Posted in Psychology

Barnum Effect: “Something For Everyone”

For this week’s blog post I will talk about the Barnum Effect, its cognitive effects and biases.

“At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved”. If this sentence describes you then you fall victim to the Barnum effect, as does most the population.

The Barnum effect or as it can be known as the Forer effect is a cognitive effect that is seen in media and social living. The oxford university press defines the Barnum effect as “The tendency to accept certain information as true, such as character assessments or horoscopes, even when the information is so vague as to be worthless”.

This cognitive hoax was created by P.T Barnum who was a 19th century circus showman who coined the term “A sucker born every minute”. This effect although created in the 1800’s still is used in current life as it is used in horoscopes, fortunes, and psychics, mind readers, personality tests and other popular forms of predicting ones’ personality.

The cognition behind the Barnum effect has to do with a few cognitive aspects. One reason for the effectiveness of the Barnum effect has to do with memory specifically one’s internal memory storage, where we tend to have a larger memory about ourselves compared to others and so when given a vague statement, we implicitly scan our long-term memory to find behavioral reasoning to apply to the statement making it appear true.

Another plausible reason for the internal acceptance of vague statements is based on the source of information. People are more likely to believe given information if it comes from a reliable source or a source that has previous experience at being accurate.

This for example can be applied to an experimenter with a professional demeanor, or someone who believes in superstition, good luck, or fortune can believe the statements from a psychic, mind-reader, a newspaper horoscope or a Facebook personality test. The idea behind this theory is motivation or the history or reliability of the source of information. This is more steadily applied when the information is deemed more positive than negative, this I believe is based on the idea that as humans we are optimistic about ourselves, and our future. This is represented by a couple of cognitive biases such as Social desirability bias, which is a tendency to answer questions with answers that would be deemed as favourable to receive praise or the personal validation effect where you internally validate the individual or source of information which then your acceptance of the statement increase. This is seen in the Milgram experiment and Rosenhan experiment where it showed the power of the authority.

Some researchers think that higher acceptance of bogus statements is due to human gullibility, or that we have a biological need as humans to be sociably acceptable to others, and will intrinsically agree with vague statements that tend to be false.

Other cognitive effects or biases that that coincide with the Barnum effect are the self-serving bias which is a belief in more positive traits and statements than in negative ones, which can either inhibit or increase the Barnum effect.  There is also the confirmation bias where people pay less attention to information that doesn’t’t pertain to them, this is in relation to the notion that we agree with more positive information about ourselves, and so we unconsciously pay less attention to negativity especially about one’s self.

Other cognitive biases that can be represented alongside the Barnum effect is the Placebo effect believing something will work like a medication, which creates an actual effect because of the belief, not the supplement.

For this week’s photograph, I have posted a photo that I believe is a metaphor for the Barnum effect, that when you first look at the photo it appears to be a gorgeous mural, but when you look past image you seen that the mural is just covering up an old brick wall in a run down area. This is similar to the Barnum effect where once you look past the face and go deeper into the actual context, you find something different.


Allum, N. (2010). What makes some people think astrology is scientific? Science Communication, 33(3), 341–366. doi:10.1177/1075547010389819

David, T. (2014). Top Twelve most agreed with statements magic words. Retrieved from

Marks, D. F. (1988). The psychology of paranormal beliefs. Experiential, 44(4), 332–337. doi:10.1007/bf01961272

Oxford University Press. (2017). Barnum Effect. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from Oxford Dictionary,

Rudowicz, E., & Hui, A. (1997). The creative personality: Hong Kong perspective. JOURNAL OF SOCIAL BEHAVIOR AND PERSONALITY, 12(1), 139–157.

Snook, B., Cullen, R. M., Bennell, C., Taylor, P. J., & Gendreau, P. (2008). The criminal profiling illusion: What’s behind the smoke and mirrors? Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(10), 1257–1276. doi:10.1177/0093854808321528

Wikipedia (2016a). Social desirability bias. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Wikipedia (2016b). Subjective validation. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Wikipedia (2017). Barnum effect. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from


6 thoughts on “Barnum Effect: “Something For Everyone”

  1. What I find interesting about the Barnum effect is that we are more likely to believe what we want to believe. We are motivated to believe the best about ourselves. A study I found said that when reading these vague phrases that describe us, we are more likely to attribute the “best” most positive phrases to ourselves, and as the level of positivity in the comment declines, they attribute that comment to someone they do not know as well. For example, when given 2 or 3 comments to choose from they would attribute the most desirable description to themselves, and then the least desirable description to a casual acquaintance, versus to themselves or their best friend.

    Johnson, J. T., Cain, L. M., Falke, T. L., Hayman, J., & Perillo, E. (1985). The” Barnum effect” revisited: Cognitive and motivational factors in the acceptance of personality descriptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(5), 1378.


  2. Very good, Kassie! Before I knew about the Barnum effect, I was totally a sucker because I always fell under the Barnum effect. Thank goodness, not anymore. To add to your blog, Forer’s (1949) own explanation for the Barnum effect was in terms of human gullibility. People tend to accept claims about themselves in proportion to their desire that the claims are true rather than in proportion to the empirical accuracy of the claims as measured by some non-subjective standard. This confirms another principle in personality assessment known as the ‘polyanna principle’, which suggests that there is a general tendency to use or accept positive words or feedback more frequently than negative words of feedback. I think I believed in these generalized answers because I am hopeful and have wishful thinking. I WANT to believe that the positive statements are true of me. And I think a lot of people fall under this category. Really though, it’s not our fault, humans are just innately egotistical.


  3. Really a nice read, and interesting stuff. I’m sure we can all personally relate to, or know someone else who, puts great emphasis on things such as horoscopes, and it is interesting to now see why. What I found particularly interesting however, was the phenomena you cited wherein the Barnum effect was either reinforced or cancelled by the self-serving bias. That is, people will rate vague and useless information as non-applicable, if it is not socially desirable. If the information is socially desirable, people are much more inclined to say that it is true of them. I have even found a paper reinforcing such a concept. Wherein participants were far more likely to rate socially desirable statements as true of themselves than not.

    Now this brought up an idea to me and one that I hope you may be able to elaborate on. Is it possible that the self serving bias is the cognitive root for the Barnum effect? Or is there another variable that causes it and the self serving bias merely sifts the info that it applies to. It seems likely that if people have an innate need for validation, it may manifest itself in the Barnum effect wherein they are able to attribute positive values to themselves.


  4. Isn’t this the same effect that lies behind the current deluge of “alternative-facts”? They have no relationship to the truth, they are just the facts people want to hear. Monday, Fox News put out a bulletin that stated that the shooter in the Quebec Mosque massacre was a Morrocan. Just what their followers wanted to hear.


    1. NM. I think with that, it can relate to the idea of self serving bias. but also the news manipulation where you hear a key word and internally fill in the rest based on your knowledge or experience or lack of knowledge and experience which I think can ultimately correlate to stereotypes.


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