Cognitive Bias | May 22, 2019

The Barnum Effect: Use Flattery to Instill Belief (Or Why Quizzes Work)

Daniel Ndukwu

Have you ever looked at your horoscope in the newspaper and thought it was oddly accurate?

Do you find it strange when you answer a few questions and get an assessment based on that information which seems to hit the nail on the head?

It’s not your fault, it’s a cognitive bias called the Barnum effect at play.

We’ve advanced a lot over the last 100 years. Computers, televisions, and penicillin were invented. Someone living in 1919 wouldn’t recognize the world of 2019.

Time square comparison image

For all our advancements, we’re still beholden to cognitive biases. One of which called The Barnum Effect and it’s part of the reason why personalityquizzes are so effective.

In this article, I’ll take a deep dive into what The Barnum Effect is and how you can use it to engage your audience and make more effectivelead gen quizzes.

What is the Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect (also known as the Forer Effect) is a psychological phenomenon in which individuals rate descriptions of their personality – which are supposedly tailored to them – as having high levels of accuracy. In reality, the descriptions are vague and can be applied to a wide range of people.

I found my daily horoscope which was vague but just relevant enough to make me feel like it applied to me.

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The term Barnum effect was popularized by Paul Meehl in his 1956 essay Wanted – A Good Cookbook.  This may be due to the belief that P.T. Barnum – the showman – claimed a sucker was born every minute.

The fact that people believe general information is tailored to their unique situation shows a level of gullibility. I wouldn’t go as far as saying they’re suckers.

Research relating to the Barnum effect

Over the years, there has been a lot of research that tested the efficacy of the Forer effect in different scenarios.

One such study was performed in 1947 by psychologist Ross Stagner. Stagner gathered personnel managers and asked them to take a personality test. After the test, he presented each of them with generalized feedback that had nothing to do with their test answers. In fact, it was based on horoscopes and graphological (the study of handwriting) analyses.

After being presented with the results, participants were asked how accurate the assessment was. Over 50% described it as accurate and no one described it as wrong.

In 1948, another experiment was carried out by the psychologist Bertram R. Forer. He performed what has been referred to as a classic experiment.

He administered his “Diagnostic Interest Blank” test to 39 of his psychology students. Each one was told they’d receive a brief personality sketched based on the results of the test. A week later, participants were given what was supposed to be an individualized sketch.

In reality, Forer gave every student the same sketch which had 13 items. Here are a few of the statements:

          You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.

         There is a tendency to be critical of yourself.

          You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

          While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

          Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.

The average rating the students gave the personality sketch was 4.3 out of 5 (5 being the highest).

Using the Barnum Effect with quizzes

At this point, it’s clear that people will accept general statements and apply a high degree of accuracy to it after answering questions about themselves.

There are a few things to take into consideration to make it work successfully with quiz outcomes.

Barnum Statements

Barnum statements are assertions that are vague and general but seem to be specific to an individual. For example, you can tell someone “at times, you have a strong sexual appetite.”

Well duh, almost everyone gets turned on every now and again but under the right circumstances, it seems personal and accurate.

They’re commonly used by psychics and mediums to put their subjects at ease and make them more receptive to statements that follow.

We’ll use it in a slightly different way.

When crafting your quiz outcomes, it’s important to make them vague enough to apply to a large group of people. At the same time, you want to phrase them in a way that’s personal and relates to the answers they gave.

It’s necessary to prime them with the title of the quiz and the questions you ask.

In the above image, the title itself primes me for a comparison to a game of thrones character. The quiz goes on to ask me questions about how I’d behave in certain scenarios which reinforces my belief of an accurate assessment.

Pollyanna principle

To get the most mileage out of your quiz outcomes and increase the believability, a little flattery is in order.

The Pollyanna Principle is the tendency for people to remember positive or pleasant items more often and more accurately than unpleasant ones.

This makes sense. Why would you allocate mental bandwidth to an argument or unpleasant experience? On the other hand, we cherish moments when we’re happy or pleased.

Your quiz outcomes can tap into the Pollyanna principle by adding a few positive Barnum statements.

For example, in the Game of Thrones quiz, I got Jon Snow.

Using Barnum Statements and the Pollyanna principle, a possible outcome could mention “When it matters enough to you, you become a fighter, just like Jon, you’re able to turn around situations that would sink others.

It’s a generally positive statement that could apply to everyone but seems unique because I just took a personality assessment.

The wording of the description itself.

This refers to how often you use positive statements vs negative statements. The more positive statements you use, the more likely someone is to take the assessment to heart.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use any negative descriptions or statements. They have their place and when used sparingly, it increases the likelihood the receiver will believe what you say.

Authority and honesty of the assessor

This is a major factor in determining whether or not someone will accept your outcome. Are you in a position to give advice on the topic? Are you credible in your niche?

For example, a fitness blogger could set up a quiz about body types and effectively sell the outcomes. If they put up a quiz about online income then it may not go over as well.

This is an extreme example but you should keep in mind that your quiz and outcomes should focus on your core competency. An SEO expert shouldn’t make a quiz about lead generation or CRO. It’s tangentially related but not quite their core competency.

Examples of the Barnum effect

The Barnum effect is everywhere when you know what you’re looking for. It’s not the specific domain of personality quizzes even though it works well there.

Horoscopes and cold reading

This is one of the most common uses of the Forer effect. A horoscope, like the example I shared above, will have positive Barnum statements that put you at ease and make the statement more trustworthy.

Cold readings consist of people who look at you, ask one or two questions or read your palm, and start telling you about your personality.

They use what’s called a rainbow ruse. They apply a personality trait to the mark and also apply the opposite personality trait.

For example, “You can be energetic when it comes to business but sometimes personal matters leave you exhausted.”

It works.

Netflix – recommended for you

Have you ever been on Netflix and gotten recommendations that were only kind of related? For example, you may have watched an anime six months ago and now your recommendations are full of anime.

Or it’s possible you didn’t watch anything in the same genre but Netflix is still recommending it for you.

They’re using a bit of machine learning and the Barnum effect to deliver those recommendations.

Yea, I’m only slightly interested in what they’re showing me but I’ll still take a look because it’s recommended for me.

Personality quizzes

Last but certainly not least are personality quizzes. It seems like they were built for the Barnum effect because of the way you can tailor outcomes to the way someone answered.

The key with personality quizzes, as mentioned before, is to prime your audience with a compelling title and questions that draw out information about the quiz taker.

personality quizzes using the barnum effect

In the above examples, the titles prime quiz takers to get a personality assessment. It’s coming from BuzzFeed which is well known for compelling quizzes.

It checks the boxes for the Barnum effect

          It’s coming from someone considered trustworthy

          The results use wording with just the right amount of positive Barnum statements


The Barnum effect is the secret to why quizzes (and personalized recommendations) are so effective. We’re primed to believe statements that appear to be tailored to us even if they’re general.

The key to using the Barnum effect is to use general statements that can be easily interpreted by the receiver. You should deliver a type of assessment or recommendation and incorporate positive statements.

In the end, the Barnum effect will increase the effectiveness of your messages and encourage people to trust your assessments in the future.

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