Is the evaluation that people tend to make of you vague sometimes? Do you have a tendency to accept it as true? If you do, the Barnum Effect is in play!

We often tend to take things that people say to us at face value rather than actually looking inward. This is often what causes us to make self-evaluations that may not entirely be true. This can cause a fracture between the notion of the actual and ideal selves that we make o ourselves out to be, causing a mental conflict. This tendency to accept vague and ambiguous statements as being about one’s self is known as the Barnum Effect.

The Effect is named after circus entertainer, P.T. Barnum. Image: Revolvy

The Effect is named after circus entertainer, P.T. Barnum.
Image: Revolvy

This effect is what governs the adoption of labels and evaluation by individuals, when they are ascribed them by others. The phenomenon was named after and posited by Richard Meehl, and presents a pretty fascinating conundrum in psychological research settings.

When we look at the notions of personality assessment, the importance of individual accounts and personality traits is imperative to understand how we are all different and unique in a certain sense. The Barnum Effect, however, puts a mysterious shroud on the notions of personality assessment. It takes the notion of having unwitting ‘individuality’ and turns it on its head. This flip-side occurs through the machinations of nothing but the human mind.


Thus, we often tend to assume that we subscribe to the most ambiguous evaluation of personality and character because of our own thinking! Another good example of the Barnum Effect would be the way it affects us when we read a horoscope, or tabulations for a zodiac sign. We tend to think things like ‘Oh! I’m a Pisces, so I’m flighty, creative and dreamy all the time.’ However, little do we know that these are evaluations made on an extremely ‘macro’ scale! They don’t wholly apply to us.


Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, citing Forer’s research in personality assessment, try to deduce that the Barnum Effect brings a level of confusion and dispute into the argument of personality evaluation. A sample of 39 students was given a personality survey to fill in. A week later, the same students were given the same ambiguous personality statement to respond to as ‘valid’, on a scale of 0 to 5. Most respondents said that the description (which was identical in all 39 cases) ‘applied to them’, with a score of 3-4 coming from most. No students reported scores of below 2.

Thus, if all students merely ‘felt’ that this evaluation fit with their ideas of the self, are they largely the same? The answer is a big NO! They definitely aren’t identical in most senses. When we’re presented with ambiguous statements, the first tendency we have is to associate them with ourselves. This tendency is what puts personality assessment into such a tizzy. Thus, the Barnum Effect is quite fascinating, because it is able to override theoretically proven notions ¬†of personality with ease. Thus, one must try to mediate this effect through measures and questionnaires that are more ‘subjective’ rather than one-dimensional.