Cutting Through Crap “Psychology”: Beware the Barnum Effect

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell

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When I was a child, I was very much interested in such things as horoscopes, palm reading, fortune-telling, and other astrology stuff. I was fascinated at how descriptions of my star sign would accurately describe my personality (“Oh my gosh, this is soooo me!”) just by basing on my birth date. I would collect books and compile notes on these things, and couldn’t imagine any other body of knowledge that could be more interesting and useful.

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That is, until I met psychology. And I mean, real psychology.

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The first time I picked up and read a psychology textbook was like walking into an entirely new, totally awesome world. There was actually a field that scientifically studied human personality and behavior, using research studies, laboratory experiments, testable hypotheses— all the science stuff. All of a sudden, describing, understanding, and predicting human personality and behavior was no longer just a matter of crafty speculation based on a birth date, a set of randomly laid-out cards, or the alignment of stars and planets. In psychology, there was an actual attempt to do away with guesswork in the study of human personality and behavior. In other words, there was a real science behind all the things I was craving to learn about.

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At the threshold of discovering psychology as a scientific inquiry, I had to drop many misconceptions I had regarding human personality and behavior. It wasn’t easy, of course; you must understand that these misconceptions used to be lovingly-held beliefs I nurtured all throughout my childhood years.

Take for instance, the love I had for horoscopes. I used to be strongly convinced that they were accurate classifiers of the kinds of people there are in the world, and that they were valid predictors of human personality, behavior, and events. However, many introductory texts in psychology would not let you get past the first chapter without making it perfectly clear that horoscopes and related astrology stuff are nothing but pseudosciences (“fake science”) and “psychobabble” (quackery shrouded in psychological language). Why did I see such sense and truth in them, if so?

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Possible Reason #1 would of course be that I am a hopelessly gullible person, and an idiot.

Possible Reason #2 is a little more considerate and forgiving: I fell victim to the “Barnum effect”.

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The Barnum Effect

Named after the famous circus showman P.T. Barnum who popularized the aphorism, “Have a little something for everybody,” the Barnum effect refers to the phenomenon of readily accepting a cleverly worded ‘personal’ description or reading as an accurate self-description. People tend to accept these personal descriptions without recognizing that they are largely based on general, stereotyped statements that can actually apply to almost everyone else. For example, consider the following description cited by Wade (2004, p. 484):

“Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic…You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and you become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

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Studies have found that if people are shown a general description such as the one above and told that it was a result of a personalized horoscope reading, a vast majority would report it as a very accurate and specific description of themselves. Very few people are able to recognize that the description is so vague that most other people would also find it applicable to themselves. What’s more, the Barnum effect also persists because the descriptions given are usually flattering—who wouldn’t want to be told how wonderful and a gem of a creation they are?

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The Barnum effect is the principle behind the fakery of not only horoscopes, but also many other unscientific personality assessments including handwriting analysis (graphology) and those single-question personality tests rampant in social media nowadays. Consider, for example, this popular “personality test” asking you to pick a tree, with the careful instruction that you should not think too much and just follow your first instinct (otherwise the test result might be inaccurate):

that "super cool" personality test

that “super cool” personality test

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Please do me a favor and resist this tempting chance of basking in the revelation of your true personality, in favor of reading through several (not just one) of the test’s result descriptions:

1. You are a generous and moral (not to confuse with moralizing) person. You always work on self-improvement. You are very ambitious and have very high standards. People might think that communicating with you is difficult, but for you, it isn’t easy to be who you are. You work very hard but you are not in the least selfish. You work because you want to improve the world. You have a great capacity to love people until they hurt you. But even after they do…you keep loving. Very few people can appreciate everything you do as well as you deserve.

 2. You are a fun, honest person. You are very responsible and like taking care of others. You believe in putting in an honest day’s work and accept many work-related responsibilities. You have a very good personality and people come to trust you easily. You are bright, witty and fast-thinking. You always have an interesting story to tell.

3. You are a smart and thoughtful person. You are a great thinker. Your thoughts and ideas are the most important. You like to think about your theories and views alone. You are an introvert. You get along with those who likes to think and learn. You spend a lot of time, thinking about morality. You are trying to do what is right, even if the majority of society does not agree with you.

4. You are perceptive and philosophical person. You are a unique, one soul of your kind. Next to you there’s no one even slightly similar to you. You are intuitive and a bit quirky. You are often misunderstood, and it hurts you. You need personal space. Your creativity needs to be developed, it requires respect of others. You are a person who clearly sees the light and dark sides of life.

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I am pretty sure a psychologist out there somewhere is mentally stabbing himself for each time a person declares this pick-a-tree personality test as the most accurate personality assessment ever. Notice how each of these descriptions appeal to flattery, and how likely it is that more than one (if not all) of those categorical descriptions could apply to you (hello, Barnum effect). Reading any of these descriptions honestly makes me feel like a girl being wooed with flowery words by a slick suitor, to whom I would probably say, “Do you say that to every girl?”

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Personality is defined as “a distinctive and relatively stable pattern of behavior, thoughts, motives, and emotions that characterizes an individual throughout life.” With personality being a pattern, then, it is highly unlikely (if not impossible) that a single multiple-choice question can accurately assess this enduring pattern, or that the results can be meaningful or useful at all.

Psychology strives to develop personality tests that are superior to methods largely banking on the Barnum effect. Genuine, research-based personality assessment tests involve more than just a couple of multiple-choice questions (some even have hundreds of questions) and have been subjected to years of extensive study and independent validation — and even these get a lot of doubt and criticism regarding their validity and reliability.

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Horoscopes and unscientific personality tests like the one above are just two of the more blatant examples of pseudosciences and psychobabble pervading our information streams today. The challenge for us all, as consumers of psychological information, is to be more mindful and critical of what we accept as true. There are many other less obvious ways we are getting fed crap “psychology”, as the media loves sensationalizing research results, especially those in the field of psychology. It would be fitting to discuss several other examples here, but as this post is already getting too long, I will just draw up bullet points for now and I hope to get to talk more about them in the succeeding posts:

  • Correlation and causation – This is one of my favorite fundamental principles in research: “Correlation does not imply causation.” [e.g. Why the research finding “Violent behavior is correlated with playing video games” cannot be automatically assumed to mean that playing video games causes violent behavior]
  • What “heritability” really means – This is something I learned only in graduate school, and it made me realize how wrongly I had been interpreting it as translated in general media [e.g. Why the statement “Intelligence is 50% heritable” cannot be taken to mean that 50% of a person’s intelligence is inherited from his parents/ancestors and the other 50% is acquired from the environment]
  • Is psychology subjective or objective?A good friend of mine asked me this question before, and it’s a fundamental topic that I think deserves a more careful and thorough treatment

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My sharing about the Barnum effect pretty much ends here, but there are a couple more related points I’d like to add (mainly as a reminder to myself, hehe) regarding what I intend to examine further through this blog.

We all want easy answers and quick solutions (like user-friendly personality tests that deliver instant results). But psychology rarely has either. Psychologythe real science of psychologydemands the practice of an especially high level of critical thinking and the capacity to tolerate a great deal of uncertainty, especially when it comes to the big questions. I have not encountered a field more complicated, debated, and intricate in both the knots it’s trying to untangle and the very methods it uses to untangle those knots.

In this field, it’s also not uncommon for some random person to drop in and tell you that the knots you’ve been trying to untangle for the last 25 years might, after all, not exist in the first place (cue: commence mutilation of self or said random person). For instance, I think it’s hilarious how in the early beginnings of psychology, the structuralists were heatedly debating with the functionalists as to the nature of “consciousness” and what needs to be studied about it, and then a couple of behaviorists came into the picture and sort of said, “Guess what? There’s no such thing as the ‘consciousness’!” LOL

So, I guess what I’m really trying to say is, psychology rarely has quick and neat answers for anything, and can very well have us all circling in uncertainty and trying to see past an impossibly murky horizon. But in a field dealing with something as complex as human behavior, Voltaire’s words must apply:

Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position.

But certainty is an absurd one. ♠

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I started this blog in part because I wanted readers to learn the ropes around psychology with me (as I myself am also just starting to learn), to acquire credible and helpful information on psychology topics, and to correct major misconceptions in this field that’s so often misrepresented by popular media. I’m not proud to admit that I haven’t been entirely faithful to that mission, but I intend to be more so in the near future. I cannot guarantee I’ll always get to give definite answers, but together, I hope we can discover at least the right questions to ask. 🙂

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“We end then upon a note of doubt, with no certainty about the beliefs which future psychologists will hold. This is as it should be. Nobody can grasp the nature of things from an armchair, and until fresh experiments have been performed we do not know what their results will be. The confident dogmatisms about human nature which fall so readily from pulpits, newspaper editorials, and school prize-givings are not for us. Rather, we must be prepared to live with an incomplete knowledge of behavior but with confidence in the power of objective methods to give us that knowledge some day” (Broadbent, 1961, pp. 200-201).

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References:

  • Broadbent, D. (1961). Behaviour. New York: Basic Books.
  • Stanovich, K.E. (2007). How to think straight about psychology (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Wade, C., Tavris, C., Saucier, D., & Elias, L. (2004). Psychology (Canadian ed.). Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Education Canada Inc.
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