Many people are surprised that, despite the lack of scientific foundation, the different systems of divination that claim to describe our lives can come very close to reality.
How do you explain that some divination tricks seem to work?
How can it be that, from an apparently arbitrary criterion such as a reading of cards, their own characteristics can be portrayed? Where is the trick? Although the different esoteric disciplines cannot offer any explanation about this that is subject to falsifiability of results, psychology has provided a construct based on experimentation that clarifies this phenomenon. That construct is what we know today as Forer effect also known as The Barnum effect.
An experiment that showed the charade of divination
In 1948, the American psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students. Then, the teacher gave each of the students a card with the results of the personality analysis. After this, he asked the students to rate from 0 to 5 the accuracy with which, in their opinion, the personality analysis portrayed them, with 0 being “very poor” and 5 “excellent”. The mean of the scores was 4.26.
The students’ surprise must have been enormous when Forer revealed that, in reality, they all had the same result. The individualized personality analysis was not such and, in fact, the text that was given to the students was nothing more than a single compilation of sentences extracted from horoscopes:
“You have the need for other people to appreciate and admire you, and yet you are critical of yourself. Although your personality has some weaknesses, you are generally able to make up for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you haven’t taken advantage of. Although disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be apprehensive and insecure on the inside. Sometimes you have serious doubts about whether you have done well or made the right decisions. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and are disappointed when surrounded by restrictions and limitations. You are also proud to be an independent thinker; and of not accepting the assertions of others without sufficient evidence. But you find it unwise to be very frank in revealing yourself to others. Sometimes you are outgoing, personable, and sociable, while other times you are introverted, cautious, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be quite unrealistic. ”
In short, the Forer Effect is nothing more than the manifestation of a form of cognitive bias. It shows the propensity to accept as original and own descriptions that in reality are ambiguous and general enough to be predicated of practically anyone. Thanks to this trend, Forer managed to pass off as original a “personality reading” that is characterized precisely by its lack of precision when it comes to talking about the attributes that a person can have, but which surprised the students anyway for its faithful reflection of reality.
In addition, this experiment has been repeated many more times, obtaining very similar results (the people evaluated do not usually score with less than 4 out of 5 the precision of the analysis). Thanks to these experiments we know that there are three factors that, when they occur, make the Forer effect more pronounced:
- When, apparently, the analysis is personalized.
- When the analysis shows especially positive aspects that the evaluated person values as positive.
- When the evaluated person grants authority to the evaluator.
Interpretation of the Forer effect
The Explanation why this happens is usually related to desirability and expectations. On the one hand, there is a tendency to give more credibility to satisfactory explanations of reality, compared to others that do not satisfy us as much. In addition, the expectations of obtaining a personality analysis create a propensity to accept the results.
On the other hand, we make our own an explanation that gives meaning to our experiences, and from that position we accept the information that fits well with that explanation while denying or ignoring the information that contradicts it: this is known as the confirmation bias.
Knowing how the Forer effect works, it is easy to imagine why in some circles there is acceptance of some disciplines of fortune telling as the astrology. Its esoteric character makes apparently only a few people know how divination works, giving the fortune teller a role of authority.
The ambiguity It is a card that is always played, because the evaluated person will tend to make sense of explanations that are not very precise but broad and encompassing: this is especially clear in the case of the horoscope. In the case of divination sessions in real time, ambiguous statements at the beginning allow information to be collected from the evaluated subject, and therefore it is possible to dare to specify more as the session progresses.