How the Barnum Effect can make you choose the wrong college major

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The Barnum Effect is named after P.T. Barnum (yes, the circus guy), because much of his circus entertainment involved scams and hoaxes. Specifically, the Barnum effect was named so due to a statement P.T. Barnum used frequently to describe his shows; “we’ve got something for everyone.”

As an observation in psychology, the Barnum Effect refers to the ability to get anyone to believe a statement about personality, as long as they believe the statement is only about them. It works, because the statement is so vague, it could apply to anyone.

Here’s an example statement that psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave to his students back in 1948. He was testing the Barnum Effect (also known as the Forer Effect) by asking his students to rate the validity of the statement, where a score of zero meant very poor and a score of five meant excellent. He told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis, but they were all actually given the same statement.

“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have 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. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.”

The average rating of validity among his students was 4.26.

The Barnum Effect is used by horoscope publishers, psychics and palm readers, but it can also be found in less questionable places, as well. In fact, the Barnum Effect could cause you to choose the wrong college major and career path.

Taking personality and career tests to help you choose what to study in college and what direction to take professionally could cause you to fall victim to the Barnum Effect. Some personality and career tests are poorly written and contain vague statements that could apply to anyone. The results of these poorly written tests are questionable and, at worst, completely incorrect.

If you plan on using these types of tests to determine your college major and career goals, be sure to seek the advice of a professional career counselor who has access to the best tests. One test that seems to give good results is the Meyer-Briggs Type Indicator. Still, even the best personality and career tests should be taken more than once to test validity. It is also wise to use the results as a guide and not interpret them literally. After all, when it comes to college majors, universities do offer “something for everyone.” You just want to make sure it’s the right choice that will prepare you for a career that fits your unique talents and interests.

This has been a guest post by Patricia Garza:

As an advocate for nationally accredited online colleges, Patricia Garza has been blogging about the future of education for the past decade. In addition to education news and advice, Patricia enjoys sharing information related to careers, personal finance and technology. Please share your comments with her below!