The Forer effect refers to the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements were not made about them personally and could apply to many people.
Psychologist Bertram R. Forer (1914-2000) found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to many people. Consider the following as if it were given to you as an evaluation of your personality.
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.
Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student the above evaluation (taken from a newsstand astrology column). He asked them to evaluate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with “5” meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an “excellent” assessment and “4” meaning the assessment was “good.” The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of time with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2 out of 5, or 84% accurate.
In short, Forer convinced people he could successfully read their character. His accuracy amazed his subjects, though his personality analysis was taken from a newsstand astrology column and was presented to people without regard to their sun sign. The Forer effect seems to explain, in part at least, why so many people think that pseudosciences “work”. Astrology, astrotherapy, biorhythms, cartomancy, chiromancy, the enneagram, fortune telling, graphology, rumpology, etc., seem to work because they seem to provide accurate personality analyses. Scientific studies of these pseudosciences demonstrate that they are not valid personality assessment tools, yet each has many satisfied customers who are convinced they are accurate.
The most common explanations given to account for the Forer effect are in terms of hope, wishful thinking, vanity, and the tendency to try to make sense out of experience. Forer’s own explanation was in terms of human gullibility. People tend to accept claims about themselves in proportion to their desire that the claims be true rather than in proportion to the empirical accuracy of the claims as measured by some non-subjective standard. We tend to accept questionable, even false statements about ourselves, if we deem them positive or flattering enough. We will often give very liberal interpretations to vague or inconsistent claims about ourselves in order to make sense out of the claims. Subjects who seek counseling from psychics, mediums, fortune tellers, mind readers, graphologists, etc., will often ignore false or questionable claims and, in many cases, by their own words or actions, will provide most of the information they erroneously attribute to a pseudoscientific counselor. Many such subjects often feel their counselors have provided them with profound and personal information. Such subjective validation, however, is of little scientific value.
James Randi‘s fiery takedown of psychic fraud
Legendary skeptic James Randi takes a fatal dose of homeopathic sleeping pills onstage, kicking off a searing 18-minute indictment of irrational beliefs. He throws out a challenge to the world’s psychics: Prove what you do is real, and I’ll give you a million dollars. (No takers yet.)
• Cold Reading
Making vague statements that will fit most people if they want them to
Cold reading is a series of techniques employed by psychics, mediums and mentalists that are used to manipulate the customer (sitter) into believing that the psychic can read their mind, or that the medium is in contact with a dead relative or friend.
A cold reading will involved things that are called ‘Forer Statements’ (or or Barnum statements) which are designed to encourage the sitter to fill in the gaps in the information being given. Though these statements may appear to be specific they are really very open-ended and vague and could really apply to anyone. Experiments have shown how similar statements can be taken personally when issued to dozens of people at the same time!
Some examples of such statements would be:
- “I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well.”
- “You work with computers”
- “You’re having problems with a friend or relative”
Here is ‘psychic’ James Van Prag demonstrating what appears to be a very embarrassing cold reading:
• Rainbow Ruse
Ticking all potential boxes by making all-encompassing descriptions
Similar to Forer statements is the “rainbow ruse” which involves a statement that covers all possibilities and often describe somebody as being two completely different types of person at the same time. Here are some examples:
- “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there has been a time in the past when you were very upset.”
- “You are a very kind and considerate person, but occasionally you feel deep-seated anger.”
- “I would say that you are mostly shy and quiet, but when the mood strikes you, you can easily become the centre of attention.”
• Hot/warm Reading
Using information gained before the show about the audience
Then there is hot (or warm) reading. This is a form of cheating and happens when a Medium or Psychic secretly gathers information about members of the audience in order that they may use this in their performance but pass it off as being a result of their psychic gift.
Additonally, they may research the location they are performing in, and may even invite those recently bereaved whose details they can extract from local sources (newspapers, websites, discussion groups), and the internet. They might ask people to request readings by filling in cards or forms in the foyer, or they might require people give their names when they book tickets and then use this information to simply google them.
Here is an example of someone using ‘hot reading’ to fool their audience into thinking they’re receiving messages from a supernatural source, when they’re not.
Making random statements in the hope someone will make them fit
This is another tactic which involves revealing a huge amount of very general information to a whole audience and seeing what sticks. A psychic or medium will likely generate many, many misses when they employ these techniques but because of the way our brains work when we want to believe something very badly, many will leave the performance only remembering apparent ‘hits’ or correct guesses.
A typical Psychic or Medium will use all of these techniques in the course of a performance and a skilled cold reader will be able to spin out the brief sentences and statements into paragraphs of psychic prose.
It is worth noting that some Mediums or Psychics may be just naturally good cold readers and don’t realise that what they’re doing isn’t the result of a supernatural gift.