The Forer Effect: Why We Believe in Miracles, Horoscopes, and Future-Tellers

Here’s what I know about you:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.

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

You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.

Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worried and insecure on the 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 also pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But 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, and reserved.

Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

Does this sound accurate? Does it describe you?

It should. It describes everyone.

.   .   .

Introducing: The Forer Effect

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All of the above statements came from a 1948 experiment done by Bertram R. Forer.

In that experiment, he gave a test to a group of his students who were told that they would each receive a brief personality sketch based on their test results.

One week later, Forer gave each student an individualized analysis telling them each one had been personally assessed. In reality, each student received the same sketch.

He then asked each of them to rate it on how well it applied. On average, they rated the analysis as 84 percent correct. This kind of accuracy amazed his subjects.

But what’s even more interesting is that the statements above are actually a combination of lines from horoscopes collected by Forer for the experiment.

Thus, the Forer effect – which represents our tendency to believe vague statements designed to appeal to just about anyone.

Psychologists point to this phenomenon to explain why people accept some beliefs and practices like astrology, fortune telling, graphology, phrenology, numerology etc.

The Forer effect is also part of a larger phenomenon called subjective validation, which is a fancy way of saying that we will consider a statement or another piece of information to be correct if it has any personal meaning or significance to us.

As the journalist David McRaney said in his book, You Are Not so Smart:

"If a statement is ambiguous and you think it addresses you directly, you will boil away the ambiguity by finding ways to match the information up with your own traits. You think back to all the time spent figuring out who you are, dividing your qualities from the qualities of others, and apply the same logic."

[…] "Seen straight on, horoscopes describe the sort of things we all experience, but pluck one from the bunch, turn it ever so slightly, and you will see it matching all the details of your life. If you believe you live under a sign, and the movement of the planets can divine your future, a general statement becomes specific.

It is this hope that gives subjective validation its power. If you want the psychic to be real, or the sacred stones to forecast the unknown, you will find a way to believe them even when they falter. When you need something to be true, you will look for patterns; you connect the dots like the stars of a constellation. Your brain abhors disorder. You see faces in clouds and demons in bonfires."

.   .   .

Be Aware of the So-Called “Future Tellers”

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Humans are pattern seeking, storytelling animals. We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning.

Michael Shermer

We want to find reasons for all kinds of events – random or not. We search for patterns even where none exist. For example, there must be something important happening if a particular number comes up again and again.

But we can always find patterns and meaning in an event if we actively search for them and selectively pick anything that fits the pattern and ignore everything that doesn’t. But we can’t predict the pattern in advance.

In much the same way, you can’t predict the future. All predictions about the future are made based on past events and present trends. But that doesn’t mean that the future will always be like the present. Future can’t be known until it arrives.

The art of prophecy is very difficult, especially with respect to the future.

Mark Twain

To which Peter Bevelin, in his remarkable book, Seeking Wisdom adds:

"This is why it’s important to remain skeptical of “future tellers.” Their right guesses are highly publicized but not all their wrong guesses. Like Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt said: “It’s easy to be a prophet. You make twenty-five predictions and the ones that come true are the ones you talk about.”

Michel de Montaigne adds: “Besides, nobody keeps a record of their erroneous prophecies since they are infinite and everyday.”

The future-tellers predictions are always far enough in the future that they never have to face the consequences when they’re wrong. Or they make their forecasts so general they can apply to anyone or to any outcome so they can’t be proved wrong."

.   .   .

"Alice witnessed a miracle!"

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The Scottish Philosopher David Hume said that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

Therefore, to analyze claims of miraculous events, Hume suggests the following test:

If the opposite of a given statement is more likely, the statement is probably false. Thus, isn’t it more likely that the opposite, “Alice didn’t witness a miracle” is true?

“Not because miracles are impossible,” says Peter Bevelin, “but because the alternative explanation of illusion is more probable. How many things that are impossible must happen for a miracle to be true?

Mysteries are not necessarily miracles. Just because an event can’t be explained doesn’t mean it is a miracle. No theory can explain everything.”

He continues:

"Anything can happen if the number of possibilities is large. People have seen a human face on Mars, faces in rocks, clouds or even in a grilled cheese sandwich.

But that is no mystery.

Given the large numbers of rocks, clouds, and sandwiches, sooner or later we will find one that looks like a face, even a particular face."

.   .   .

Conclusion

While attempting to make sense of the world, we tend to focus on what falls into place and neglect that which doesn’t fit.

We search for confirming evidence to our beliefs, but we forget to look at the myriads of disconfirming facts coming against our most cherished views.

The process should be reversed.

What is true depends on the amount of evidence supporting it, not by the lack of evidence against it.

Finally, remember the advice of David McRaney:

"When you see a set of horoscopes, read all of them. When someone claims he or she can see into your heart, realize that all of our hearts are much the same."


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Daniel Cerescu

I'm Daniel Cerescu, and I'm the guy behind this blog. Even though most of the material on this website is free, I aim to make this free content better than anyone else’s paid stuff. My mission is to inspire and empower those who refuse to settle for anything less than an extraordinary life to live with passion, lead with purpose, and make their mark on the world.