The Forer Effect

This week saw the launch of the dedicated ‘Old Bunyard’s Philosophick Fables’ channel on YouTube: Its time came when I completed a third animated reading of a fable to follow ‘The Compliant Antelope’ and ‘A Rash Tortoise’. This third is ‘The Queen’s Suitors’, the 86th fable and the platform for one of the more curious mental phenomena, the Forer Effect. Dr Bertram Forer conducted a truly clever experiment back in 1948, when he asked students to rate descriptions he gave each of them of their own personality. The students overwhelmingly thought that their description captured them accurately; but it turned out that every one of them had been given the same description!

The experiment helps explain the appeal of ubiquitous ‘mystic’ practices such as horoscopes: the ‘astrologer’ simply has to write a sentence or two of ‘prediction’ of a suitably bland nature and sit back to let the uncritical reader’s mind do the rest of the work. Why this happens is perhaps hinted at by the subject of a different fable, ‘A Mouse’s Mistake’. This one concerns pareidolia, the familiar phenomenon whereby we see meaningful shapes even where there are none, as in Rorschach inkblot tests. The brain has evolved to be not a perfect thinking machine but a useful device for getting us safely through life. One of the ways it deals with the “blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) of sensory intake is by routinely seeking out meaningful patterns, even to the extent of imposing them erroneously; it’s one reason why the perfectly sane astronomer Percival Lowell saw proof of advanced civilisation on Mars in the form of networks of ‘canals’ that, to the modern eye, simply aren’t there. Reading a catch-all description and making it relevant to oneself suggests to me to similar hyperactivity in the meaningfulness-seeking department.

Forer’s work is often cited as a refutation of such personality metrics as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. For the uninitiated, this particular system consists of questionnaire-completion that allows the examiner, for a fee, to attribute to subjects one of sixteen four-letter personality descriptors, such as ISTJ, which will supposedly help them understand themselves and colleagues better. To get a handle on the ropey theoretical basis for this stuff, it’s worth reading the Skeptic’s Dictionary account here: Yet Myers-Briggs is very big business in the corporate world; and, when I was in business myself, I lost count of the number of senior clients who proudly professed to being an INTP or ENFJ, in the same way that one might call oneself a Capricorn or a Pisces. These were not stupid people, but they were unduly credulous, especially for professionals. This is precisely why it pays to work actively on one’s scientific literacy, and learn how to question whether what one is being told is true or merely plausible. The Forer Effect is just one of many ways in which our normal mental processing misleads us; yet we have the brains to compensate, if only we remain alert to it.


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