Fortune Telling and the Forer Effect

Last night, I watched the film Now You See Me 2. The character Merritt McKinney, played by Woody Harrelson, is a hypnotist and mentalist. Notably, McKinney is able to “read” people in order to effectively use the power of suggestion on them. Such effects are clearly dramatized in the film series, but I began to wonder why fortune telling, hypnosis, and other forms of charlatanism remain popular to this day.

As I began to dig into this topic, I learned about the concept of subjective validation, also known as the personal validation effect. This concept states that someone will consider a given statement correct if it has personal significance to them. In other words, this cognitive bias will force someone to link coincidental events because their underlying personal beliefs demand it.

For example, consider an interaction between a medium and a client. The medium might say he senses a father figure trying to contact him from the spirit world and the client has only to find someone to fit the bill. It need not be the client’s father. When the client identifies this father figure as her deceased husband, the medium’s authority is validated. A completely irrelevant statement is given credence by the client’s personal belief (in this case, a desire to connect with a lost loved one).

forer effect
Fortune telling isn’t magic; it relies on the Forer effect!

The generalized phenomenon of subjective validation gives rise to the more specific case of the Forer effect. In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer offered to test his students and give each of them personalized profiles. The actual profiles he returned to the students were identical (unbeknownst to them), but each student felt that the profile was a highly accurate description of them. Forer’s profile is as follows:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
  6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
  7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  11. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  13. Security is one of your major goals in life.

It’s evident that the 13 statements listed above could apply to literally anyone. Three key variables influence the level to which subjects identify with a Forer-style analysis:

  • the subject believes that the analysis applies only to them, and thus applies their own meaning to the purposefully vague statements.
  • the subject believes in the authority of the analyst.
  • the analysis lists mainly positive traits; subjects don’t like to ascribe negative traits to themselves, even if said traits are valid (this is known as self-serving bias).

If these parameters are met, cold reading becomes incredibly easy. If the analysis (fortune-telling, personality test, etc.) comes across as personalized, authoritative, and net positive, the subject will buy-in. This phenomenon can occur gradually: during the course of a fortune-telling session, the medium can build up the three parameters to the point where the subject starts filling in key details for the mentalist.

Continuing from the father figure example above, the psychic can create positive feelings by telling the client that her deceased husband misses her dearly and is watching over her constantly. In a similar vein, the medium can establish greater personalization and authority as the session progresses.

Perhaps more interesting is the notion of hot reading. Where cold reading is “reading” without prior knowledge, hot reading relies on some background preparation. With the pervasiveness of modern social media, hot reading is easier than ever. Before a conversation, you can simply look someone up and know the major plot points of their life. This enables you to steer a conversation wherever you want it to go. You might bring up your shared love of dogs or an experience at the same study-abroad program. Ultimately, the ability to get others to agree with your assessments can be incredibly powerful if used correctly.

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