Chapter 2 - Page 49

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  • Psychology in action: The Barnum effect
    • Any clairvoyant or fortune-teller will make cunning use of the Barnum effect to dupe credulous punters.
      • This is not surprising: people have been found to be more accepting of generalised feedback than actual, factual feedback (Merrens and Richards, 1970).
        • A study of 68 personnel managers in the 1950s highlights the way in which we can accept the most vague statements about our personality as reflecting reality.
          • Stagner (1958) administered personality tests to these managers and gave them 13 bogus statements that were assumed to represent actual feedback about their personality from the tests (e.g., 'You have a great need to people to admire or like you' and 'You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.').
            • When asked to rate how strongly the participants agreed with these statements, almost all indicated that they believed them to some extent and one-third regarded their profile as a 'good' reflection of their character.
              • For some statements such as, 'You prefer a certain amount of change and variety...' and 'While you have some personality weaknesses...', over 80 per cent of participants expressed agreement with them.
    • In an ingenious spin on the Barnum phenomenon, Furnham (1994) set up an experiment in which undergraduates gave samples of their hair to an experimenter.
      • A week later the participants were given a 'trichological analysis' - 24 bland statements regarding their health based on the hair sample - that was totally bogus.
        • Most students thought that these randomly applied statements were very accurate.
    • What does research on the Barnum effect tell us?
      • First, it shows us that most individuals are inclined to accept bland feedback about themselves
      • Secondly, it shows us that the validity of a test involves more than intuitively 'knowing' that a test measures something.
        • Most individuals - unless they knew about the Barnum effect - would have regarded the statements at the beginning of this section as true and might have accepted the statement that intelligent but sceptical readers are drawn to boxed-off areas of textbooks.
          • This statement is, of course, nonsense.
      • Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Barnum effect shows us that we should always adopt a sceptical and questioning approach to statements made about human behaviour - even to this last statement.


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