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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


How Gullible Are You?

A few blogs ago I looked at why it was that so many people ‘bought into’ the best selling book The Secret. You can read it here if you want.

When I was writing that blog I remembered a brilliant study first published in 1949* but which seems even more relevant today. In this study psychologist Bertram Forer looked at why it was that so many people believe in fortune tellers. Forer was apparently prompted to investigate this question after being accosted by one, who when asked what evidence he had for the accuracy of his readings, replied that his clients usually confirmed that he was correct.

Not happy with this as an explanation, Forer decided to investigate. This is what he did. He gave a personality test to his students and afterwards, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test's results. He then asked them to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves.
  • You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  • You have 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. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
  • 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 have 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.
In reality, each student received the same analysis (all of the above). On a scale of 1-5, students rated the accuracy of their profile, on average, as 4.2. They all thought that the personality analysis based on their earlier test was pretty damn accurate! These profile statements were taken from horoscopes printed in newspapers.

Now how many of those personality characteristics do you recognise as yours? Well I kind of thought they represented me very well. I came out 5. And that’s even knowing about the study (need to figure that one out)

The ‘Forer effect’ shows that people tend to accept generalised descriptions of their personalities without realising that the same evaluation could apply to nearly anyone else, because people want the results to be true. Whilst the Forer effect is most often applied to fortune tellers, it has also been cited as criticism of personality tests themselves - so just because the person is a psychologist doesn't mean they aren't tricking you.

So be on your guard whenever you’re asked to confirm as ‘true about yourself’, statements that could be applied to everyone! When it comes to reading horoscopes or having your palm read - just say NO (thank-you)
* Bertram R. Forer (1949) The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1949 (44)

posted by Annabel

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