Barnum Effect: The Psychology Behind the Belief in Astrology

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Barnum Effect: The Psychology Behind the Belief in Astrology

Astrology gives insights and assurances about the future like in the form of zodiac sign reading / Photo by Getty Images


Astrology offers a number of things which many people find very desirable such as the information and assurance about the future. Many people still believe in what their zodiac signs say about them, that sometimes they let it define who they really are. It is their way to be absolved of their current situation and future decisions, as well as a way to feel connected to the entire cosmos. Astrology shares this with many other beliefs which tend to be categorized as “New Age". People nowadays, especially those who enjoy spending time on social media are also fond of taking personality tests that allegedly claim it could determine the hidden personality beyond the person after taking a series of questions.

These beliefs on quizzes and horoscopes are believed to fall under the Barnum effect. The Barnum effect was named after P.T Barnum, a prominent 19th-century showman and businessman known both for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus and his uncanny con artist abilities. In psychology, the Barnum effect is also called the Forer effect which is a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly tailored specifically to them, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.

Meanwhile, Tech Target also added that in the late 1940s, professor Bertram R. Forer, an American psychologist best known for describing the Forer effect and sometimes referred to as subjective validation, conducted a demonstration on his psychology students that shows how the client and the psychologist could be fooled by a poor evaluation tool. In his classic 1948 experiment, Forer administered a personality test to his students and rather than scoring the tests and giving individual assessments, he gave all the students exactly the same analysis copied from a newspaper astrology column.

The Forer effect shows that people tend to accept a generalized description of their personalities without realizing that the same evaluation could apply to nearly anyone else because people want the results to be true. This experiment is frequently cited as criticisms of their personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Should People Believe in Horoscopes?

“In spite of the relative sophistication of society today, people remain a mystery to themselves as well as others and they are always curious to get a bit of insight as to what they’re really like,” says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and faculty at Fielding Graduate University on a web post by NBC News. She also added that people like the idea of having a confirmation about themselves through personality tests and astrology columns that are found all over the internet, newspapers, and magazine.

Likewise, according to Express UK, there is a recent study conducted in 2017 that found out that 70% of the world’s population do not believe in what their zodiac and horoscope signs say about them. However, a psychiatrist named Ben Hayden believes in a research that says that the individual’s birthday has an effect on their personality. He also added that the season in which the person is born could have an effect on the body’s ability to fend off mental and physical ailments.

The Barnum effect is also known as the Forer effect. The famous experiment conducted by professor Forer was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1949. Moreover, phrases that sound specific to the individual but are actually applicable to lots of people are called Barnum statements, after entertainer Phineas Taylor Barnum, whose life and work was the inspiration behind The Greatest Showman movie, which was released last year. This name was coined in 1956 by Paul Meehl in an essay published in the American Psychologist after Meehl became frustrated by what psychologist make for their statements about their patients that could really be applied to anyone.

The brain’s tendency to attach personal meaning to things, and discard anything that doesn’t fit, is something that psychics rely on to convince people they know more than they really do. Psychologist Barry Beyerstein, a critic of graphology, has written that “hope and uncertainty evoke powerful psychological processes that keep all occult and pseudoscientific character readers in business.”

Human beings are by nature reactive. If we were proactive animals, global warming, for one, would not be a contested topic today. A broader range of Americans would be taking steps to counteract the trend. It’s a paralyzing conundrum: those who believe in an invisible deity responsible for the planet’s well-being refuse to ‘believe’ that the planet is getting warmer because they cannot ‘see’ it. Such is the same in astrological idealizing. People can pick out trends that fit on the narrative only after they’ve occurred. Then people write them into the story. False guesstimates are forgotten, or excused as some further plot destined by the stars.


Individual's birthday has an effect on their personality / Photo by Andrea Danti via 123RF




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