Forer (people are gullible)

“Personality evaluations can be, and often are, couched in such general terms that they are meaningless in terms of denotability in behavior. Or they may have “universal validity” and apply to everyone. […]

Thus the individual is a unique configuration of characteristics each of which can be found in everyone, but in varying degrees. A universally valid statement, then, is one which applies equally well to the majority or the totality of the population. The universally valid statement is true for the individual, but it lacks the quantitative specification and the proper focus which are necessary for differential diagnosis. In a sense a universally valid personality description is of the type most likely to be accepted by a client as a truth about himself, a truth which he considers unique in him. Many, if not most, individuals are able to recognize the characteristics in themselves – when it is not to their disadvantage – while oblivious to their presence in others. […]

Allport (1, p. 476) states that “one way in which character analysts secure a reputation for success is through the employment of ambiguous terms that may apply to any mortal person”. A naïve person who receives superficial diagnostic information, especially when the social situation is prestige-laden, tends to accept such information.1 He is impressed by the obvious truths and may be oblivious to the discrepancies. But he does more than this. He also validates the instrument and the diagnostician. […]

The following experiment was performed in the writer’s class in introductory psychology to demonstrate the ease with which clients may be misled by a general personality description into unwarranted approval of a diagnostic tool. The writer had discussed his Diagnostic Interest Blank (5)[2] (hereafter referred to as DIB) in connection with the role of personal motivational factors in perceptual selectivity. Class members requested that they be given the test and a personality evaluation. The writer acquiesced. At the next meeting the 39 students were given DIB’s to fill out, and were told that they would be given a brief personality vignette as soon as the writer had time to examine their test papers. One week later each student was given a typed personality sketch with his name written on it. The writer encouraged the expressed desire of the class for secrecy regarding the content of the sketches. Fortunately, this was the day on which a quiz was scheduled; hence it was possible to ensure their sitting two seats apart without arousing suspicion. From the experimenter’s point of view it was essential that no student see the sketch received by any other student because all sketches were identical. The students were unsuspecting.

The personality sketch contains some material which overlaps with that of Paterson, but consists of 13 statements rather than a narrative description. A further difference lies in the fact that this sketch was designed for more nearly universal validity than Paterson’s appears to have been. The sketch consists of the following items.

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. [Hahaha! Salt in the wound…, US]
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.

[The statements came largely from a newsstand astrology book]

Before the sketches were passed to the students, instructions were given first to read the sketches and then to turn the papers over and make the following ratings:

A. Rate on a scale of zero (poor) to five (perfect) how effective the DIB is in revealing personality.
B. Rate on a scale of zero to five the degree to which the personality description reveals basic characteristics of your personality.
C. Then turn the paper again and check each statement as true or false about yourself or use a question mark if you cannot tell.

In answer to their requests students were informed that the writer had another copy of their sketch and would give it to them after the data were collected. After the papers had been returned to the writer students were asked to raise their hands if they felt the test had done a good job. Virtually all hands went up and the students noticed this. Then the first sketch item was read and students were asked to indicate by hands whether they had found anything similar in their sketches. As all hands rose, the class burst into laughter. […]

The data show clearly that the group had been gulled. Ratings of adequacy of the DIB included only one rating below 4.”

From The fallacy of personal validation; a classroom demonstration of gullibility. That thing was written in 1949.

From Wikipedia I also learn that the statements which ‘may have “universal validity” and apply to everyone’ later became known as Barnum statements. Also:

“Later studies have found that subjects give higher accuracy ratings if the following are true:

*the subject believes that the analysis applies only to him or her
*the subject believes in the authority of the evaluator
*the analysis lists mainly positive traits”


September 25, 2011 - Posted by | Psychology, Studies

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