Barnum Effect, Or Will I Ever Find My Ramen Patronus?

a vintage poster for Barnum & Bailey circus
Image by Boston Public Library / CC BY

“What kind of ramen are you?” Facebook asks me and then perkily suggests, “Take our quiz to find out!”

“What kind of… ramen am I? ” I wonder.

It had never before occurred to me to ask myself that. It wasn’t as though I’d been frantically pacing the soup aisle at the grocery store, examining the labels, filled with existential angst, asking myself, “Where do fit into all of this? Do I resonate more with beef or chicken? Spicy shrimp?”

Nor had I ever found myself lost in a noodle shop menu, pondering how exactly I’d be served up to customers were the food’s and my positions to be reversed. Hadn’t wondered how popular of an order I’d be. Would I be a house specialty? A seasonal feature? The special they’re trying to unload before the ingredients go bad?

I’d never wondered any of that before. But now I am.

And I’m about to click on the quiz (personal info security be damned!) before I remind myself about Barnum effect.

Barnum Effect (or Forer Effect)

Barnum effect, also called the Forer effect, is the tendency of individuals to see themselves in personality descriptions. This phenomenon occurs even when the descriptions are so vague and generalized that they could apply to basically everyone.

Barnum effect gets its name from the famous businessman P.T. Barnum, who according to legend proudly proclaimed, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Although it’s worth noting there’s no evidence that Barnum ever actually uttered those words, the adage was one commonly spoken by many a conman of Barnum’s age (and every age since). And while Barnum was by his own accounts a consummate “showman,” history has documented him as a purveyor of hoaxes. Or to put it more plainly, a bit of a conman, yeah.

Barnum statements are a common technique used by many in the cold reading business, including mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums, illusionists — and even by straight up scam artists. Targets are often given very generalized assessments of their character, personality, and life, and because of this cognitive bias, our tendency to accept them as applying overly to the target’s life, they are convinced of the reader’s exceptional knowledge or even paranormal powers.

Your Very Own Individualized Personality Report!

In a classic experiment, Bertram Forer administered a personality test to a group of 39 participants and told them that they would receive an individualized report of their test results upon completion. A week later, he indeed delivered those reports but secretly sent the same set of results to all of them. Here’s what he sent them:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  5. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
  6. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  7. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  8. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  9. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  10. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  11. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  12. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Participants were asked to rate how accurate they felt these results were ranging on a scale from 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent).

The average score the test takers gave these reports was 4.3, which indicated an overall feeling that they did indeed find them quite accurate.

To make matters even worse, the statements weren’t part of any assessment at all. They were instead language that Forer had lifted from an astrology book.

Gryffindor, Baby

Now, the ramen test could be fun. But it’ll probably just make me hungry. And it’s unlikely to reveal anything about the deepest darkest reaches of my soul… other than the fact that I love ramen. Which, frankly I knew anyway.

Besides, everyone knows that the only accurate viral quiz out there is the one that tells you which Harry Potter house you’re in. Duh.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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