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Advertising responsibly with the Barnum Effect

If you’ve ever taken a Buzzfeed quiz to find out what kind of bread you are or a deep truth about yourself based on your choices in a few desserts, then allow me, a Buzzfeed certified Baguette Bread to say that you have already experienced the Barnum effect.

At some point, you’ve probably been fooled by how a personality quiz or a horoscope can tell you a deep truth about yourself so accurately. What you’re experiencing is really called the Barnum or the Forer Effect.

This is essentially a psychological phenomenon wherein an individual believes that a personality description applies to them specifically, despite the fact that the message was so generic that it applies to almost everyone. This cognitive bias can be a great tool for every marketer if implemented right.

(Source: Unsplash)

WTForer we’re on about:

In 1948, a psychologist, Bertram Forer did a study wherein he conducted personality tests for his students and asked them how well the results matched their self perceptions. The students found that the summaries of their personalities were absolutely on point, they felt they were given a tailor made description of themselves. What they didn’t know was that all of them had the exact same summary of results that described their personalities. They were told generic statements like “You sometimes wonder if you’ve made the right decision or did the right thing”.

Well, duh! Don’t we all?

Horoscopes, psychics and fortune tellers run businesses based on this. If you check out a horoscope reading for your own sun sign from a newspaper, it’ll sound just as hopeful and ring just as true as any other sun sign.

How does Barnum fit into this?

PT Barnum, The Greatest Showman also used this technique where he tried to lure people to his circus by telling them “remarkable truths about themselves”, with generic statements like - sometimes you’re shy but in the company of known faces, you’re quite a party.

(Source: The Human Marvels)

Granted, he was no true detective, but what’s important to note was that he realised most people had the same strengths and weaknesses, they just wanted to feel part of a specific group and feel like they're being addressed personally.

That’s what brought him to say that “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Forer and Barnum find their way to us even today:

If you’ve ever used the Spotify app, the curated playlists and your daily mixes are compiled in a way that makes it seem like it's been specially designed for you based on your past experiences and music preferences. While it feels highly personalized and that Spotify has handpicked those playlists just for you, the truth is that the same songs are automated for different sets of audiences.

(Source: How to geek)

The same logic applies to the Amazon Kindles, the Netflix movies and shows recommendations as well as the personality quizzes.