What is the Barnum Effect?

The Barnum Effect is a Phenomenon that occurs when a Generic Description about Someone’s Personality is perceived as Very Accurate, but it could be applied to almost Everyone.

 

This psychological effect is well known for Horoscopes and dubious Personality Tests.

  • Online non-Professional Tests.

 

However, the Barnum Effect is widely used in Marketing.

Barnum Effect Psychology with Examples

The Barnum Effect depends on different factors (which we’ll analyze later).

 

But, roughly speaking, it happens because we all want to believe that we’re Unique and Special.

  • When, in fact, we are not.

 

No matter How Special you think you are, there are millions of People Who share your Skills, Knowledge and Ambitions.

  • And they also think they are Special.

 

When you read “you perceive things in a way others can’t” (for example).

  • You immediately feel identified because:
    • It is Obvious: Nobody can perceive things as you do.
    • Nobody can Disprove it.
    • It implies that you are Special.

 

These empty Descriptions, work as a Rorschach Test:

  • We all see what we want to see, due to its Ambiguity.

 

But… If these Affirmations are Empty, Why are they Important?

  • Because they are Widely used in our day to day.

 

Let’s see some examples:

Horoscope - Barnum Effect example

 

We think it will be funny to Analyze my Horoscope right Now.

 

I am Aquarius.

I entered in “Horoscope.com” and checked my Horoscope for today (Nov 15 2021):

 

Basically, it suggests that I have to be more adaptable.

But Who shouldn’t?

 

We are all adapting ourselves to the Rest of the World, this is How things work.

  • If you expect the rest of the World to adapt to you… You should be in a Madhouse.

 

And it could have been the other way, for example:

  • “You have an important decision to make. Be strong and don’t let others to change your Mind”.

This would have also been a very generic Statement.

 

We all make decisions or choices every week.

  • And, important decisions always involve other persons.

 

Horoscopes are the best example of the Barnum Effect.

They say things that are very obvious, and could be applied to different Situations and Personalities.

Barnum Effect in Politics

 

The next time there are Elections in your Country, please, check the Political Campaigns with special Interest.

  • They all use the Barnum Effect.
    • No matter the Political Party.

 

All Electoral Messages look like this:

  • “We care about the future of our Children”.
  • “We want to make our Society a better place”.
  • “We want to build a better Society”.
  • “We will improve the quality of living of the working people”.
  • “We want to protect the most vulnerable people”.
  • etc.

Yes… And Who would not agree on these points?

 

We sometimes feel they are talking to us, because we don’t even conceive that our “Problems” are shared by millions of persons.

 

And… How many people don’t consider themselves “working people”?

No matter if you have a Job in a Supermarket or in a Bank, you surely work for a living.

  • With all it implies.

Barnum Effect in Marketing

 

The Barnum Effect is Widely (and Wildly) used in Marketing.

 

Why?

The “Holy Grail”of Marketing is to Connect with Clients or Potential Customers.

  • To Mean something for Them.

 

That is Why Companies Tell us Stories that seem to perfectly fit with our Personality.

  • And in fact, these Stories fit with… Well… Everybody.

 

Check some of the most famous Companies in the World:

  • Coca-Cola tells us Stories about Happiness and Love.
  • Louis Vuitton wants to associate its name to Explore and Travel.
  • Apple wants to make us believe, it is a brand for Nonconformists.
    • If that is True, half the Planet is Nonconformist.
      • As it is the biggest company on Earth.
  • etc.

 

All these Stories and Values can be applied to anyone:

  • We all desire Happiness.
  • We all Travel.
  • We all think we are Nonconformist.

 

This is a pretty common Marketing Strategy.

  • However, when a Company becomes so big, it is very difficult to maintain a Consistent Message.

If you own a small Company, you should try to use the Barnum Effect in your Marketing Campaigns.

  • It is an interesting way to Connect with your Clients.

 

But… How you can do it?

Let’s analyze What factors you should take into account:

Factors that Contribute to the Barnum Effect

For a Description to cause the Barnum effect, it must meet the following Requirements:

 

It must talk about something Transcendent.

  • Identity, How to Solve a Problem, Friendship, etc.
    • Otherwise, People don’t even listen.

 

It must suggest that, whoever listens, is Special.

  • Or is in a Special Situation.
    • Which of course, is not True.

 

It should say something Desirable about whoever is listening.

  • A good trait, an underrated Skill, a bright Future, Uniqueness, etc.
    • People don’t want to be Unique in bad things.

 

The Description should be Generic and Applicable to Everyone.

  • It should never be an Specific Description.
    • Otherwise, lot of People would not feel identified.

 

Barnum Effect Examples

 

You are Unique, don’t be afraid to be yourself“.

  • Although this Statement could be on any “Fashion” Brand… It says nothing.
    • Seems Transcendent.
    • You want to think it is True.
    • It is an Empty Statement that can be applied to literally Everyone.

 

You seem to be a rough person, but in reality you take Care of your Friends“.

  • Again, this Description is extremely obvious, and could be applied to a Hamster.
    • It describes a Person with “two Sides”… Which we all have.
    • It suggests that you are better than others think.
    • Even Roughness, is a “good” trait. We like to think that we are Tough.

 

You always want more, you are a Nonconformist“.

  • This Description, that seems the “motto” of a big Tech Company, also says nothing.
    • We all want more than we have.
    • We like to think that we are Nonconformists.
    • We like to think other persons settle, while we don’t.

How to Avoid the Barnum Effect

 

If you are in the opposite situation, If you don’t want to be affected by this Effect, there are 3 simple things you should do:

 

Ask yourself if a Description can only be applied to you.

  • Can’t it be applied to your brother, friend, parents…?

 

Think about other Situation in which these Descriptions could be applied.

  • Find other Problem or Situation in which the Description could be used.

 

If someone doesn’t have information about you, can’t know anything about you.

  • It is basically impossible.

Summarizing

The Barnum Effect is a Phenomenon that occurs when a Generic Description about Someone’s Personality is perceived as Very Accurate, but it could be applied to almost Everyone.

  • It is widely used in Marketing Campaigns.

 

It happens because we all want to believe that we’re Unique and Special.

 

For a Description to cause the Barnum effect, it must meet the following Requirements:

  • It must talk about something Transcendent.
  • It must suggest that, whoever listens, is Special.
  • It should say something Desirable about whoever is listening.
  • The Description should be Generic and Applicable to Everyone.

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