The P.T. Barnum Effect & Spiritual Readings

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In Chapter 14 of the Lillienfeld text, it describes the P.T. Barnum effect where people believe descriptions and sayings as true because they already apply to the majority. Good examples they used in the text to explain this were spiritual readings such as tarot cards, crystal balls and horoscopes. For a long time when I was younger I read my horoscope every morning on a daily basis. And, unconsciously, I spent the remainder of the day applying confirmation bias--seeking out things that would validate my horoscope and ignoring things that didn't agree with it. I was always amazed at how accurate my readings were and believed in them for quite sometime. It wasn't until I started reading horoscopes for the other signs that I started to question how personal these readings were. I soon realized that a lot of the other readings also applied to me even though they were meant for other people. In the book, they evaluate this concept with extraordinary claims, and I agree. It's not that the readings are actually predicting your daily outcomes, but that they are so vague and general to begin with that people are susceptible to finding things in their everyday lives that will agree with it and, therefore, confirming their belief that horoscopes are really true.
A few years ago there was a huge boom in the media with Sylvia Browne and her psychic readings. She appeared on many television shows and even made annual predictions at the start of the new year (which mostly turned out incorrect). The following video is a little peek at what she was about and how she worked:

In the audience readings, you can see the person agreeing with her, nodding their head and confirming that what she is saying is so accurate; but her responses are so vague that it can be taken in so many ways by the person she is reading. Just goes to show how easy it is to take what someone says and be able to apply it in some way to something that is actually happening to you. People are so easily persuaded when they want answers to their questions or need some sort of reassurance. It is all fun and entertaining, but it is also necessary to realize the extraordinary claims behind it all. For example, later in the YouTube clip, Sylvia talks with a young mother who says her young daughter talks and interacts with ghosts because she babbles randomly and acts as if she is. Maybe it's simply that her child is being a little kid who can't yet talk and is purely adapting and developing to the world around her. There are many kids who play with imaginary friends, but that doesn't mean that they are speaking with the dead. That's just simply how they are.

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This page contains a single entry by Katherine Sanchez published on November 20, 2011 7:41 PM.

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