Category: Behavioral Economics.


When you crack open a fortune cookie, the message inside is likely heartwarming or motivating, like, “You are almost there,” or “Every day in your life is a special occasion.” Fortune cookies, horoscopes, and your Spotify recommendations have one thing in common: they demonstrate the Barnum effect.

So, what is the Barnum effect, and how does it affect our lives? Read this guide to find out.

What Is the Barnum Effect?

The Barnum effect or Forer effect is a natural tendency to believe that a generic piece of information applies uniquely to us. A statement such as, “You will reach your goal very soon,” could apply to virtually anyone.

Still, we perceive it as a personal message addressing our specific situation. This bias was named after psychologist Bertram Forer who demonstrated its effects in 1948, and P.T. Barnum’s showmanship in the 1800s.

How Does the Barnum Effect Work?

The Barnum effect psychology relies on the basic human need to believe in positive traits about ourselves. Even if the positive statements are factual, false, or vague, we identify with them because they make us feel good. It can get intensified by availability heuristic as the Barnum effect reiterates the feel good factor of an already existing idea.

Barnum Effect Examples

There are numerous examples of the Barnum effect in our everyday lives. These include:

  1. Divination

    Horoscopes, tarot cards, palm reading, numerology, and the I Ching rely on generalized statements to reveal insights about one’s presence and future. These activities are wildly popular because their readings are generally positive and relatable in various circumstances, and the Forer effect convinces us that the insights are accurate and specific.

  2. Fortune Cookies

    Chinese restaurants offer fortune cookies with broad, simplified messages. But more often than not, we take these messages to heart or even base vital decisions on them if they align with our current circumstances.

  3. Online Personality Tests

    Social media, dating, and personality-specific sites offer multiple-choice, yes/no, and true/false questions to receive a personality type description. The personality descriptions are typically generalized, vague, and affirm our existing beliefs.

  4. Online Self-Diagnosis

    The “Dr. Google” phenomenon leads us to search for our symptoms online before seeing a physician. Unfortunately, a general description of an illness matches our experience even though online symptom-checking is accurate only 36% of the time.

  5. Content Recommendations

    Platforms like Spotify, YouTube, and Netflix offer recommendations based on previous user choices. Their algorithms offer similar content to give us a sense of personalization, as though the sites genuinely know us. Machine learning and artificial intelligence work together with the Barnum effect to foster a sense of loyalty to these platforms through tailored content recommendations.


Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth

Albert Einstein

Importance of the Barnum Effect

Businesses can leverage the Barnum effect to improve customer engagement and client relationships. Suppose you can make your customers feel like they’re engaging with humans rather than automated systems or algorithms. In that case, you can increase your conversion rates significantly. This means using sophisticated marketing tactics to hyper-target your content and create seamless interactions for your customer-facing automated processes.

Barnum Effect

Psychological Principles Behind Barnum Effect

  1. We Want to Believe Good Things About Ourselves

    We naturally give personal and positive meanings to vague or broad-sweeping statements because we want to be good people. Sometimes in order to please people we adopt what is socially acceptable and therefore follow what is popularly called as the herd mentality.

  2. We Want to Be Relatable

    We desire the positive traits and similar struggles we see in others to give us a common ground for social interactions. The MBTI trend is an excellent Barnum effect example of this principle.

  3. We Fill in The Blanks

    When confronted with a vague statement, our minds make up the specifics positively to make the statement true. These principles explain why the Forer or Barnum effect happens to us.


Why Does It Happen?

The Barnum Effect is a psychological occurrence when you try to persuade someone that something is accurate, and they believe it because you say it. The concept of the Barnum effect is simple, but it can be misunderstood quite easily. For example, if breakfast time comes around and you are hungry, it’s easy to develop a sense of urgency to eat.

In modern business, decisions have to be made at high speed. The only way that leaders can stay on course is if they adopt the best approach to working. The OKR framework is a compelling and straightforward goal-setting strategy that big companies in the world use to enhance their strategy, engagement, and alignment. To avoid bias in decision-making and prioritize your goal execution you can get started on completely free today!

Impact of the Barnum Effect

At its core, Barnum effect psychology reveals our gullibility as humans to believe the best in everything. That’s why fraudulent actors take advantage and influence our choices, usually to detrimental effects. For example, a snake oil scam can sell fake Covid-19 remedies that put our health at risk, or a psychic scam can steal money from clients in the name of spiritual cleansing services.

Countering the Barnum Effect

Why and How to Avoid It?

The Barnum effect leads us into fraudulent traps that can damage our health and finances. You’re more prone to Barnum effect psychology if:

  • The statement or analysis seems to apply only to you
  • The statement’s source appears authoritative or trustworthy
  • The statement carries mostly positive traits

How To Avoid Barnum Effect?

Keep these tips in mind to avoid the Barnum effect:

  1. Be Skeptical

    Take overly optimistic or generic statements with a pinch of salt, and ask for details whenever possible.

  2. Question the Source’s Authority

    Only trust sources with a good track record of objectivity and accuracy rather than ambiguous content that’s neither right nor wrong.

  3. Balance Positive with Negative

    The Barnum effect sprinkles a few negative statements into broadly positive messages to create the illusion of credibility. Look closely at this positive-negative ratio to spot biased content. Very often when faced with such situations cognitive dissonance takes over and makes decision making difficult.


  1. What is the Barnum effect?

    The Barnum effect or Forer effect is a bias that makes us believe in ambiguous but positive messages if they relate to our circumstances. It’s a mental shortcut that avoids critical thinking but makes us vulnerable to fraud and scams.

  2. How do you identify the Barnum effect?

    A typical Barnum effect example is horoscopes which offer generalized statements that could apply to anyone, but we interpret them as personal.

  3. How do you avoid the Barnum effect?

    Awareness of this bias is half the battle, but a healthy dose of skepticism is an excellent way to avoid Barnum effect psychology.


It’s easy to fall prey to information that makes us feel good about ourselves, which makes the Barnum effect challenging to overcome. We also seek guidance through uncertain times, often turning to the most positive-sounding information we can find to help us navigate our challenges. Individuals can also misuse this bias for malicious purposes, such as scams and manipulation. However, once you notice the Barnum effect, you can improve your critical thinking skills and avoid unnecessary and harmful traps when making decisions. Book a free demo with our team to learn more about how OKR software can optimize your organization’s performance by avoiding the Barnum effect in your business decisions.

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