How The Barnum Effect Influences Our Behaviors (And How to Overcome It)
“This week will be fortuitous for you.” “You are on the right path” “The success is yours this year.”
These statements feel like they are predicting your success and future, correctly, doesn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want to listen to positive outcomes when you’re already down on your luck, right? And let’s be honest, the pull to believe these statements are tempting, but this temptation could just be The Barnum Effect taking place.
The Barnum Effect in psychology is a cognitive bias that surfaces when you believe that the generalized statements as stated above apply selectively to you. While, in reality, these statements can apply to anyone. This is the work of being manipulated by generalized and ambiguous statements to influence your behaviors and decisions.
In this article, we’re exploring what is the Barnum effect with examples, how it impacts your mental health, and how you can overcome the Barnum effect from influencing your behaviors and decisions.
What is The Barnum Effect? (With Examples)
The Barnum effect is a psychological term that refers to the belief that every generalized statement we hear is designed for us. These ambiguous statements we come across can feel like they are exactly what we wanted to hear and that the Universe is aligning our wishes and needs.
More often than not, this Barnum effect can influence your behavior and can even affect your decision-making processes, and not in a good way all the time. While sometimes, the Barnum effect can motivate us, there are times when it can skewer our reality.
Here are some real-life examples of the Barnum effect in play;
Horoscopes! We often look for that particular section in the newspaper that describes our horoscope for the day, regarding our career, love life, and daily routine. When you read those lines, your mind twists you into believing them and makes you feel like you were “meant to” read them, when you did. This, in turn, can make you change your decisions and behaviors to mold your day based on what information you’ve received.
Now, reading about horoscopes is not wrong, but the lines you read can apply to anyone, so taking those readings upon yourself can only cause you harm.
Another example of the Barnum effect is the personality tests you take online. While personality tests can be a good way to figure out a little about your personality, taking the results too seriously can affect your behavior.
It happens, right? When you read the results, the first thing you think about is, “Wow! This is me!” However, not all of these tests can identify your personality traits, uniquely.
The Impact of Barnum Effect on Mental Health
You might be wondering, “Why does believing in yourself be harmful to mental health?” Well, it’s not just about believing in yourself that’s the concern here. Studies suggest that when you begin to believe in generalized statements about yourself and your personality based on tests, then it can harm how you perceive yourself.
Say, for example, a generalized statement says, “You are a genius.” The Barnum effect will help you gain a little bit of confidence and motivate you to move forward in life. However, if a test or a generalized statement says, “You are neglectful.” then this could make you self-sabotage or lose the confidence you already have in yourself.
The Barnum effect can also cause a sort of ripple effect in your life. If you believe a statement that says that your week will be flawed and you’ll face failure no matter what you do, then you’ll begin to feel out of control and less aligned with yourself. You’ll keep finding flaws in your week and even a small misstep or mistake would feel like a failure, making you think that the prediction was true. Even if nothing of the sort happens, you’ll be on the lookout all the time and would keep second-guessing yourself and eventually lose your confidence.
The Barnum effect creates mental stress that can undermine your self-confidence, lower your self-esteem, and brings forth a negative mindset, even if it wasn’t there before.
How to Overcome The Barnum Effect?
1.Question the Belief
Whenever you face an ambiguous statement or a generalized claim, ask yourself, “Does this apply to everyone?” If yes, then odds are that the statement is too vague to be applied to your situation, solely. The most common example is the videos we watch on social media where a particular topic is being discussed and we feel like it’s about us and our situation. However, as you keep listening to it or reading about it, you’ll realize that the audience is too large, and the topic can be applied to anyone.
2.Look for the Hidden Interpretation
To overcome the Barnum effect, you need to read between the lines and listen or read what’s not being said. If the message lacks specificity, then don’t take it to heart. There are personality tests online that may give results that are quite specific and as you’ll read the descriptions, you’ll feel like it’s talking specifically about you. However, upon carefully reading, you’ll realize that many things are just general statements and there is nothing specific about them.
3.Consider the Source
Another way to overcome the Barnum effect is to consider the source that has given you the statement. Is this a retweet? Is this a statement made by a counselor? Or is it a fortune cookie that gave you this statement? The source of the statement can help you make a choice. If it’s not a trustworthy source, then you can disregard the statement with a grain of salt, however, if it’s a renowned and/or personal source, you can take the statement a bit more seriously.
4.Verify the Belief
This brings us to the next point. You can overcome the Barnum effect from taking place when you choose to verify the belief. If someone claims that your week will be flawed based on your horoscope, then talk to others with the same horoscope and see if the belief matches their claim. If not, then you can disregard it.
It can be tempting to seek external sources to help predict your future or at the very least understand yourself. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking or reading horoscopes or taking online personality tests, it’s always better to avoid allowing yourself to fall victim to the beliefs and claims they make. When you begin to believe these generalized statements that can be applied to anyone, then you may be inadvertently allowing these statements to influence your behaviors and decisions.
The Barnum effect is a cognitive bias that can affect your behaviors and decision-making processes as well as your confidence and self-esteem. No one can predict your future nor can anyone define who you are. Only you can.
I hope this blog helped you understand how the Barnum effect influences your behavior and how you can overcome it.
When was the last time you were affected by the Barnum effect? Did it go well for you? Let me know in the comments below or you can let me know by leaving a message on Calm Sage’s social media account.