Definition: The Barnum Effect refers to people believing and reading into supposed descriptions of themselves (Barnum Statements) that tell their specific personalities, kind of person they are, and/or activities/problems they have in their lives. The Barnum Effect is usually used by stating positive and non-specific claims that the person receiving can accept as true and identify with. What is said using the Barnum Effect tends to resonate with people’s hopes, dreams, and expectations about themselves. The workings of this fallacy can be summarized as: We have something for everyone because it means that one statement you believe is special or unique to you, can actually hold true to many more people in various shapes and extents. That Barnum Statement you are hearing for yourself can actually work on everyone- meaning they believe it to be true, too.
Real Life Example: Psychics, as well as fortune cookies, use the Barnum Effect to trick people into buying their service/product. “You have a lot of potential that you have not yet turned to your advantage or unlocked.” This phrase and quote is a typical, very often used Barnum Statement; however, the characterization of someone having unrealized potential holds true for many people, not just one. When someone hears this from a psychic, he or she believes in that Barnum Statement being specifically just for them, but it can actually be applied to many people and be believed. Since it works well for a lot of the general public, that is why it is often used. Other Barnum statements psychics use are “You are an independent thinker. You like to check out claims for yourself before you believe what someone tells you” and “You have a fear of rejection.”
Literature: To the right is the horoscope for Libras on 11/3/17 that the LA Times published for its astrology column. The descriptions of being a “walking paradox” and “sensible as anyone” are wide descriptions that can apply to many people, not just Libras.
Visual (Bottom Right Image): Buzzfeed’s app and website offers many quizzes which claim that by answering a series of questions, they can reveal or tell you something about yourself. I took the quiz “Dip These Foods In Sauces and We’ll Reveal A Beautiful Truth About You” and it is pretty self-explanatory: I answer questions and am told something about myself based on my answers. The “Beautiful Truth” and Barnum Statement I got is “generous” and caring “deeply about the other people”. However, being generous is a characteristic that applies to a wide variety of people, not only me or anyone else for that matter that selected certain sauces for certain foods.