Friday, November 19, 2010

The Forer Effect and 'Subjective Validation'

I found a fascinating article on an equally interesting Web site named 'You Are Not So Smart', which describes itself as 'a blog devoted to self delusion and irrational thinking'. The article describes something of which I was aware in principle; however, I didn't know that it had a name, or that it was an accepted scientific phenomenon. Here's a short extract.

Based on the data I’ve collected from the comments, emails and other browsing information generated by this blog, I have a pretty good idea of who you are.

Here are my findings:

  • You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.
  • While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.
  • You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside.
  • At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  • You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  • At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved.
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

Does this sound accurate? Does it describe you?

It should. It describes everyone.

All the above statements came from a 1948 experiment by Bertram R. Forer. He gave his students a personality test and told them each one had been personally assessed, but then gave everyone the same analysis.

He asked his students to look over the statements and rate them for accuracy. On average, they rated the bogus results as 85 percent correct – as if they had been personally prepared to describe them.

The block of text above was actually a mishmash of lines from horoscopes collected by Forer for the experiment.

The tendency to believe vague statements designed to appeal to just about anyone is called the Forer Effect, and psychologists point to this phenomenon to explain why people fall for pseudoscience like biorhythms, iridology and phrenology or mysticism like astrology, numerology and tarot cards.

The Forer Effect is part of larger phenomenon psychologists refer to as subjective validation, which is a fancy way of saying you are far more vulnerable to suggestion when the subject of the conversation is you.

There's much more at the link. It's a very interesting exposition of how we can apply almost anything someone says to ourselves and find a correlation. The theory certainly explains how fortune-tellers, alleged 'psychics' and other frauds can so successfully con so many people.

I'm sure many of my readers have come across the Forer Effect before, but it's new to me. The article makes interesting reading. Recommended, as is the rest of the Web site. There's lots of interesting material there, some of which may well wind up here from time to time.



John Peddie (Toronto) said...

"The theory certainly explains how...other frauds can so successfully con so many people."

Ummmm...and politicians are masters of the art???

(Sorry-too delicious to allow to pass by unremarked.)

Unknown said...

Heh. I definitely have come across it before; it's gotten a couple mentions in my anthropology and folklore classes.

Borepatch said...

You Are Not So Smart is a great site. He only posts once or twice a month, but it's always worth reading.