Why do people believe in graphology and astrology? One possibility is that the interpretations they provide are ‘true.’ They are true because they consist of vague positive generalisations with high base-rate validity, yet are supposedly derived specifically for a named person.

For several decades, psychologists have investigated the ‘Barnum effect’ (sometimes known as the Forer effect). This phenomenon occurs when people accept personality feedback about themselves because it is supposedly derived from personality assessment procedures. In other words, people fall victim to the fallacy of personal validation. People accept the generalisations that are true of nearly everybody to be specifically true of themselves.

Over 60 years ago a psychologist called Stagner gave a group of personnel managers a personality test, but instead of scoring it and giving them the actual answers, he gave each of them bogus feedback in the form of statements derived from horoscopes, graphological analyses and so on. Each manager was then asked to read over the feedback (supposedly derived from him or herself from the ‘scientific’ test) and decide how accurate the assessment was. Over half felt their profile was an accurate description of them, and almost none believed it to be wrong.

The following year a Professor called Forer gave personality tests to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student an identical evaluation. The first three items were: “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you”; “You have a tendency to be critical of yourself”, “You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage”

They were then asked to evaluate the description from 0 to 5, with 5 meaning the recipient felt the description was an ‘excellent’ evaluation and 4 meaning the assessment was ‘good.’ The class average evaluation was 4.26.

Research on the Barnum effect has, however, shown that belief in bogus feedback is influenced by a number of important factors: some to do with the receiver/client and the giver/consultant (for example, their personality, naïveté) and some to do with the nature of the test and feedback situation. One of the most important variables is perceived specificity of the information required. The more detailed the questions (for example, a hororscope based on the year, month and day of birth, rather than one based on the year and month of birth alone) the more likely it is a person will think it pertains to just themselves.

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 be 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 – 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.

Studies have shown that students initially skeptical about astrology were more likely to both accept the personality description it offered them and to increase their belief in astrology as a whole, if that description were favourable. In other words, those for whom astrological theory provides a more attractive self-portrait are more likely to express belief in the validity of astrologers.

Overall there is significant support for the general claim that Barnum profiles are perceived to be accurate by subjects in the studies. Furthermore, there is an increased acceptance of the profile if it is labeled ‘for you.’ Favourable assessments are more readily accepted as accurate descriptions of subjects’ personalities than unfavourable ones. But unfavourable claims are more readily accepted when delivered by people with high perceived status than low perceived status. There is also some evidence that personality variables such as neuroticism, need for approval, and authoritarianism are positively related to belief in Barnum-like profiles.

Hence the popularity of astronomy and graphology: feedback is based on specific information and it is nearly always favourable. In addition, it often the anxious who visit astrologers and the like: they are particularly sensitive to objective information about themselves and the future.

So how do people use the above information to persuade others? Over twenty-five years Hyman (1977) wrote a paper that tried to explain the tricks conmen of one sort or another use to persuade the naive client they know all about them. The article which listed thirteen points (pp26-29) was aimed at palmists, graphologists and the like but is equally applicable to certain rather unscrupulous consultants. The thirteen points are:

1. Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reader is confidence. If you look and act as if you believe in what you are doing, you will be able to sell even a bad reading to most of your subjects. . .

2. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls, and surveys. This can provide you with a wealth of material about what various subclasses of our society believe, do want, worry about, and so on. For example, if you can ascertain about a client such things as the part of the country he comes from, the size of the city he was brought up in, his parents religion and vocations, his educational level and age, you are already in possession of information that should enable you to predict with high probability his voting preferences, his beliefs on many issues, and other traits.

3. Set the stage for your reading. Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. This catches your subject off guard. You are not challenging him to a battle of wits. You can read his character, whether he cares to believe you or not is his concern.

4. Gain his cooperation in advance. Emphasize that the success of the reading depends as much upon his sincere cooperation as upon your efforts. (After all, you imply, you already have a successful career at reading characters. You are not in trial – he is). State that due to difficulties of language and communication, you may not always convey the exact meaning you intend. In these cases he is to strive to reinterpret the message in terms of his own vocabulary and life. . .

5. Use a gimmick, such as a crystal ball, tarot cards, or palm reading. The use of palmistry, say, serves two important purposes. It lends an air of novelty to the reading; but more importantly, it serves as a cover for you to stall and to formulate your next statement. While you are trying to think of something to say next, you are apparently carefully studying a new wrinkle or line in the hand. Holding hands, in addition to any emotional thrills you may give or receive thereby, is another good way of detecting the reactions of the subject to what you are saying (the principle is the same as ‘muscle reading’). . .

6. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue. Even if all you are doing is a cold reading, the liberal sprinkling of stock phrases among your regular reading will add body to the reading and will fill in time as you try to formulate more precise characterisations. You can use the statements in the preceding stock spiels as a start. Memorize a few of them before undertaking your initial ventures into character reading. Palmistry, tarot, and other fortune-telling manuals also are rich sources of good phrases.

7. Keep your eyes open. Also use your other senses. We have seen how to size up a client on the basis of clothing, jewellery, mannerisms and speech. Even a crude classification on such a basis can provide sufficient information for a good reading. Watch the impact of your statement upon the subject. Very quickly you will learn when you are ‘ hitting home’ and when you are ‘missing the boat’.

8. Use the technique of ‘fishing’. This is simply a devise for getting the subject to tell you about himself. Then you rephrase what he has told you in a coherent sketch and feed it back to him. One version of fishing is to phrase each statement in the form of a question. Then wait for the subject to reply (or react). If the reaction is positive then the reader turns the statement into a positive assertion. Often the subject will respond by answering the implied question. . . later he will tend to forget that he was the source of your information. By making your statements into questions you also force the subject to force through his memory to retrieve specific instances to fit your general statement.

9. Learn to be a good listener. During the course of a reading your client will be bursting to talk about incidents that are brought up. The good reader allows the client to talk at will. On one occasion I observed a tealeaf reader. The client actually spent 75 percent of the total time talking. Afterwards when I questioned the client about the reading she vehemently insisted that she had not uttered a single word during the course of the reading. The client praised the reader for having so astutely told her what in fact she herself had spoken.

Another value of listening is that most clients who seek the services of a reader actually want someone to listen to their problems. In addition many clients have already made up their minds about what choices they are going to make. They merely want support to carry out their decisions.

10. Dramatise your reading. Give back what little information you do have or pick up a little bit at a time. Make it seem more than it is. Build word pictures around each divulgence. Don’t be afraid of hamming it up.

11. Always give the impression that you know more than you are saying. The successful reader, like the family doctor, always acts as if he knows much more. Once you persuade the client that you know one item of information about him that you could not possibly have obtained through normal channels, the client will automatically assume you know all. At this pointy he will typically open up and confide in you.

12. Don’t be afraid to flatter your subject every chance you get. An occasional subject will protest such flatter, but will still cherish it. In such cases you can further flatter him by saying, ‘You are always suspicious of people who flatter you. You just cant believe that someone will say well of you unless is trying to achieve some ulterior goal.’

13. Finally, remember the golden rule. Tell the client what he wants to hear.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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