The Barnum Effect

This week Ed and I were talking about the effects of persuasion and how people can seem to gullibly and just believe anything. I was explaining about the Barnum effect. Barnum was the great circus master who was into the concepts of illusion and fooling the audience into believing that what they were seeing was real.

The Barnum effect can be seen in sales, marketing, politics and propaganda.  My favourite are the horoscopes read by millions across the world. The magic is that because our imagination creates a filter that limits our perception to whatever it is that we expect to experience we will see whatever we want to in a horoscope prediction. Two different people looking at the same horoscope with exactly the same words will both get completely different meanings and understanding. This is because we, as observers, dictate what we experience, we create our experience. So that someone who wakes up in the morning expecting to have a bad day will, inevitable, have a bad day because they will pay attention to the bad things and miss the good things. The same is true the other way around with someone expecting the positive.

When we read the horoscope we see what we expect to see. We create the meaning that is relevant to us. We have decided what this is before we read it. The Barnum effect is neutral. We see what we expect to see.

While it might be said that we tend to accept statements  about ourself that resonate with how we feel, it is also true that some Barnum statements are 99% likely to hit the spot. “You like people to accept and like you.” Well unless you set out to create bad impression this is probably true for most people. 

We can all feel the martyrdom of self imposed stress and feel that we are the only person who is really doing the job. “Sometimes you give too much of your self.”

We like to be popular, we like people to like us, “Sometimes you can be more outgoing and a good people person, but there are times when you prefer be more quiet.”

Very few people really look after themselves properly. “You can be your own worst critic.”

These Barnum phrases are everywhere. When the car sales says “Well I can see that you are a discerning person, you will really appreciate ….” they are playing to the Barnum effect. Those that seek to manipulate us will use such phrases, often flattery so that we let our guard down.

But it’s not all bad. It can be enjoyable to be complimented even when it is not strictly true. My advice is read your horoscope and get what you want from it. At the same time enjoy it when some one is playing to your vanity, just stay awake to what it is that they are doing.

Take care

Sean x