Barnumtype statements

Barnum statements are general personality descriptions which apply to almost everyone, under most circumstances (see e.g. Tyson, 1982; Furnham and Schofield, 1987). Acceptance of such statements is referred to as the Barnum effect. Dickson & Kelly (1985: 367) have defined the effect as the tendency for "people to accept general personality interpretations as accurate descriptions of their own unique personalities".

It is claimed that the descriptions are readily accepted because they are sufficiently vague as to allow the subject to read into them what they want. Indeed, the Barnum effect is so-called in reference to the American showman Phineas T. Barnum who is alleged to have attributed the popularity of his circus to there being "a little something for everybody" (cf. Meehl, 1956), a comment which may also apply to Barnum statements themselves. For example, Martin (1990) offers the line "You've come a long way psychologically from where you were even a few years ago" (p. 22), which could conceivably relate to any change the client has experienced. Less kindly, however, the choice of term may be a reference to Barnum's claim that "There's a sucker born every minute" (OUP, 1985; French et al., 1991 offer such an interpretation).

Specific generalisations and specific trivia can be distinguished from Barnum statements in that they differ in the degree of apparent specificity of the descriptions being given; the former rely primarily on base rates for their success whereas the latter tends to rely more on inherent vagueness to encourage the client to read meaning into themviii.

The phrases recommended by pseudopsychics vary little from those used in the psychological literature to investigate the Barnum Effect (see, e.g., Hester and Hudson, 1977), and indeed Earle (1990) actually recommends Forer's (1949) original 13 Barnum statements (reproduced as Figure 2) as crib material. It has been consistently found in experimental studies that subjects are willing to accept such statements as being uniquely true of them (see Furnham & Schofield, 1987), and appear unaware of the likelihood that they could apply equally well to others (e.g. Ziv & Nevenhaus, 1972).

Where the phrases used by pseudopsychics do differ from Forer's thirteen, they still tend to share characteristics which have been isolated by Sundberg (1955) as being influential upon acceptance or rejection, namely the use of (i) vague statements such as items 3 and 7, (ii) 'double-headed statements' (which make two opposite and complementary predictions) such as items 6 and 11, and (iii) favourable statements such as 4 and 9.

It has been argued (e.g. Layne and Ally, 1980; Tyson, 1982) that such sketches are effective because they allow the client to read into them what they want. Two mechanisms in particular are thought to be at work. Firstly that Ss will tend to remember only the correct statements. Hyman (1981), for example, notes of selective recall

Both lab research and what we know about actual psychic readings predict that the client will remember mainly those things the psychic said that were consistent with the overall script. (p. 433; a similar view is espoused by Hester & Hudson, 1977, p. 6).

1. You have a great need for 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. Your sexual adjustment has caused some problems for you.

6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.

7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.

9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker, and don't accept others' statements without satisfactory proof.

10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.

11. At times you are extraverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.

13. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Figure 2: Forer's original 'Barnum Statements'

And Dutton (1988) has claimed

Even where there are negative or undesirable elements in a Barnum description, subjects have ... a strong tendency to notice and remember only a percentage of available items. This is selectivity of attention ... confirmations are remembered, often quite vividly, whereas less plausible aspects of the description are paid correspondingly less attention. (pp. 327-8).

There is indeed some empirical evidence to suggest that clients of psychic readings do tend to recall more of the reading elements which they rated as accurate than those items rated inaccurate (Roe, 1994).

Secondly, subjects will impose their own meaningful interpretation on the statements, embellishing them with their own specific detailed experiences that will make the generalisations seem more accurate than they really were (e.g. Hyman, 1977; Corinda, 1984). This can be accounted for in terms of schema theory, which suggests that subjects are likely to unconsciously impose a particular structure on the communication which will invest it with a particular, relevant (to the percipient) meaning. The classic account of this phenomenon has been given by Bartlett (1932), who found that his subjects misrecalled a Native American folk tale called 'The War of the Ghosts' in ways that were determined by their prevailing schema. For example, elements of the story that did not accord with expectation were omitted, and other material was distorted so as to make it fit better with subjects' Cambridge backgrounds (see also Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Pichert & Anderson, 1977). This process can be readily illustrated here via an example suggested by Marks & Kamman (1980, adopting a task originally used by Dooling & Lachman, 1971).

In reading the following text, try to ignore the fact that the poem is about Christopher Columbus.

With hocked gems financing him

Our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter

That tried to prevent his scheme

Your eyes deceive he said

An egg not a table correctly typifies

This unexplored domain.

Now three sturdy sisters sought proof

Forging along sometimes through calm vastness

Yet more often over turbulent peaks and valleys

Days became weeks

As many doubters spreadfearful rumours About the edge

At last from nowhere winged creatures appeared

Signifying momentous success. Figure 3: "The voyage of Christopher Columbus"

The belief that the text is about Columbus directs our understanding of each part of the message, conjuring up particular images or interpretations for elements of the text in an effort to maintain the sense. Thus the reference to 'three sisters' is understood not to be taken literally, but to refer to the ships in which Columbus' party sailed. It could be argued that similar processes are at work in the case of a pseudopsychic reading. Here the overarching schema is that what is said is intended to concern the client and should be interpreted with reference to events and circumstances surrounding them. Marks & Kamman (1980) describe this 'effort after matches' in terms of

The micro-machinery of subjective validation. The rule is simply - keep searching for similarities until an overall match has been made (cherchez la correspondance). Once the match is presented it will be hard to see how it could be any other way. (p. 182).

Randi (1981) gives a nice example of reading more into a reading than was actually said. As a guest with Paul Kurtz on a Canadian TV show he witnessed the psychic Geraldine Smith working the vibrations from an object belonging to the host. She gave the rather vague prediction "I'm seeing the month of January here - which is now - but there would have to be something strong with the person with January as well." (p. 107). Although sceptical of the reading as a whole, the host of the show noted on reflection that Smith had actually determined that his birthday was in January. In fact no mention had been made of what type of association with January was being referred to - the client was left to fill in the gaps. In a similar vein, Schwartz (1978) describes a performance by Peter Hurkos in which the efforts made by the client to make sense of a statement are quite explicit:

Hurkos: One two three four five -I see five in the family.

Caller: That's right. There are four of us and Uncle Raymond, who often stays with us.

Dean et al. (1992) describe this tendency as the Procrustean effect, after the Greek mythical figure who would stretch his guests' limbs or sever them in order for them to fit his bed. Communications are similarly stretched or truncated to fit the client's circumstances. Schwartz (1978: 53) has argued that even talking complete nonsense need not be a bar to success :

Hurkos: When you want to break the marriage that time he did not have a chance. When you said 'If I don't, if I don't want him and I lose him -I like him, I am not listening to anybody -I want a want a want, or get the house! This is correct? Woman: That is fantastic!_

Clients may even alter their perception of events to have them fit with the reader's predictions

For example, if a girl is told that her life will be influenced by an imaginative, sensitive man, she may start attributing artistic qualities to the basketball player she has been dating, even though she never previously thought of him as being a particularly imaginative or sensitive person. (Hester & Hudson, 1977, p. 6)

Delaney & Woodyard (1974) offer a nice experimental illustration of a situation in which subjects are motivated to actually alter their own self perception in the light of predictions made. In their study, Ss were given a personality sketch ostensibly based on their star sign but in fact descriptors were randomly allocated. Ss were also given a short questionnaire asking about their actual personality to be compared with the astrological predictions. Ss responses on this measure suggested that their self-description was influenced by the astrological sketch.

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