British mentalist and skeptic Derren Brown astounds three groups of young people in Spain, England and the USA by divining incredibly accurate personality profiles of each of them, seemingly based on nothing more than his examination of a drawn outline of their hands, their dates and times of birth and a small personal object.
In fact, Mr. Brown is offering an object lesson in the Barnum effect, also known as the Forer effect. If you can’t spare the eight minutes and eighteen seconds it takes to watch the video – though it’s strongly recommended – you can test the effect for yourself in about one minute by deciding how many of the following statements apply to you:
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.
If that list of statements was supplied by someone presenting themselves as a seer, with all due showmanship and business of palm reading, peering into a crystal ball or calculating numerological correspondences, might you assume that they had a supernatural insight into your personality?
The inestimable Orson Welles offers lucid insight into the skill of cold reading and the danger of “becoming a shut-eye” in this 1970 television interview conducted by David Frost. Here follows an excerpt from a 1967 Playboy Magazine feature, with Welles touching on the same themes:
Interviewer Kenneth Tynan: Another prevalent rumor is that you have the power of clairvoyance. Is that true?
Orson Welles: Well, if it exists, I sure as hell have it; if it doesn’t exist, I have the thing that’s mistaken for it.
I’ve told people their futures in a terrifying way sometimes – and please understand that I hate fortunetelling. It’s meddlesome, dangerous and a mockery of free will – the most important doctrine man has invented. But I was a fortuneteller once in Kansas City, when I was playing a week’s stand there in the theater.
As a part-time magician, I’d met a lot of semi-magician racketeers and learned the tricks of the professional seers. I took an apartment in a cheap district and put up a sign – $2 READINGS – and every day I went there, put on a turban and told fortunes. At first I used what are called ‘cold readings’; that’s a technical term for things you say to people that are bound to impress them and put them off their guard so that they start telling you things about themselves. A typical cold reading is to say that you have a scar on your knee. Everybody has a scar on their knee, because everybody fell down as a child. Another one is to say that a big change took place in your attitude toward life between the ages of 12 and 14.
But in the last two or three days, I stopped doing the tricks and just talked. A woman came in wearing a bright dress. As soon as she sat down, I said, ‘You’ve just lost your husband’; and she burst into tears. I believe that I saw and deduced things that my conscious mind did not record. But consciously, I just said the first thing that came into my head, and it was true. So I was well on the way to contracting the fortune-teller’s occupational disease, which is to start believing in yourself; to become what they call a ‘shut-eye.’ And that’s dangerous.