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The Barnum Effect

Some will be reaching for Google and dictionaries on this. Some fine examples of Barnum statements, “Humans a not perfect“, or “Everybody makes mistakes – are you perfect?” or “Not everybody is a scientist.” The words seem to hold a truth held dear by ordinary people. But in essence they lack depth by the way they generalise.  Here are some more:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
  6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.”
  7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  11. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.”
  13. Security is one of your major goals in life.”
  14. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you, yet you tend to be critical of yourself.
  15. While you have some personality weaknesses, generally you are able to compensate for them.

The above seem like very ordinary statements that few people will find an issue with. They are taken from horoscopes. As usual, the majority – the herd rules – which is the same reason that lemmings sometimes dive off cliffs.


The Barnum effect, also known as the Forer effect, is a psychological phenomenon where individuals believe that vague and general descriptions or statements about personality traits apply specifically to them, even though they are actually applicable to a wide range of people. This effect is named after P.T. Barnum, the famous showman, who was known for his broad and ambiguous statements that seemed personally applicable to many people.

The effect was first demonstrated by psychologist Bertram R. Forer in 1948. In his experiment, Forer gave a psychology class a personality test and then provided each student with a supposedly personalized analysis. In reality, each student received the exact same analysis, which was composed of vague and general statements. Despite this, the students rated the accuracy of their “personalized” analysis highly, demonstrating the Barnum effect.

The Barnum effect is often used to explain the perceived accuracy of horoscopes and fortune telling. It’s also used in certain areas of psychology, such as personality tests, where vague and general statements can be interpreted by individuals to apply specifically to their own lives.

The Barnum effect reveals how individuals can be led to believe that specific, personal and accurate information is being provided to them, when in fact the information is vague and general. It’s a testament to the power of suggestion and the human tendency to find personal meaning in broad statements.

Barnum statements are general and vague enough to apply to a wide range of people, yet they are often perceived as uniquely applicable to oneself.


Strangely though these words have crept into official and business language, like at the CQC! When I ask myself ‘what does that mean?‘ – I come up with ‘it’s nonsense‘.

So what got me going? Tonight I read on some forum someone going, “CBT isn’t always the best option and sometimes it’s downright useless. A close friend has been sent down the CBT route many times and it really has had no measurable benefit for them.” Don’t bother to Google the sentence cuz it’s from a closed forum that you’d have to pay upward of £26/month though I only pay £6/month for it.

Unpack the words: ‘always‘, ‘best option‘ and ‘sometimes‘. Then put them back together and play them out again – then engage brain to think if you can.

Is anything on earth ‘always the best option‘? How many things are ‘sometimes downright useless’? Is any other therapy or treatment ‘always the best option and not ‘sometimes downright useless’?  Like WTF even antibiotics or heart surgery could be ‘downright useless‘ and not ‘always the best option‘.

If you want to have some fun, substitute the word ‘men’ or ‘women’ or ‘dieting’ or ‘exercise’ or ‘ibuprofen’. Then you get  like, “Ibuprofen isn’t always the best option and sometimes it’s downright useless.”  Or for a a better giggle, do it like this, “Scratching your arse isn’t always the best option and sometimes it’s downright dangerous. My friend scratched her arse and ended up in A&E on drips!”

The amazing thing with this sort of reasoning (if you can call it that), is that you have people in forums giving their thumbs ups to the above sort of comment and others bawling ‘True!‘.

But wait – I haven’t mentioned what Barnum is about. The uneducated will think it’s a derogatory word because to them it resembles ‘barmy’. It’s about the Barnum effect, where something is so generally applicable that it’s useless- though it appears ‘true’; just because ‘people’ – dim people agree with it.

And there is a danger in the way these words are thrown around. Look at it again, A close friend has been sent down the CBT route many times and it really has had no measurable benefit for them. So your bloody close friend is one example that supports your ‘isn’t always‘ and sometimes ‘downright useless‘ – but ‘you’ are dim. Very very dim and you don’t know how dim. The individual has not disclosed a whole range of things – like? For what mental disorder was the CBT used to treat- was that disorder accurately diagnosed – what was the qualifications and expertise of the CBT therapist – did your friend work the CBT programme properly.

But hold on – ‘sent down the CBT route‘ – wow! How much more sensationalist can you get!? Nobody is sent down any CBT routes. What – you frog march people into CBT? Chrysst!

As I’ve said before ‘everybody’ these days thinks they are a mental health expert – just because they’ve had some personal experience of a so-called mental disorder, or their friend had a so-called mental disorder blah blah.

Annoying intrusion

Stupid: It is what it is! Calm down.

CW: Do you know when it is, what it isn’t?!

Stupid: Huh?

CW: Thanks for helping out with cliché and throw away words. You just made my point. Now off you pop!

Stupid: No wait.. you can’t do that!

CW: It is what it is. You’re gone! Poof!


Right – as I was saying – these sorts of people with no training in the ways of science, spread around bunkum on social media – which is repeated thousands of times for zillions of thumbs ups – and before long rubbish becomes the truth. Some will recall the meaning of Post-truth and some will be clueless to the concept.

Some of the speed reading variety will have come away thinking that I’m having a rant because I’m involved with mental health services. I just know it. It’s what people do – they come to perceptions in their heads and then that’s reality for them.

It’s nothing to do with that. It’s plainly about how people use words and mislead themselves and others.

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