every romantic relationship you have.

I can recall a specific time in my life when the Barnum effect directly impacted my mental well-being. I was in college and had a good friend who was big into astrology and horoscopes.

She told me one week that the moon was in retrograde and for my horoscope sign this meant I was out of alignment. She essentially forecasted that it would be a stressful week full of mishaps.

I, being the gullible college student I was, thought she was probably onto something. I had a big test coming up and interpreted her findings to mean that I was going to bomb it. I literally stressed about it the whole week knowing that her interpretation was probably going to come true.

Well, guess what happened on test day? I got a flat tire on the way to the test and was flustered, so I ended up not doing well on the test.

Looking back, I can see that I created so much unnecessary mental stress in my life that week because I thought what she was telling me was specific to me. It seems ludicrous, but these vague interpretations can impact your sense of self-confidence and mindset if you let them.

5 ways to overcome the Barnum effect

If you’re ready to look at those Facebook quiz results and horoscopes through the lens of a skeptic, then these tips were created just for you.   

1. Ask yourself this one question

Whenever I encounter information regarding my personality or depicting my future, I ask myself this one question. The question is this, “Could this apply to anyone?”

If the answer is yes, odds are the data is so broad and vague that you shouldn’t believe it to be true.

Just the other day, I was watching an Instagram reel where the girl said something like, “I know you’re struggling with money and feel like you’re burnt out.” For a moment I thought to myself, “Wow-this person is talking about me.”

As the video kept rolling, I realized that this person was trying to reach a large audience and this data could apply to just about anyone. None of the information was specific to me or my circumstances.

They were just making blanket statements to draw in a large crowd for their product. Had I believed this person was directing a specific message for me, it would have been easy to then purchase their program and feel I needed their services.

It was definitely smart marketing, but using my one question saved me and my wallet from falling into the trap.

2. What is not being said?

Sometimes in order to beat the Barnum effect, you have to identify what is not being said. In other words, ask yourself, “Does the message or interpretation lack specificity?”.

I took a personality quiz a few years back that came back with results saying I was a “do-er”. The interpretation told me that a “do-er” is someone who takes initiative, but also someone who likes to have control.

As I read the description, I felt it was relatable but quickly realized that all the statements were descriptions of personality traits that many people shared. There was nothing specific listed.

Many people struggle with control. Many people take initiative.

It never said anything about my specific interests. That’s when it hit me that it was a ploy to get me to interact with more advertisements on the website’s page.

If there’s nothing specific in the interpretation or results, that’s because it’s not specifically designed with you in mind.

3. What is the source?

Anytime someone tells you something about yourself, you need to look at the source.

Is the source a retweeted personality quiz or is the source a guidance counselor with years of experience? If you make a life decision based on an online personality quiz, you may want to rethink your decision.

The source of the information makes all the difference because if it’s not a trustworthy source you can immediately disregard it.

If a random online ad said, “You’re going to be a billionaire tomorrow!” you would probably laugh and move on. But if your financial advisor tells you the same thing, you would probably have a completely different reaction.

4. Make sure all the information isn’t “happy go lucky”

Another test to make sure you’re not just reading some bogus interpretation is to make sure the source has a fair amount of both positive and negative feedback.

If you’re reading a series of horoscopes and each one indicates that you’ll fall in love and have a happily ever after, you might want to raise an eyebrow.

Not to be a Debbie downer, but not everything in life is going to be positive. If something is giving you useful feedback about your life and future, there needs to be a yin and yang type of balance. It's why happiness can't exist without the occasional episode of sadness.

I remember going to a palm reader years ago who told me many claims, all of which were positive. And while every inch of me really wanted to believe her, it was evident that she wasn’t a legitimate source.

Check for a balance of both good and bad information when it comes to your sources to make sure they aren’t just fluff.

5. Test out the claim with multiple people

Another surefire way to assess if a source is taking advantage of the Barnum effect is to test the claim with multiple people.

Remember my college friend who was into astrology and horoscopes? When we would hang out in groups, she would insist on sharing people’s horoscopes with them.

It only took a few instances of having multiple Sagittarius or any other sign to realize that not everyone agreed with their descriptions.

There was one of the girls who was a Sagittarius, which apparently is supposed to mean you’re outgoing and adventure-seeking. This girl was literally the opposite. She hated adventures, surprises, and any large social gatherings.

In the same way, you need to ask if this can apply to anyone, you may need to see if there are folks who directly oppose their own results. Because if it applies to everyone or if there are folks who it just doesn’t work for, you can rest assured that the Barnum effect is to blame.

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Wrapping up

It’s tempting to want an external source to help you understand yourself or predict your future. But that external force will probably use the Barnum effect to its advantage. And while there’s nothing wrong with horoscopes and personality quizzes, it’s important to use the tips from this article to avoid letting them influence your life in a major way. Because you, and only you, can determine who you are and what your future holds.

Can you remember when you were last impacted by the Barnum effect? How did it go? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Ashley Kaiser

Writer

Physical therapist, writer, and outdoor enthusiast from Arizona. Self-proclaimed dark chocolate addict and full-time adrenaline junkie. Obsessed with my dog and depending on the day my husband, too.

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