Cold Reading and the Barnum Effect

23rd October 2021. Reading Time: 9 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 1843 page views. 0 comments.

The Barnum effect is a phenomenon where people interpret a generalised phrase or general information as being specific to them. This can not only apply to a psychic reading, but often occurs during paranormal investigations as well. People often unknowingly connect dots to make something relevant to them when in reality, it isn't.

The Barnum effect is a phenomenon where people interpret a generalised phrase or general information as being specific to them. This can not only apply to a psychic reading, but often occurs during paranormal investigations as well.  People often unknowingly connect dots to make something relevant to them when in reality, it isn't.

What is the Barnum Effect?

The Barnum Effect is a psychological phenomenon where a person believes that a general statement is in fact tailored specifically towards them. Phrases that are written a certain way that are quite general and could apply to anyone are used and each person that hears them relates to it in their own specific way and feels it was just for them. They are often used by psychic mediums and other readers, and these phrases are referred to as Barnum Statements.  So why the name?  It is coined after PT Barnum otherwise known as The Greatest Showman.  Regardless of what the famous movie depicts, he wasn't quite the hero that the film wanted you to believe he was.  The phrase 'a sucker is born every minute' is largely connected to Barnum, however it is not known for certain if he said it or not.

In 1948, Bertram Forer conducted an experiment on the fallacy of personal validation.  

This paper is concerned with some of the methodological errors which can affect estimations of the validity of personality interpretations and measuring instruments. Of prime significance is the nature of the interpretations themselves. Personality evaluations can be, and often are, couched in such general terms that they are meaningless in terms of denotability in behavior. Or they may have "universal validity" and apply to everyone.

The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility By: Bertram R. Forer Originally published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1949, (44), pp. 118-121

He went on to test students informing them that they would each receive individual personality surveys which would be analysed and personalised feedback would be given.  Instead, they were given the same feedback regardless of their results.  Students would then rate their feedback between 1 and 5 with 1 being inaccurate and 5 being accurate in relation to how the feedback matched their personality.  Some of the statements used in the feedback were terms like

"You are strongly socially inclined; you like to meet people, especially to mix with those you know well."

"You like sports and athletic events but devote more of your attention to reading about them in the sporting page than in actual participation."

"You are ambitious, and deserve credit for wanting to be well thought of by your family, business associates and friends. These ambitions come out most strongly in your tendency to indulge in day-dreams, in building air-castles, but this does not mean that you fail to get into the game of life actively"

The average rating that students gave in terms of the accuracy of these generalised statements describing their personality was 4.26. meaning that even though everyone received the same feedback and statements, they all felt they were tailored toward them.  

In 1956, clinical psychologist Paul Meehl coined the term 'The Barnum Effect' while expressing how frustrated he was with fellow psychologists who would make general statements about their patients.

Today, the Barnum Effect is largely associated with psychic readings, astrology and horoscopes.  How often do you read your horoscope and think it is written just for you?  

The Barnum Effect and Psychic Readings

While many people seek out who they believe to be genuine psychic mediums to help give them guidance and a psychic reading, unfortunately, there are those who not so genuine.  Stemming from the days of spiritualism where people saw an opportunity to cash in on the grief of people after World War 2, fraudulent mediums is still a part of modern-day society.  This isn't saying that everyone is not genuine as I do believe there are some folk out there who can do some pretty amazing things, but I also know for a fact there are those who are not.  Have you ever paid to have a psychic reading and walked away thinking that maybe you were duped?  Sadly you are not alone. 

How do you know if it is the real deal?  This is where it can get tricky because it can be really easy to get caught up in the moment when a person knows what they are doing.  There is a method to this madness so to speak and often, a reader will use what are referred to as Barnum statements to convince you that they are delivering a tailored made message for you from beyond. 

Here are some examples from Derren Brown who is a mentalist that likes to show people how this phenomenon works.

Barnum statement example #1
"You're somebody who tends to keep people a little bit at bay or at arms length, but when you allow people into your inner sanctum and when they become your close friends, and if they betray you then that really hurts."

This doesn't actually mean anything other than you are saying you're close to people you're close to. This could apply to almost everyone.

Barnum statement example #2

"You're a person who is prone to bouts of self-examination and have a tendency to be critical of yourself."

Which is a statement that would also apply to most people.

Barnum statement example #3

"There are times when you are the life and sole of the party and an extrovert, but at other times you tend to be introverted and quite reserved."

There are many people who would also relate to this statement too, as most people can portray two sides of a trait depending on their mood or circumstances.

In fact the above statement is what's referred to as a 'Rainbow Ruse,' see below. A Rainbow Ruse is a statement that includes both sides of a personality trait.

Barnum statement example #4

"You strive for security in your life both in your personal life and in your career."

Security or certainty is a basic need of all humans, so this statement would apply to everyone.

Barnum statement example #5

"You have a need for people to admire and like you and enjoy their recognition when you achieve certain milestones in your life."

Most, if not all, want admiration, plus it's a basic need too to be recognised for what we do. Therefore this Barnum statement would again apply to the vast majority of people.


What is a cold reading?

The Barnum Effect is similar to cold reading but slightly different. Cold reading consists of high probability guesses as well as Barnum statements, the sitter's vocal tone and body language.   They can learn a lot about you from the way you react to certain answers and even the way you respond to their questions.  They continue to observe and tailor their responses based on what they are reading from you.  So while Barnum statements are an important piece of the puzzle, there is more to it than just the questions the reader may ask.

Mentalist Derren Brown is an expert at exposing how easily this can be done!

The Barnum Effect and paranormal investigating

It is really easy to get caught up in a paranormal investigation. I have admitted that this has happened to me many times to the point I have been embarrassed afterwards when I realised I got so involved or into a moment. Having awareness is key and so is the ability to admit you got it wrong. One of the ways I often see people get 'caught up' in the moment of a paranormal investigation, is particularly when devices like an Ovilus or Spirit box and anything that produces words is used. If it is someone's first time, they are eager to attend and hope to make some kind of contact with what they believe to be the other side. In the same way that sometimes people will interpret every noise or bang to be something paranormal, people can interpret these words as if they were specifically targeted at them. These are a couple of real examples I have witnessed.

The word 'course' appears randomly on the Ovilus device. A person spoke up and said "yes I am studying a course at the moment, they must be referring to me." Another example was the word 'bread' came up. Again a person came forward and said 'I was baking bread today, they must be talking to me'. These were random words and we know that we can't rely on the words an Ovilus spits out. It had absolutely nothing to do with the conversation that was being had, and even for the most avid Ovilus user, they would have disregarded the word as it had no significance to the conversation, yet someone has taken a general word and applied it as if it was specifically spoken to them. This doesn't just happen with the Ovilus, I have seen it happen in many different ways on a paranormal investigation. People find a way to make something relevant to them. They aren't necessarily doing it on purpose, it is all part of the Barnum Effect.

There is also another element involved here as well which is another cognitive bias called 'The Spotlight Effect'.  It is where a person believes they are being noticed more than what they actually are.  A perfect example would be when you walk into a room and you feel like everyone is looking at you. In reality, they likely aren't even paying any attention, but you feel like the spotlight is on you. Funnily enough, a lot of other people in the room will feel the same way as you do. I see this also happen a lot on paranormal investigations as well. A lot of people tend to believe that activity is focused purely on them. Again the person next to them may feel the same way. It is considered to be a reflection that we all have a bit of narcissism in us, but it is more prevalent in some than others. There are some people that tend to take over a paranormal investigation and make it all about them and they literally make themselves the centre of attention.

When it comes to paranormal investigating, there are so many ways our mind can play tricks on us. I pretty much dedicate this blog to giving out all of this information. In some ways, it feels like we are almost at war with ourselves, but awareness is a good first step. Just being aware of the Barnum Effect is a good way to not be fooled. If you are having a reading from a psychic medium or anyone that perhaps could use this technique, don't take general statements at face value. Request specifics. There are some great readers out there that can give you specific information that there is no way they can know. This is what you should be looking for in your reading. Be aware of general statements and try to not react to the information you are being told as again they use your reactions to gauge if something is resonating with you.


The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility By: Bertram R. Forer Originally published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1949, (44), pp. 118-121

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