How do horoscopes always “get” us? It's a distorted impression of the Forer effect

Have you ever read or heard a horoscope and you had the impression that it was done tailored for you? If yes, you have experienced a psychological phenomenon called Forer effectalso known as Barnum effect. The Barnum or Forer effect is the tendency with which people accept and judge summary declarations concerning them to be validsometimes even opposing, or identifying with generic profiles or character traits that are reported to them. Horoscope texts exploit this effect and in fact they are always created in such a way that they can be valid for a large number of subjects, without characterizing any one in particular: this “effect” is a cognitive bias which explains the success of horoscopes or divination. Let's see in more detail how it works.

How the Forer or Barnum effect works

The Forer effect is named after its discoverer, the psychologist Bertram R. Forerwho called him “personal validation error”. This fallacy is also defined as the “Barnum effect” from the name of an American circus performer, known because in his circus he declared that he could satisfy all tastes of entertainment by relying, in fact, on the Forer effect: the tendency of individuals to believe that a descriptiona psychological profile, an entertainment activity and so on, are cut out perfectly on ourselves, even when they are formulated in very general terms.

Because horoscopes always seem to “get it right”.

The declarations of the horoscopes are on one side ambiguous And vaguebut also very close to considerations of common sense, so much so that everyone can perceive a sense of validity in it. The mathematician Gasking would define this circumstance as an “indubitable proposition”, i.e

«a proposition that you would never define as false, no matter what. Consequently, it does not tell us what happens (…) The truth of an incorrigible proposition is compatible with any imaginable state of affairs (e.g., regardless of your experience of counting, it always remains true that 7 + 5 = 12)»

Gasking, 1966, pp. 204 221

This happens, as explained by Forer, because people are not distinguished by the presence or absence of specific personality traits. We all have the same personality traits, what differentiates us is the way in which they manifest themselves in each of us. Simply put, each individual is a unique combination of non-unique characteristics. Therefore, in the “universally valid” statements, everyone can find something that resonates with their own personal experience.

Again Forer, comments that:

«a universally valid statement describes a cultural group rather than a personal psychological fact».

That is, it tells us something about our collective culture (our values, our desires, the things important to our community), more than our personal and unique traits.

forer or barnum effect

What if the horoscope is “wrong”?

Astrology uses precise safeguard mechanisms which explain and justify his imperfections. If a zodiac sign does not correspond to someone's personality or a specific event, with a spin the responsibility is attributed to an ascendant, an unexpected influence, a combination of planets, and so on. Thanks to these saving arguments, it can be said that astrology has always managed to escape criticism and remain credible for its supporters.

Explanations of the Forer effect

Bertram Forer explained the fallacy of subjective validation in terms of

  • wishful thinking: the mental process in which one interprets reality based on one's desires rather than objective reality (for example, hoping that profiles are similar to ourselves can make us ignore the fact that they could also fit many other people);
  • confirmation bias: tendency to seek and give importance only to information that supports our beliefs, ignoring or minimizing that which contradicts them. For example, if you believe that crossing a black cat brings bad luck, you will tend to remember only the unfortunate events related to black cats and forget those that are not;
  • principle of social proof: the idea that the more people approve of a concept, the more valid it seems (as shown for example by the psychologist Cialdini in the case of pre-recorded laughter on TV, which induces the audience to laugh more not because of the content, but because they hear others LAUGH)

Not just pseudoscience

The critical implications of the Forer effect extend well beyond the pseudosciences and controversial disciplines. They also find space in everyday contexts such as in advertising: slogans and advertising campaigns are often based on statements that invite you to stand out through a purchase. All these messages play on universal aspirations – each individual believes they are unique; presumes to be original and unpredictable; professes to be in favor of change – disguising these common aspirations as individual choices, which instead promote mass behaviorextremely repeated, conventional and not at all original.