The Barnum Effect – Revisited 

We have been here before. A time when we are being sold many ideas and philosophies emotional and political. The loonies and psychopaths are in the ascendant with the situations in Ukraine and Palestine. In the UK we are facing elections and across the world economic and climate crises. Around all of these issues, and many more, different power blocks and influential groups are attempting to persuade us to support their point of view. I Russia we have Putin strutting his stuff and in America Trumpy is winding up for another go at the White House and ultimate power.  Unless we stay aware and awake it is so easy for us to be hood winked and conned.

This week Ed and I were talking about the effects of persuasion and how people can seem to gullibly 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, as it is known, 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 from it. 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 and to have a good day.

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 yourself.”

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/enemy.”

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. With this they seek to manipulate us and use such phrases, often flattery, so that we let out guard down.

But it 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 really doing and don’t be conned.

Take care

Sean x

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