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The Forer Effect

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Subjective Validation

The Forer Effect (also called the Barnum Effect or Subjective Validation Effect) refers to the tendency to accept vague or general statements as being very personal and accurate. The Forer Effect is a serious consideration in hand analysis, for both the professional and client.

Psychologist Bertram R. Forer ran a series of tests in which he gave people a personality profile and asked them to rate its accuracy. Forer actually gave each person the exact same profile, with statements like:

  • You have a need for other people to like and admire you
  • You tend to be critical of yourself.
  • At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision.
  • You become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  • At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved.
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
The test was repeated many times, with an average of about 85% of people rating the personality profile as very accurate. Remember that each person received exactly the same profile as everyone else.

The Forer Effect can explain why so many "pseudosciences" continue to flourish, despite having a questionable validity. When a person starts off with hope or expectation that the astrology, biorhythm, rune stones, tarot, (or hands) will reveal "special" details about them, they're much more ready to believe the words and advice. Something general is mentioned, and the information is taken as specific and personal. This seems to be just another part of human nature, but a tendency we need to be aware of.

For psychics and other new age professionals, this means that the wonderfully positive feedback received from numerous repeat clients could still be nothing more than the Forer Effect and wishful thinking. And then the more you hear how good you are, the more you believe it, and the more practice you get at giving readings that produce the same positive feedback (like, perhaps 85% or so....). This is the Subjective Validation Effect. Theoretically, you could be harming every client and yet believe you were doing Divinely inspired work.

Now that I've just offended nearly every believer and psychic reader out there, let's take a look at the other side of the Forer Effect. In my experience, the real hard-core skeptics are just as fanatical (and biased, judgemental, self-certain, etc.) as the more extreme religious zealots. It's just a different "faith". In much the same way that new age professionals are vulnerable to believing inaccurate information due to the Forer Effect, skeptics are just as prone to their own biased perceptions.

A real skeptic (like me when I first studied palmistry) can look for any bit or phrase that can be interpreted as too general, and then reject the entire field of study. Not everything is due to the Forer Effect. If you go to your doctor and hear him say "You need to examine your habits with diet and exercise, because you are damaging your health with your present body weight.", does that physician's diagnosis get dismissed along with the entire field of orthodox medicine? Even advice that is exact and specific for one individual can often be interpreted as loosely applying to many people. Thus the Forer Effect does not disprove the accuracy of any field - It only establishes that people share many personality traits, one of which is in being rather naieve.

Personally, I first got into hand analysis as a complete skeptic and disbeliever. The problem was, I began really searching for statistical proof that all palmistry was nothing more than superstitious garbage for the weak-minded. And by proof I mean real, statistical, scientific method kind of proof. At first glance the Forer Effect seems to give exactly the evidence needed to expose palm reading as a mere scam, but on deeper examination it does not actually disprove the accuracy of any "pseudoscience". As far as hand analysis specifically, much of the traditional "character reading" and "fortune-telling" parts can indeed be found to take advantage of the Forer Effect (better termed the Barnam Effect here, named after P. T. Barnam), but there is much more to the hands than just personality profiles. (The fingerprint combinations, for example.)

Read more on the Forer Effect at The Skeptic's Dictionary.

Article written: August 7, 2005

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