‘You have a great need for other people to like and admire you’. ‘You have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage’. ‘You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.’
On the off chance you read any of those statements and thought ‘wow, that is SO me’, then you’re exactly the type of person certain horoscope writers love to trap in their mystical web.
The above are known as ‘Barnum statements’ or as part of the ‘Barnum Effect’, named after the showman PT Barnum – the very same man Hugh Jackman portrayed in The Greatest Showman.
Barnum, who owned a museum and circus, famously said he had ‘something for everyone’ and that’s exactly what horoscope writers aim to create when they talk about what the day, week or month has to offer you.
The showman also apparently said ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’, but I won’t linger on that too much right now. I don’t want to offend anyone this early on in the article.
The thing is, all too often some of my nearest and dearest get far too excited about how accurately they’re described by complete strangers. Whether they’re getting it through a magazine’s horoscope section, on an app, or in a fortune cookie, there’s just far too much belief in what these statements ‘reflect’ about them.
Nancy Jobes, astrologer and writer and editor of horoscopes on Soulvibe.com, admitted to UNILAD some horoscopes in the papers, tabloids or other websites are conjured out of thin air and contain very general information.
These are the kinds of platforms which rely on Barnum statements, so while the ‘revelations’ might appear to be hitting the nail on the head when it comes to career aspects, relationships and inner turmoil, the truth is the statements are so vague they could apply to anyone who wants to accept them.
The astrologer, who has been studying and teaching the practise for 30 years, explained:
Most of the [horoscopes] you see in the papers and tabloids that give creepy warnings and whatnot are not accurate at all.
All that does is make people LOOK for it to happen, and if you look for ‘arguments with friends or coworkers’, you’re going to make it happen, notice it more, or draw it into your life because you’re looking for it… thus making someone THINK it was real.
According to the Department of Psychology at California State University, further examples of Barnum statements include; ‘disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside’ and ‘at times you are extroverted, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved’.
The statements can be applied to anyone and they cover all the bases when it comes to personality types. Introverted? Check. Extroverted? Check. Self-controlled? Check. Insecure? You guessed it – check.
Certain horoscopes typically use these kinds of statements to encourage readers to believe the description is directed at them specifically but in reality they’re extremely non-committal. The same technique can be used by psychics, magicians and palm readers.
To help prove my point, I sent some of my star sign-loving friends a horoscope, claiming it had been written for their sign. In reality, they all received the same one.
Courtesy of horoscopes.com, it read:
August begins with the Leo new moon lighting up your professional sector, career, and public image. The sun is shining so to speak. Be confident as you step up and share your light.
On August 11, Mercury re-enters Leo, Jupiter stations direct, and Uranus stations retrograde–bringing exciting opportunities that could expand your career and bank account. But be clear on your goals, so you don’t stray off course, or lose sight of your values.
As the Sun and Venus align on August 14, followed by the Aquarius full moon on August 15, in your domestic sector.
There could be a golden opportunity arising professionally, but this could trigger insecurities or mean shuffling a domestic situation to accommodate for the changes unfolding. This is a chance to clear the decks of the past, so you can create space for your expanding vision and life.
The horoscope continued:
As Mars, Venus, and the Sun enter Virgo on August 18, 21 and 23, your social life gets busier. You’re making connections that can help you further your most cherished ambitions.
A Venus-Mars conjunction on August 24 brings you full circle from two years ago–how have your friendships and aspirations grown? As you awaken to the possibilities–this will mean letting go of aspirations you’ve outgrown. Move through this process of elimination consciously, as you move to the new moon in Virgo on August 30.
Then as September begins you’ll be ready to draw into your world what you’ve most wished for, plant seeds and nurture your dreams to life.
I asked the recipients to rate the description on a scale of one to 10 for accuracy, with 10 meaning the description was spot on.
The horoscope was intended for a Scorpio, and after sending it to a Cancer, a Leo and a Sagittarius I received the following responses:
A nine and a 10 – ‘bang on’.
My test was inspired by the master of mentalism, Derren Brown, who performed a larger-scale experiment on three groups of students a few years ago. His experiment mirrored one conducted by American psychologist Bertram Forer in 1948, in which the professor gave 39 students in his introductory psychology class a personality test.
A week later, Forer gave each student a ‘personality sketch’ made up of 14 sentences which the professor claimed summed them up. Each student rated the accuracy of the sketch and on average it received a rating of 4.3 out of five, however Forer then revealed each student had the exact same description.
The Barnum Effect is also sometimes known as the Forer Effect as a result of the psychologist’s research into the topic.
Take a look at Brown’s explanation of the trick here:
Barnum statements tend to be positive because no one wants to admit a negative description is accurate, so horoscope writers reel off appreciative, uplifting comments which anyone would be happy to attribute to themselves.
Admittedly, you have to want to believe what you’re reading – horoscopes aren’t quite as convincing if you already have doubts about their legitimacy.
Take a look at this response I received, for example:
‘They’re all bollocks’ – Yeah, I’d call that a conclusive lack of confirmation bias.
A number of unspecific statements are evident in the horoscope I sent, such as ‘be clear on your goals, so you don’t stray off course, or lose sight of your values’ and ‘… brings you full circle from two years ago–how have your friendships and aspirations grown? As you awaken to the possibilities–this will mean letting go of aspirations you’ve outgrown’.
The statements can easily be applied to anyone – everyone has goals they want to achieve and everyone will have changed from the person they were two years ago. It’s not profound, it’s common sense.
As well as using vague statements, notice how possibility is a running theme throughout the horoscope I sent. Words like ‘could’ and ‘can’ are used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the writers.
They’re not asserting these wonderful things will definitely happen to you, but on the off chance they do then the prediction will have been a success.
Similarly to the way Nancy said readers can draw horoscopes into their life because they’re looking for it, Ron Roggio, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College and writer for Psychology Today, told UNILAD how readers can force horoscopes to fit their lives through confirmation bias.
[The Barnum Effect] is a big part of why people read a horoscope and, because they all tend to be somewhat positive (or neutral), it appears to ‘fit’ with individuals’ perceptions of themselves.
Another factor [in believing horoscopes] is confirmation bias. This error in human perception is when we are told something about ourselves, for example ‘you will have good luck today’, and we make it fit. We look for confirming evidence (lucky things) and ignore disconfirming things (unlucky things).
Roggio went on to point out there’s a lack of scientific evidence surrounding horoscopes and, in his experience, astrologers have never provided legitimate explanations as to how they could work.
I’ve read some of the rationale given by astrologers or believers in astrology, and although they have lots of ‘explanations’ of the conditions under which it is more or less effective, for example knowing the time of birth, the orientation of birthplace, etc. they give virtually no scientific evidence to support it.
I think people are trying hard to confirm that astrology works, so once again, it is related to confirmation bias.
One of the common rationales is ‘well, the moon affects our tides, so it makes sense that the alignment of the planets/stars can affect your life.’ That’s not scientific evidence.
While Roggio offered a psychological approach to understanding people’s acceptance of horoscopes, Nancy countered the argument by explaining horoscopes are typically based on a person’s Sun Sign, ‘the archetype that describes the ego’, but in fact we all have each of the 12 star signs somewhere in our astrological makeup.
Therefore, Nancy said, anyone can see any sign description in themselves, as all archetypes are present in our consciousness. She described the Barnum Effect as ‘fascinating as a psychological process’ but said it ‘gets in the way of meaningful studies [of astrology].’
Linda Simons, an astrologer from Massachusetts, spoke further about the different signs, explaining:
I believe that there is a general sense of accuracy about sun sign horoscopes but I also know that is not possible for them to be completely accurate because of a person’s rising sign, moon placement and other planets in their chart.
I am a Scorpio, but not every Scorpio horoscope that I read resonates for me because I, like most people, have a lot of other signs in my chart.
An individual is not just their sun sign, so it is extremely important to look at the whole chart in its entirety.
When it comes to writing her own horoscopes, Nancy begins the process by looking at ‘a natal chart for the day, the sign and placement for the Moon, the aspects the Moon makes to other planets, and any major astrological things going on.’
She explained how the horoscopes aren’t always accurate but she tends to receive good feedback, saying:
I get feedback that we were right on the money, and sometimes feedback that we were wrong today. When you create horoscopes for Sun Signs, you are writing something, usually in less than 100 words, for some ratio of 1/12th of the population for each sign – sometimes the theme I pick might not resonate with an individual’s life.
I’d love to nail it every time, but while I like to think I’m very good at what I do, astrology is only as good as the interpreter… and I’m not perfect.
Still, the process I use looks at all the planets and frames it through the lens of the Sun Sign ego, without personal knowledge of my readers’ lives. I get a lot of love and wonderful feedback.
The writer pointed out the planets don’t control our lives, saying instead she considers astrology to be about cycles, the human experience and our connection to the universe. She described it as ‘a highly useful psychological tool for self-discovery’.
As for why people like reading horoscopes – tabloid, website or otherwise – the astrologer suggested a need for guidance:
People want hope. I think horoscopes have exploded in recent years because people want some direction.
People are less likely to hide that they suffer from anxiety or depression or that they are seeking therapy… and are also more likely to be open minded to look at alternative methods of understanding themselves and the world around them.
It’s clear there’s much more to astrology than your weekly horoscope in the back page of a magazine and some writers out there really do their research before discussing what could be in store for each sign, but when it comes to the less reputable sources Barnum statements are clearly the key which keeps the audience captive.
It’s the oldest trick in the book but it still manages to amaze people.
So, next time you come across a horoscope maybe take a minute to think about just how many people it could apply to – and if there’s any mention of you being an extrovert in some situations and an introvert in others, just walk away.
If you still find yourself hooked, you might just be one of those suckers Barnum was talking about.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]
California State University Department of Psychology
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