Thinking About Thinking: The Forer Effect.

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students. Afterward, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test’s results and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves. In reality, each received the same analysis:

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.

On average, the rating was 4.26, but only after the ratings were turned in was it revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes.

To summarize, the Forer Effect describes how people take things they hear – particularly positive things – and believe it applies to them for the sole reason that they think it’s supposed to apply to them.

The most obvious consequence of the Forer Effect is that it encourages people to believe in systems that tell things about themselves, even if those systems make no sense.

A couple examples of those obvious Forer-influenced systems:

  • Horoscopes – a system about how the stars at the time of your birth dictate things about you.
  • Japanese blood type personality prediction – a system about how your blood type dictates things about you. (the wiki seems written by someone who does not speak English as a first language)
  • Phrenology – a system about how the bumps on your head dictate things about you.

The principle seems pretty simple: Humans have this little quirk, this ‘feature’, that can make us believe in silly things because they tell us things that we’re hardwired to want to hear and that we’re inherently inclined to believe.

But it’s a bit more significant than that. Vague statements make the effect more obvious, but the key to the effect is not the vagueness, but the impression of legitimacy of the source, which is what makes us inherently more likely to believe it.

As the Forer effect applies to any system which people believe legitimate, and which tells people things about themselves, this behavioral quirk applies to all systems which humans use to describe their own behavior.

This is a bit more significant, ’cause there are a lot of those systems, and some are considered pretty serious science this day and age.

Examples of systems to which the Forer effect applies that are (more)widely considered legitimate include:

  • The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator – a personality inventory that, given a wide battery of tests about what you prefer doing and what you like or don’t like, etc, tells you a bunch of stuff about yourself. Ditto any other personality inventories.
  • Pretty much any measurement of Emotional Intelligence, by definition, is going to end up telling you a lot about yourself.
  • While we’re talking about intelligence, IQ testing itself invokes the effect – it tells you about yourself and it’s very widely considered to be legitimate in doing so.

What seem to be very simple concepts would seem to invoke this inherently irrational feature in our behavior – introversion and extroversion, imagination and practicality, intelligence, wisdom…

It’s a phenomenon intricately tied into how we see ourselves – every time someone or something we trust says something about us, we’re inclined to believe it for no other reason than they said it about us.

Given all that, how much of our self-identities really describe us, versus just stuff we’ve been told describe us?

Anyway, all that philosophical navel-gazing aside, I think there’s a very practical application of this effect.

Human beings aren’t just inclined to believe things we think are about us. We enjoy hearing things that are about us. Invoking the Forer effect, even in nonsensical ways, appears to be emotionally and intellectually stimulating, and something that we inherently seek out.

My pet theory is that this is because being told things about ourselves is good for us – emotionally, and mentally. It strengthens our self-identity (for better or for worse, admittedly), and it ingrains concepts in our minds by associating them with something we obviously consider is important: Ourselves.

So being told about ourselves, even if those things are just outright false, can sharpen our focus and broaden our horizons – which I also imagine is why so many people tell themselves things about themselves so often.

So, knowing all this, why not use it? Take fancy personality, intelligence, and emotional intelligence tests. Read horoscopes. Find out which of the four humours you are (I’m phlegmatic!). Take the second half of this article seriously.

It’s good for you. Probably. After all, what’re the chances all the students in Dr. Forer’s class are wrong?


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