The Forer Effect: Do You Believe in Horoscopes or Fortune Tellers?
“It’s just like I read in my horoscope: it said I was going to have a family conflict this week, and that’s just what happened!” “My personality is just like the test I took.” These are some of the phrases we often hear: but whether myth or reality, what is behind horoscopes? One of the effects that are triggered is the so-called Forer effect.
This is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to accept certain generalizations that can be applied to any individual as their own. It’s also known as the “personal validation fallacy” or the “Barnum effect.” Below, we’ll take a detailed look at what it consists of and what its characteristics are.
How does the Forer effect work?
The so-called Forer effect comes from an experiment carried out by the psychologist Bertram Forer with his students. He gave his students a sheet of paper with a series of questions through which he would evaluate their personalities.
Once answered, he returned the results to them, but in the form of anther test. The conclusions were all the same and included statements such as the following:
- “You have a need for other people to like you and admire you, and yet you tend to criticize yourself.”
- “You have a considerable capacity that you have not used to your advantage.”
- “Sometimes you have serious doubts as to whether you did the right thing or made the right decision.”
Forer then asked them to rate their agreement with each statement and assigned a score; 5 was the highest score for agreeing with the statement and 0 was the score reflecting absolute disagreement. Overall, the average obtained after collecting all the evidence was 4.26.
The surprise was when Forer pointed out to his students that these were descriptions obtained from an astrology section of a newspaper, confirming that people often identify with any statements that are general and ambiguous enough.
Characteristics of the Forer Effect
Many people resonate with the Forer effect because it often presents possible situations and avoids absolute terms. For example, if in a personality description we read “you’re goal-oriented, although sometimes you are discouraged by difficulties”, no one would dare to deny the opposite; most of us are!
Therefore, this effect is self-referential, so it makes individuals identify with what they read. It’s also common because it’s based on confirmation bias: people take cues from the environment that lead them to affirm or reinforce what they already believed or thought.
It’s like always wearing the same glasses when interpreting a situation. It makes a lot of sense, especially when we think we love to be right or believe we are right. Another reason it works is because we have a hard time tolerating uncertainty.
We have an innate need to know what’s going to happen and we seek a sense of control over the future. For this very reason, when something manages to help us, guide us, and leave us with the feeling that we can “step on solid ground”, we choose to take it into account.
In this sense, it’s also important to remember that people move based on desires, sometimes even more than on empirical data. We look for reasons that give “more body” to our hopes.
Along the same lines as the above, we have the need to give explanations for things that happen. Therefore, we’re also able to be satisfied with any answers.
Another decisive factor for this effect to operate has to do with the presence of positive aspects in the descriptions (we choose to believe in that which positions us favorably and reject that which does not) and the authority granted to the speaker.
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Some clarifications on the Forer Effect
The Forer effect applies to everything that presents generalizations with which it’s easy to identify. However, science should not be confused with pseudoscience, or research instruments, such as personality inventories or related tests, which have reliability and validity as their main attributes.
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Choosing what and when
This is not about demonizing horoscope reading or the use of palm reading. Each person can believe in what he or she wants. What is important is to know that beyond the tools we decide to use, we are the protagonists of our lives.
We are all active beings with the ability to decide freely, change our minds, and choose which path we want to walk. In this sense, we shouldn’t be satisfied with simplistic or taxing statements about ourselves, but try to truly get to know ourselves and know what resources to use and when.
Finally, going a little further, the Forer effect invites us to think about the potential danger of always seeking to confirm what we believe. This attitude – which is characterized by a certain degree of hermeticism – can lead to cognitive distortions that bring us to overlook certain important elements.
It also leads to mental closed-mindedness that is far from creativity, flexibility, and tolerance. It can even lead to dangerous situations. In short, as the saying goes, “there’s no worse blind person than the one who does not desire to see.”It might interest you...
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Layne C. Relationship between the “Barnum effect” and personality inventory responses. J Clin Psychol. 1978 Jan;34(1):94-7. doi: 10.1002/1097-4679(197801)34:1<94::aid-jclp2270340122>3.0.co;2-t. PMID: 641192.
- Pérez Álvarez, M. (2020). The scientific imbroglio of psychotherapy: A way out= El embrollo científico de la psicoterapia: cómo salir. Papeles del Psicólogo.
- Concha, D., Ramírez, M. Á. B., Cuadra, I. G., Rovira, D. P., & Rodríguez, A. F. (2012). Sesgos cognitivos y su relación con el bienestar subjetivo. Salud & Sociedad, 3(2), 115-129.