Barnum description and demonstration


This same Barnum demonstration has been played on introductory psychology students for over 50 years (Forer, 1949), and for some reason, it never ends up in the public conscience, thanks to the systematic misrepresentation of psychology in the popular media. It even works with personnel managers, who should know this effect by training (Stagner, 1958). It is in our textbook by Myers, and it should be described in all other Introductory and Social Psychology books.

The Barnum effect in psychology refers to the trustfulness of people when reading descriptions of themselves. By personality, we mean the ways in which people are different and unique. However, it is possible to give everyone the same description and people nevertheless rate the description as very very accurate.


What I want you to do is to find a friend and give the following instructions:

“I am taking a new course in psychology that teaches us how to analyze personality from a picture – can I try it with you:  Please take the following paper and pencil and draw a picture of a house: the picture must include the following items:  a house, windows, door(s), some kind of water, some kind of greenery (plants, trees flowers etc..).  You have five minutes to draw this, then I will take it away and get back to you in a few hours or tomorrow with a personality description”.. Once you get the drawing – take some time to get back to the person and then give them an envelope with a printout of their personality – have them rate on a 1-10 scale of how accurate it is and ask for a one sentence description of their reaction.

Here is an example of such a Barnum description: You may change a few words but not too much as we want to makes sure you are all using similar descriptions so we can compare.

  • You have a big need for other people to like and admire you.
  • You have a great deal of unused potentia, which you have not yet turned to your advantage.
  • You are hard-working and self-controlled outside, but you tend to worry and be  insecure inside.
  • You prefer some change and variety and become unhappy when given restrictions and limitations.
  • You pride yourself as being an independent thinker and do not accept others statements without proof or evidence that it is true.
  • You have seem to be critical of yourself.
  • Sometimes you have doubts about whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  • Sometimes you are extraverted, outgoing and, sociable, sometimes you are introverted, quiet and like to be along.
  • While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to overcome them.

On Monday 29th January you need to submit on Blackboard: 1. The drawing. 2. The person’s rating on a 1-10 scale 3. The person’s one-sentence description of their reaction and then you then need to write a 3. One paragraph reflection on the exercise which should include what you thought of it, how is the Barnum Effect the same as other personality tests and should this make us not trust psychology?



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