P.T. Barnum is often quoted as saying, “There is a sucker born every minute” but in actuality, research provides no proof that the American Showman is responsible for the aphorism. Others credit David Hannum in using the saying in reference to Barnum’s customers that paid to see a copy of the Cardiff Giant, a 10 foot petrified corpse. The original had been purchased by Hannum and associates, from George Hull for the sum of $23, 000 (equivalent to over 400, 000 dollars today). Barnum tried to acquire the Giant for $50, 000 after it drew large crowds at a New York exhibition, but Hannum refused to sell. Barnum was left to take matters into his own hands and commission a plaster replica, and debut his as the ‘Original’ while claiming Hannum’s was a fake. The consequent lawsuit proved that both were fake. Barnum’s was created to entertain. Hannum’s was created by an atheist after an argument at a Methodist church revival over giants that once roamed the Earth (Genesis 6:4) While I suppose calling the original Cardiff Giant fake was a low blow (unless you take into account that it was a fake) Barnum could not be sued for calling a spade a spade and crowds continued to pay to see Barnum’s exhibit even after both it, and the (original) original, were revealed as hoaxes.
Barnum also inspired the naming of an effect first demonstrated by psychology professor Bertram Forer. He gave his students a test which he called the “Diagnostic Interest Blank” asking students questions regarding, their hobbies, preferences and ambitions which was then used to analyze and create a unique 133personality assessment. In reality, each student got identical responses, broad enough that most believed the assessment was personalized.
- 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, 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.
Even after the deception was revealed, the effect was so powerful that several students remained convinced that Forer must have used their particular analysis as the sample used to trick everyone else. The Barnum effect has been replicated many times and the results are always the same. Named after P.T. Barnum in reference to the famous quote, to reflect the gullibility of the human race and explain away faith in everything from religion to astrology, even though there is no evidence that Barnum ever uttered those words and in fact eye witness accounts verify that Barnum did not seem the type to criticize his customers.
With a more modern twist, it is also used as the concept behind the rash of viral facebook quizzes that claim to be able to identify aspects of a personality based on everything from which picture of a tree you most identify with to which way you choose to eat a cookie.
Now there are those that like to ridicule and look down on others because deep down they have a tendency to be critical of themselves. Even though they appear disciplined and self-controlled outside, they tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. There are times when they have serious doubts as to whether they have made the right decisions or done the right thing but they have learned that it is unwise to be too frank in revealing themselves and their failures to others so they find comfort in the knowledge that while they might be a little lost, at least they are not like the people that misplace their faith in religion, astrology or facebook quizzes. The kind that have a have a tendency to be critical of themselves. The ones that appear disciplined and self-controlled outside, but tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. People who have serious doubts as to whether they have made the right decisions or done the right thing and have learned that it is unwise to be too frank in revealing themselves and their failures, to others. Those who might feel all alone but in religion, astrology or even facebook quizzes they are reminded that all is not lost.
So who really is getting the last laugh?
To recap, an effect that reminds people that we are all the same, is used to test gullibility and is falsely named after a man, who was misquoted after creating a fake giant in retaliation of not being able to be buy a real giant that was actually a fake. One of it’s modern applications is to provide people who are lost and insecure and questioning themselves with ammunition to attack people that are lost and insecure and questioning themselves instead of using every confirmation of the experiment as an opportunity to remind ourselves that we are all capable of great failures but we also all have the potential for great success.
Is anybody else lost?
Luckily, if you stop by for tea, I’ll be able to tell from the way that you eat your Oreo that you are not alone. None of us are. So settle in and I’ll pour you a cup with a brim wide enough for dunking…because that’s my favourite way to eat them, which coincidentally, make me upbeat and likeable, so you’ll be in good company 😉
Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right! ~Isaac Asimov