Barnum effect: ego beats self-reflection and how you can use it

A UX designer should know their users very well in normal cases. Of course, I also know a lot about my users. The typical UX Fox reader can be very well described as follows:
Sometimes you behave extroverted and open towards other people, but sometimes introverted and reserved. Most people only know you superficially. You have skills that you do not fully utilize yourself. You tend to doubt the correctness of your decisions now and then. Your job is important to you, and you place great value on a good relationship.
Did you recognize yourself in the description? This is no coincidence, as this description applies to 95%
of all people. The fact that you could partially or even completely recognize yourself in it, therefore, says nothing about my knowledge of you. Horoscopes work in the same way. The statements used apply to almost all people entirely or at least partially. The formulations are vague and consist of “often,” “tend to,” “sometimes,” “now and then.” Thus, it is almost impossible to be completely wrong with such a profile. This effect is also known as the Barnum Effect.



The Barnum Effect

The term goes back to the American circus pioneer Phineas Taylor Barnum. In the mid-19th century, Barnum’s American Museum opened in New York. Barnum’s idea was to show the most diverse attractions, shows, and exhibitions. Hence the basic idea: “There’s something for everyone!”
The Barnum Effect was popularized under this name only about a century later by the American psychologist Paul Mehl. He gave a new term to the Forer Effect or the so-called deception through personal validation.
American psychologist Bertram R. Forer developed a test to investigate deception through personal validation:
He asked students to fill out a personality test and shortly afterwards gave each participant an evaluation. The second task for the students: They were to indicate on a scale from 0 to 5 how accurately their own personality was described by this evaluation.
With an average score of well over 4 points, the vast majority of students found the test very fitting and accurate. What the students did not know: The “evaluation” they received was not based on scientific findings but was cobbled together by Forer himself from various horoscopes.
Thus, Forer succeeded in showing that people tend to perceive general and vague claims about themselves as accurate and to recognize themselves in them.
The results of Forer’s study were confirmed by other scientists in similar experiments.

Barnum Statements:

The Barnum Effect is mainly caused by so-called Barnum statements. These statements are vague and general. Therefore, almost all people can identify with them. Barnum statements can be generated through various instruments:
  1. Desirable, positive characteristics: Sentences like: “You are a lovable and at the same time goal-oriented person” would be immediately agreed to by most people. We want to see these characteristics in ourselves, even if in reality we are neither lovable nor goal-oriented.
  2. General fears and worries: Many fears are so general that such a statement about them can practically never be wrong: “Your health is very important to you!”. Who would not answer yes to that?
  3. Vague statements: “You are goal-oriented, but you choose the goals you pursue very carefully.” This statement sounds like a deep analysis of the psyche, but it simply describes all manifestations of goal orientation. Whether you are motivated or committed to pursuing big goals, or you are standing still: In this Barnum statement, you will always find yourself.
  4. Tendency to the middle: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” Even Obi-Wan Kenobi once knew about the nature of the human psyche. Most people do not feel at home in extremes. A sentence like: “Sometimes you behave extroverted and open towards other people, but sometimes also introverted and reserved.” would be agreed to by most people.

Why is the Barnum Effect so effective?

Why is the Barnum Effect so effective that many people simply fall for it? In fact, there are at least two psychological phenomena:

Selective Perception:

Simply put: People see what they want to see. When a horoscope or a personality test promises to visualize one’s personality, one will focus on the points that actually, at least roughly, correspond with oneself. Less fitting points are not actively perceived and play virtually no role in an evaluation.

Confirmation Bias:

Vague information is interpreted in such a way that it matches one’s own worldview, i.e., one’s own views and expectations. “You are a reliable person!”. Automatically, you feel well described. Whether the statement is true or not is no longer reflected upon.

Barnum Effect in UX and Conversion Optimization

A possible example of the targeted use of the Barnum Effect at the end of a sales conversation could look like this:
“I have now gained a very good impression of you and your company: You are a very down-to-earth, but also committed entrepreneur. Your company is very important to you, and you are afraid that success may not continue in the future. You reflect on your own actions but always have your eyes on the future. You are a trustworthy and courteous businessman and expect the same from your business partners. As I see it, we are on the same wavelength.”

The statements are extremely vague and imprecise. Therefore, they are not falsifiable. Statements like “very down-to-earth, but also committed entrepreneur,” or “You reflect on your own actions but always have your eyes on the future” are positive statements that any person would confirm unreflectively. With the statement “You are a trustworthy and courteous businessman and expect the same from your business partners,” two positive statements about the person were made, which of course will again be confirmed unreflectively. At the same time, the person was primed with positive characteristics through the application of the priming effect (link). By connecting with the sentence “As I see it, we are on the same wavelength,” all the positive characteristics that the counterpart has already confirmed have been transferred to oneself.