The Barnum effect and how you can use Barnum statements to create the effect of supernatural powers
Barnum statements are part of the tool kit of cold reading psychics and are named after the showman P T Barnum. They are sometimes referred to as the PT Barnum Effect. This technique is also used by performing mentalists too.
The Barnum effect relates to the use of Barnum statements, which are statements that in most cases apply to everyone, but always sound very specific to the individual. They are used by psychics, fortune tellers, horoscopes, mediums and the like to give the impression of insight into their subjects personality, when in fact they have no insight whatsoever.
What is the Barnum effect?
In the short video below Derren Brown explains the Barnum effect (also called Forer effects) or Barnum statements.
Essentially the Barnum effect is elicited from what’s called a Barnum statement.
A Barnum Statement is a general statement which is written in such a way that a person feels is describing them. Barnum statements in most cases apply to everyone, but always sound very specific to the individual.
Barnum statements are used by psychics and mediums to ‘fool’ their subjects or ‘sitters’ into think they have insight into them. When in fact they don’t.
Using Derren Brown as an example, he uses Barnum statements to demonstrate the same skills as a psychic, but with integrity. And what I mean by that is that Derren Brown is always very open about what he is doing with his subjects. This is except for when he’s quite rightly concealing details about how he pulls off a trick or mentalism stunt.
In fact he openly shames psychics for knowingly misleading people. Psychics use their ‘powers’ to trick people into thinking that they know things about people, when they don’t.
They use their knowledge and skills, including the use of Barnum statements, to elicit The Barnum effect, but use it in an exploitative manner.
Whereas the likes of Derren Brown use these same skills for the purpose of entertainment and intrigue. However, Derren Brown is so convincing at this skill that some people are still left thinking he has psychic powers too.
You sometimes see people totally freaked out by his amazing ability to trick the crowd.
If you are in the process of learning to master mentalism, then including cold reading and Barnum Statements into your act will always impress people.
The Barnum effect and statements explained by Derren Brown
In this video he also explains about an experiment he did with three different groups across the world.
Everyone in each group was given a long and detailed personality reading. Prior to this, the subjects were asked for certain details, like their birth date and getting certain objects from them. However, this part of the exercise was purely to add a bit of drama to the proceedings, and was a bit of a decoy.
After they had all read what they thought was their own personal reading, they all said that it is very accurate. They also said that it wasn’t at all vague or ambiguous. But above all that they gave it an 80-95% accuracy.
The realisation happened at the point that the subjects are all told to swap with each other. This was so they could read each other’s statements. The subjects are told to see if they maybe able to identify their colleagues by their readings.
However, it’s at this point they realise they’ve all been given exactly the same reading as everyone else. And on top of that, the reading had been written months before Derren Brown had even met them!
This concept is probably better explained by way of some examples.
Barnum statements examples
As with any concept, these are better understood by way of example. With that in mind here are a few Barnum statement examples, starting with the one explained by Derren Brown.
Barnum statement example #1
“You’re somebody who tends to keep people a little bit at bay or at arms length, but when you allow people into your inner sanctum and when they become your close friends, and if they betray you then that really hurts.”
This doesn’t actually mean anything other than you are saying you’re close to people you’re close to. This could apply to almost everyone.
Barnum statement example #2
“You’re a person who is prone to bouts of self-examination and have a tendency to be critical of yourself.”
Which is a statement that would also apply to most people.
Barnum statement example #3
“There are times when you are the life and sole of the party and an extrovert, but at other times you tend to be introverted and quite reserved.”
There are many people who would also relate to this statement too, as most people can portray two sides of a trait depending on their mood or circumstances.
In fact the above statement is what’s referred to as a ‘Rainbow Ruse,’ see below. A Rainbow Ruse is a statement that includes both sides of a personality trait.
Barnum statement example #4
“You strive for security in your life both in your personal life and in your career.”
Security or certainty is a basic need of all humans, so this statement would apply to everyone.
Barnum statement example #5
“You have a need for people to admire and like you and enjoy their recognition when you achieve certain milestones in your life.”
Most, if not all, want admiration, plus it’s a basic need too to be recognised for what we do. Therefore this Barnum statement would again apply to the vast majority of people.
Now that we understand what The Barnum Effect is and how it can be applied in Barnum Statements, let’s take a look at where the concept or phenomenon came from.
Who was P. T. Barnum?
Phineas Taylor Barnum, who the Barnum effect is named after, was an American showman, business man and also a politician. Barnum had many different businesses, which included an American museum and a circus.
Barnum was in fact a bit of a charlatan and coined the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He was known for introducing hoaxes.
As mentioned above, the Barnum Effect is also referred to as the Forer Effect too, which is explained further.
Who is Bertram R. Forer?
Bertram Forer was an American psychologist who carried out a classic experiment in 1948 with 39 students. In this experiment he gave each student a statement, which was supposedly individualised to each of them.
As with the experiment carried out by Derren Brown, the students were asked to rate the individualised sketches, which courtesy of Wikipedia included the following generalised statements:
- You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
- You’ve a tendency to be critical of yourself.
- You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
- While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
- Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure 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 pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
- You’ve found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
- At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
- Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
- Security is one of your major goals in life.
The ratings given by the students of the statement was 4.26 out of 5 or in other words 85.2% accuracy. As you read through the above statements, you will agree that these Forer statements are all vague and general enough to apply to most people.
You probably related them to yourself no doubt.
Horoscopes and astrologers rely on the Barnum effect. This is because they are written in the form of a Barnum Statement. However, people believe horoscopes are a reflection of themselves and some use them to influence their daily lives.
The wider scope of the Barnum effect
The Barnum effect has a wide ranging scope and has many uses. These are particularly in the field of astrology or star signs, psychic readings, fortune telling and so on.
But of course in terms of this blog they can be incorporated into mentalism performances. Which is where mentalists perform cold readings like a psychic.
Many people like to read their horoscope and those that believe in horoscopes will believe the statement applies to them. But horoscopes are Barnum or Forer statements and elicit the Barnum effect.
The psychological phenomenon behind these statements is that people ‘make them fit‘. Most are unaware that the statement would apply to just about anyone.
The bonkers part of horoscopes for example is that there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of companies, astrologers, newspapers etc. that all put out their own horoscope, which all use different statements. Therefore, how can they all be right? But despite this, people still believe they are true.
This is one of the reasons why mentalism works so well. Barnum statements are often incorporated into a mentalist’s act. Due to the fact that people already believe in the whole psychic world, mentalist cold readings using Barnum statements taps into this belief.
Barnum statements form part of what’s known as cold reading. This is where the illusion created by cold reading implies that the ‘reader‘ knows more about the person than they actually do.
What is a Rainbow Ruse?
The term Rainbow Ruse has already been mentioned above. The Rainbow Ruse is another cold reading technique where the reader assigns the sitter a personality trait. But then assigns them the opposite personality trait too.
For example, “You can sometimes be quite spontaneous, but in your business career you tend to stick to a routine that works.”
Rainbow Ruse’s are designed to garner confidence from the reader’s subjects. But these statements are general and could apply to the majority of people. But despite this, people are left with the impression that the reader has real insight into their personality.
The reason these Rainbow Ruse’s works is that given a particular set of circumstances. Most people tend to exemplify pretty much every personality trait.
The Spotlight effect
The spotlight effect is similar or aligned to the Barnum effect. The Spotlight effect is the phenomenon where people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they actually are.
In other words, if you take a Barnum statement reading, people would see themselves in the statement as it was read out. They would see themselves in the ‘spotlight,’ when in fact the majority of people would feel the same way too.
This is reflective of how there is a narcissist at the heart of most of us. But of course some are worse narcissists than others.
MBTI Barnum effect
Having spent some time reading and learning about the Barnum effect and cold reading, it made me think about employee personality tests.
Personality tests are a big business in companies around the world. Businesses sometimes rely on these tests to analyse current employees and sometimes potential employees.
Companies sometimes use the personality statement to decide on whether they employ them or not.
There’s an interesting article on the subject of MBTI Barnum effect, which you may wish to read.
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I hope you enjoyed this article about the Barnum effect
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