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Brain Food #747
The Barnum Effect
Thoughts of the day
Every Wednesday, I will be sharing a new cognitive bias or mental model that you can add to your thinking toolbox. Being aware of our biases can help us change perspectives, be better humans, and make wiser decisions. In the last post, I wrote about the paradox of value, which reveals the contradictory nature of the value we place on things, and that what we tend to value can change based on how much of it is available.
The Barnum Effect is the natural tendency of people to believe that personality descriptions apply specifically to them, when in fact those descriptions are generalised statements, containing information that could apply to anyone.
An example of the Barnum Effect is when you read your horoscope, and it turns out to be true, but if you read another star sign’s predictions they may appear to be equally familiar and conveniently suitable to your own circumstances. The Barnum Effect can also be witnessed in people visiting psychics, but also in some personality tests, with the most popular one being MBTI (or Myers-Briggs), which many claim is in fact pseudoscience, especially since much of the research supporting its validity was funded by the very people who created it.
What the Barnum Effect suggests is that we are all more similar than we think, not just in what we recognise in ourselves in those generic descriptions, but also in our need for predictability, explanations, or even reassurance on specific decisions we have made. We want to believe that some incredible future event awaits us. We want to believe that we are good people with infinite potential. Perhaps we all need to believe in some magic. But when it comes to big life decisions, we should have some more trust in ourselves, the abilities we have been given, and the fact that even though the future is unpredictable, it is still in the making, and up to us to define.
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
― Noam Chomsky
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