Featured image of post Cognitive Biases - Part 06: Forer Effect

Cognitive Biases - Part 06: Forer Effect

‘I got an email that I won $100,000 lottery. Let me just fill this form now…’

👋🏼 Hello! Thank you for stopping by.

😀 Please note that this is the sixth in a series of articles I am writing on Cognitive Biases. If you haven’t read the other five yet, I’d recommend you read them first. Links below:

  1. Confirmation Bias
  2. Fundamental Attribution Error
  3. Ikea effect
  4. Availability Heuristic
  5. Framing effect

What is the Forer effect?

We easily attribute our personalities to vague statements, even if they apply to a wide range of people.

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer conducted an experiment on his students where each student was given a set of statements (about themselves) like:

  • “Although you do have some weaknesses, you try very hard to overcome them and be a better person.”
  • “You are an independent thinker who takes pride in doing things differently than others.”
  • “You have an intense desire to get people to accept and like you.”
  • “Sometimes you give too much effort on projects that don’t work out.”

The students were then asked to rate how accurately those statements described themselves on a scale of 5. What was surprising was, though the statements were very generic, the average rating of all the students was 4.3/5 which indicated that the students found those statements highly relevant to themselves! Based on the results, Forer declared the presence of this effect where people tend to accept positive sweeping generic statements about themselves as though those statements are solely made for them.

This is also called as the Barnum effect. named after P. T. Barum who declared that ‘a sucker is born every minute’ — meaning people are gullible and want to believe what they are told, so they think that general statements are solely about themselves. This effect is also less commonly called the ‘Barnum-Forer effect.’

Let me explain how this translates into our everyday life, the products we use, and the things we do on a daily basis.

As always, some personal story.

Shaadi kab hai?

It is that time in my life (or am I way past that time!) when everybody around me keeps asking, ‘when’s your marriage?’ And being such a bore that I am, I do not have a girlfriend and to add to that, there is a pandemic going on with lockdown imposed everywhere and palpable distress all around. I have had my share of difficulties in finding the ONE.

Enter the new age of online dating and online matrimony. The online dating and matrimony Apps would come to my rescue, or so I thought! Where do I start? Ummm… This subject is so delicate that it is super easy to get scammed. I mean it. Of all the myriad features these Apps have, around filters, pricing, preferences, interests etc, I would like to talk about the king of all — the ‘Matches for you’ feature. The ‘matches for you’ feature is supposed to recommend the most suitable ‘match’ for you. It is, however, irritating that they do not.

I mean, neither were those matches relevant nor do they make any sense! When I started, the suggestions were super random, highly irrelevant. I was hoping they would get better with my profile, all my details, and my usage. It was only over time that I got convinced that they were not going to get any better!

They use a simple make-believe tactic… that the suggestions are actually tailored for me by presenting them that way. In reality, they are not tailored! The recommendations are made universally applicable to all those who even sparsely have some of my traits. I too believed that those recommendations were really for me for a few days until I realised they were not. And now, I don’t bother much, you see. Reality has dawned upon me and I am still waiting for that miracle to happen… Where Arjuna finally meets his Subhadra. Ahem!

Well, now, whenever I see, ‘Recommended for you’ (not just in the matrimony Apps but also in all the other Apps I use: YouTube, Swiggy, Cure.fit, Netflix etc) — I immediately question whether if they are actually relevant for me or if they are simply imposed upon me. Rather than taking the suggestions for granted, I try to take a moment to pause think through and proceed. This pausing and taking a moment takes effort, a lot of effort. Multiply this with the number of times we come across these situations… it’s unimaginable! We need to consciously train our mind to do so, which we don’t!

You see, companies impose something on us because it might bring more value to them that way; doing it that way might be in their self-interest and not yours always. Being a Product Manager myself, I subscribe to the fact that users interests should always be at the forefront. Unfortunately, that is not how things are run always. Ethical product building should take precedence over profit-making, morally. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality. Simply put, you are the buyer — you must be beware!

Let’s look at another more familiar and relatable example.

The case of horoscopes and jyothishis (astrologers)

My brother gets super excited when he reads the daily horoscope predictions in The Times of India newspaper. I can bet that his excitement wouldn’t subside even by a bit if the TOI swapped the ‘Aries’ prediction with the ‘Saggitarius’ one. The statements which are written are so generic that a street hawker would find the same relevance to them as the CEO sitting in a high-end corporate office.

The same is the case with most of the jyothishis! Don’t believe me? Let me tell you another of my personal stories.

It was during my Engineering days, in the year 2007. I had done extremely well in the AIEEE that year. The word was out and some of my relatives did see me as if I was some alien and I was basking in all the glory, I mean, why not! I had gone to my cousin’s place during those holidays to cherish even more. We were watching TV when a jyothishi came to visit us. I didn’t realise what was happening. After the elders exchanged some words, the jyothishi smiled at me and briskly walked towards me. Took my palm into his, and said things (which make me laugh even today) like, ‘very bright future, very good boy. Nice. Will go abroad soon. The family will become proud. Keep it up, beta’. It’s been 14 years and I am still waiting for Hyderabad to be declared as a new country.

The jyothishi’s statements were so vague and generic that it was ironic how such clear, simple, and direct statements did not make any sense at all! The saddest part, however, was that my sister and mom bought into them!

I am not trying to generalise all the astrologers here. Maybe some predict well, maybe some don’t. I am just stating how gullible we people are to statements even though they are very generic and universally applicable.

More examples

Another online product where the Forer effect is used brilliantly which created quite some craze among the users is the ‘Know your personality’ game on the Facebook feed. I have seen people share things like ‘You are loyal’, ‘You are good at heart’, ‘You make others smile’, ‘You are like a tiger, ferocious yet caring for your family’ on their feed and as WhatsApp statuses! In fact, I have had conversations with some of them and was surprised by their conviction about their personality based on the results from these games, in spite of these statements being ridiculously generic!

The problem is not when some positive reinforcement happens. Positive reinforcement is good, though ethically questionable and factually incorrect. The problem arises when people attribute themselves to a false sense of reality or when some negative reinforcement happens. And we being humans, succumb to such instances as we do not want to trouble ourselves. When someone starts to believe in something because someone said so without pondering over the correctness of it or putting in an effort to validate if such a thing is true or not is when the trouble begins.

There are many other situations where this happens:

  • Tried the weighing machine at the bus station or the railway station? The weight card has a ‘personal message’ for you! (no it doesn’t)
  • Received a personal email from the CEO of a company? Hmmm… Looks like the CEO really cares for you! (not really)
  • A salesperson told you he took a high-level approval to give you the discount? Maybe you should buy the product right away! (please, don’t)
  • Being born in April do you get excited by reading, ‘Legends are born in April’? You probably are a legend, you should get that tattooed! (oh, no! don’t do it)
  • A news article says that Indians are good at math. You get 30 out of 100 in the class test and yet you feel proud. I guess you should! (no, please!)
  • Received a ‘only for you’ 40% discount notification on Heytm? Maybe they love you more than every other user! (they don’t!)


It is true that companies these days use data to create personalization. However, it is extremely difficult to tailor things for you and most of the online products (Netflix, Spotify, Swiggy, Twitter and the like) still have a lot of catching up to do. And till that catching up is done, these companies will present generalization in the disguise of personalization.

So, whenever someone says that something is exclusively recommended for you, remember that it most probably is not! And whenever you come across generic statements about yourself, just smile and move along, you are better than those generic statements… only you need to question and find out yourself!

Thank you for reading! 🙏🏼

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