How are zodiac signs and horoscope predictions so accurate?

July 7, 2018 ...

Don’t have time to read? Then give it a listen.


Prior to writing this, I did my research. The cover of this article was designed in such a way that it will attract a certain type of personality and only a certain type of person will click on this

If you don’t believe me, I will make some guesses based on my research about you. Let’s see how much can I get right.

Here we go.

You’re quite outgoing and sociable at times. Yet, at some other times, you prefer alone time to contemplate things .

You have a lot of unused capacity which you can potentially turn to your advantage.

You often have a tendency to be critical of yourself.

You procrastinate a lot.

Deep inside, You like other people admiring you.

While you do have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

How accurate were they? A lot? Well, let’s dive a bit deeper.

Even though self-controlled outside, you tend to be a little insecure inside.

Behind your mask of self imposed maturity, there is still some childishness within you.

At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

You don’t like being told what to think, and you naturally question things.

Despite your occasional quirkiness, you are often a polite, rational, level-headed person.

You are a very honest person and value honesty but there have been some major parts in your life where you have had to lie.

You have sometimes fallen out with friends and family members.

You prefer a certain amount of change and variety but you think a little consistency is beneficial as well.

You believe “Life isn’t fair”…

So, how did I do? I bet I am at least 80% right. I am quite good, ain’t I?

Well, sad to say that those aren’t my guesses. This is called the Barnum-Forer Effect and these are just some Barnum statements I have collected from the internet.

If those hit you uncomfortably close to home, you’ve just been victim of the Barnum-Forer effect, a certain psychological phenomenon in us that makes things like astrology, fortune telling, online personality tests successful.

Want to know more? Well this article is all about it and debunking zodiac signs and horoscope predictions

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What is Barnum-Forer Effect?

Barnum-Forer Effect (Commonly known as Barnum Effect), coined in 1956 by psychologist Paul Meehl, is an everyday psychological phenomenon whereby people believe that advice or feedback based on supernatural or quasi-scientific knowledge is specific to them, when in actual fact, it is generic information that could apply to anyone.These generic informations are referred to as “Barnum Statements.”

Basically, The Barnum effect occurs when people believe that what they are told applies specifically to them, despite the fact that it could apply to almost anyone

This phenomenon is named after the famed American showman, PT Barnum who was well-known for his pseudo-psychological cold reading tests and psychologist Bertram R. Forer who veritably proved the phenomenon for the first time.

This Effect has been considered to be the scientific reason why astrology, aura reading, graphology, fortune telling and most online personality tests reportedly “work”. And it is also widely used to explain a collective belief in anything paranormal and/or supernatural within a locality.

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Picture: Mr. PT Barnum
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Picture: Bertram Forer

History of Barnum-Forer Effect

PT Barnum, the American Showman, businessman, politician and purported mind-reader first began cold reading in the 1850s. Over the decades, he perfected his cold reading techniques and began using what is now known as ‘Barnum Statements.’

(Note: To know more about PT Barnum, you can watch his biopic, the recent hollywood blockbuster “The Greatest Showman”, where Hugh Jackman portrays the titular role.)

Barnum, however, should not be confused as the man who first exploited this effect. Barnum-Forer effect has been

used by astrologists and mentalists for centuries across the world.

In fact, psychics have been employing cold reading techniques in India for at least 3000 years while Egyptian history of psychic clairvoyants using cold-reading techniques is at least 4000 years old. In Ancient Egypt, there were highly trained young priestesses in healing temples called “looking girls” who could purportedly gazing into the innards of the patient’s soul using clairvoyance. These women were known to state a few accurate statements about the patient using their ‘third eye’. Most of their techniques however can now be explained off using Barnum Effect.

One of the first modern psychologists to analyse this effect was Ross Stagner. In 1947, he asked a number of personnel managers to take a personality test. After the test, he handed them each a set of Barnum statements and asked them how accurate his judgement was. A staggering majority said yes. Some said ‘somewhat’. Nobody said no.

In 1948, Forer conducted the now celebrated ‘classic experiment’ which was seen as the modern proof for this phenomenon. He gave a so-called “Diagnostic Interest Blank Psychology Test” to 39 of his psychology students who were told that they would each receive a brief personality sketch based on their test results. He gave them all the exact same set of 12 Barnum Statements (Some of which are in the starting of this article) and asked them to rate it’s accuracy from a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent and accurate).

Not a single student reported a 0, 1 or 2 for any statement. In fact, his entire test had an average accuracy rating of 4.26 on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent). He then revealed to his students that he had given all of them the exact same Barnum statements picked at random from a newsstand astrology book.

Subsequently, most psychologists came to accept this as the basic fundamental behind the supposed success of many cold reading techniques. In 1977, Ray Hyman wrote about the way in which palm readers and other such hucksters exploit this effect. Eventually, in 1956, American psychologist Paul Meehl coined the term ‘Barnum Effect’ for this phenomenon in his essay “Wanted — A Good Cookbook.”

Why does Barnum Effect work?

There are many theories as to why Barnum Effect works. One popular reason that is often cited in most theories is Pollyanna Principle.

Pollyanna Principle is the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones. Therefore positive ended statements are usually received well and rated as highly accurate.

Another thing is that most people like to think of themselves as honest, hardworking, talented and full of potential. Yet they are also critical and insecure about themselves. Therefore statements that can capture both these emotions are often rated accurate.

Finally, gullibility could also be a major factor. The more the subject suspects fraud, the lesser is the chance Barnum effect will work on him/her.

Here’s a good example of the Barnum Effect.

When does it work more accurately?

This effect has been studied repeatedly after that. According to the studies, two factors are important in producing the Barnum effect:

  1. The content is important. The feedback or advice should have a specific emphasis on the ratio of positive to negative trait assessments, they should have a balance.
  2. The other important factor is that the subject trusts the honesty of the person providing feedback.

Later studies have found that subjects give higher accuracy ratings if the following are true:

  • The subject believes that the analysis applies only to him or her, and thus applies his or her own meaning to the statements.
  • The subject believes in the authority of the evaluator.
  • The analysis lists mainly positive traits.

The effect is consistently found when the assessment statements are vague. People are able to read their own meaning into the statements they receive, and thus the statement becomes “personal” to them. The most effective statements include the phrase “at times”, such as “At times you feel very sure of yourself, while at other times you are not as confident.” This phrase can apply to almost anyone, and thus each person can read a “personal” meaning into it. Keeping statements vague in this manner ensures observing the Forer effect.

People are more likely to accept negative assessments of themselves if they think the person assessing them is some high-status professional. Evidence also suggests that people with authoritarian or neurotic personalities or who have a greater than usual need for approval are more likely to manifest the Barnum effect.

Let’s debunk astrology with Barnum Effect

Now that we’ve known a bit about this Barnum-Forer effect, we realise how baseless those online personality tests, or horoscopes are.

Let’s debunk astrology by explaining something of it by this effect.

Let’s take a look at personality descriptions of one of the star signs at random from a horoscope site, say, Capricorn.

“Capricorn women have a cool, standoffish charm. Elegant and glacial, they may seem unapproachable. Actually, this is a mask to hide their vulnerability. Capricorn individuals are afraid of “losing face.” They fear criticism and can’t abide being forced to be self-critical. This woman is competitive, though she is usually more interested in besting her own efforts than those of rivals. If she is not involved in an outside career, she will turn her home into a career. She is a good, if overly strict, mother and expects the best from her children.”Here the first group of adjectives, “standoffish”, “elegant”, “unapproachable”, and “glacial,”

are the types of words one might use to describe a movie-star or model – and who doesn’t want to be described as a movie star?

The description goes on to explain, “Actually, this is a mask to hide their vulnerability.” Do you see what’s happening here? The description has suddenly moved in the opposite direction, and discredits what it has already told us, leaving us confused in the mix and in a position to cherry-pick those attributes we would rather have. We’ve talked about this, how these feedbacks should have a balance between positives and negative, remember?The description moves on to “Capricorns are afraid of losing face.” Well who really isn’t afraid of losing face?

And then they “fear criticism.” Again who out there actually enjoys being criticized?

And concludes with the totally generic – “she expects the best from her children.”

Do you know any mom who doesn’t expect best from her children?

But most Capricorn women will read this description and think how similar it is to herself. Same thing happens for personality tests too.

Can you test the Barnum Effect?

The easiest technique to test the Barnum Effect is to gather your subjects and hand them out pamphlets with the personality descriptors or Barnum statements that I have started this article with.

Tell them that it is customized for them and tailored specifically for their personality.

Now ask them how accurate it is.

Collect the results and tabulate it. Try this with your friends and family

Possibility is you’ll get a overwhelmingly positive bias towards the Barnum Effect. And from then on, you will think twice before believing a supernatural prediction

This article’s audiobook is read by Sadia Raisa

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