One thing we need to agree on about marketing and sales is that it is not about scamming people. We are all big boys and girls, so we know there is a degree of manipulation to it. A marketer has to portray their product and services in the best light possible, and in a manner that works for the customer. But you should absolutely do so honestly.
I’m telling you this because I want to tell you about the Forer effect, a cognitive bias that, as an online marketer, you need to understand. You can put the Forer effect to work on your website to make customers feel immediately at home. They’ll think everything you offer has been crafted just for them.
The Forer effect works because it is a cognitive bias. It is how our brains work; there’s little we can do about it. It is one of many cognitive biases I have previously written about and am exploring individually in more depth.
Psychologist Bertram R. Forer found that people will believe that statements about themselves are accurate if they’ve been told the information was prepared specifically for them and they think it’s from a credible source. It works even though the information actually consists of vague statements that could apply to anyone.
The Forer effect is also known as the “Barnum effect,” in homage to P.T. Barnum, left (image source), who promoted his circus and museum as providing “something for everyone.”
In this article, I’m going to explain what Forer called the “fallacy of personal validation,” or the false belief in flattery, and look at a closely related treatise about character readings (aka “cold readings”). Then I’ll show you how to apply their principles to your landing pages and other marketing materials.
Understanding how your customers think due to ingrained biases puts you in a powerful position to influence your site visitors’ choices. When done ethically, this is what marketing is all about.
We’re Primed to Fall for the Forer Effect
If you’ve ever clicked on one of those “which one are you?” quizzes on Facebook and thought the answer was right, you have — like countless others — been influenced by the Forer effect.
Forer identified this tendency after testing phony personality profiles on college students in 1949. His theory has been upheld time and again since.
“A ... person who receives superficial diagnostic information, especially when the social situation is prestige-laden, tends to accept such information,” Forer wrote. “He is impressed by the obvious truths and may be oblivious to the discrepancies. But he does more than this. He also validates the instrument and the diagnostician.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Think about it: You and your online business can get validation by exploiting the Forer effect, which can lead to a higher conversion rate.
Another great illustration of the Barnum effect is the Spectranality® test, which supposedly uses an individual’s color choices to reveal information about their personality and mood.
Gary N. Curtis of Fallacy Files presents Spectranality® as a product of Asian philosophies and “years of research by chroma-psychologists.” It has been validated as accurate in more than 89 percent of cases and is used as a screening tool by corporations, colleges, therapists, managers, human resource directors and others, he says.
If you take the test, by simply clicking on the color spectrum, you get eight statements about your personality type, which, chances are, you’ll think are basically accurate. As in Forer’s experiment 67 years ago, everyone who takes the test gets the same results. Spectranality switches it up by putting the statements in different order depending on where you click.
Here are four of Spectranality’s revelations:
- You can take the initiative when called upon, but you can also be a team player when needed.
- You have a tendency to daydream and build castles in the air, but this has not stopped you from leading an active life.
- You are above average in intelligence or mental alertness. You are above average in accuracy; in fact, you are rather painstaking at times.
- You have a tendency to worry, but not excessively. You sometimes get depressed, but are generally cheerful and rather optimistic.
Pretty good, eh? That sounds like me. That sounds like you.
Forer gave each of his students an identical personality profile, though he said each was unique to the student and based on the scientific tests they had taken. He actually drew the statements in the profile from several horoscope columns.
Here’s about half of the Forer profile:
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. 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.
Forer had his unwitting students rate the accuracy of their personality profiles on a scale of 1 to 5, and the average was 4.26. And, once again, it was completely made up and the same for each of 39 students in a college Intro to Psychology class.
Additional research suggests that the Forer effect is more pronounced – that is, phony personality profiles are more readily accepted – when the information is seen as more specific to the recipient (even if only because of a “for you” label), is positive in nature and, as Forer observed, it seems to come from someone in a position of authority or status.
Asking for specific information in the questionnaire that is used to create the personality profile (such as exact birth date as opposed to year of birth) also makes the results appear to be more valid.
And, as you might expect, a recipient’s neuroticism, need for approval, naïveté, or tendency to believe in the supernatural or paranormal, also “helps.”
Projective tests, which require a doctor’s “unique” interpretation (such as ink blot tests), work better at inducing the Barnum effect as opposed to objective tests, like multiple choice questionnaires.
Projective tests surround the diagnosis with “an air of mystery,” the late psychologist Denis Dutton observed.
Dutton suggests that a little BS helps to sell the Barnum effect, as well:
While these experiments show quite conclusively that a Barnum description is more striking when it is believed to be derived from a credible source, they also indicate that people are often likely to be impressed by Barnum descriptions which involve some sort of arcane ‘mumbo-jumbo.’ In other words, while a Barnum description may gain in believability when it is thought to be derived from a ‘credible’ source, such as a professional psychologist, it may have even more charm for a subject if it is thought to be derived from a mystical or ‘incredible’ source, such as the lines on the palm of the hand, or the order of cards from a Tarot deck.
Which brings us to Professor Ray Hyman and his instructions for conducting a cold reading.
Knowing Your Customer for Higher Quality Conversions … or for Hokum
The ability to conduct a cold reading, or character reading, is how mentalists from The Amazing Kreskin to Gerry McCambridge make their Las Vegas acts work. It is also what enables conmen and “psychics” to quickly size up a mark and convince them of their insight.
The basics of cold readings can also strengthen your website’s credibility with customers.
And it’s …
Except, really, it’s not.
Hyman, below right (image source), spent many years at Harvard University studying “the various ways in which people were manipulated.” This included the techniques of “pitchmen, encyclopedia salesmen, hypnotists, advertising experts, evangelists, confidence men, and a variety of individuals who dealt with personal problems.”
“The techniques which we discussed, especially those concerned with helping people with their personal problems, seem to involve the client's tendency to find more meaning in any situation than is actually there,” Hyman wrote in his 1977 paper for Skeptical Inquirer.
Hyman found that it is “easy … to convince a person that you can read his character on sight.”
What make it so easy is they want to believe you.
“Almost without exception, the defenders of astrology with whom I have contact do not refer to the evidence relating to the underlying theory,” Hyman wrote. “They are convinced of astrology's value because it ‘works.’ By this they mean that it supplies them with feedback that ‘feels right’ – that convinces them that the horoscope provides a basis for understanding themselves and ordering their lives. It has personal meaning for them.”
Hyman described a “cold reading" as a procedure by which the “reader” can persuade someone he has never met before that he knows all about their personality and problems. Like Forer, he found that this can be accomplished with a “stock spiel or ‘psychological reading’ that consists of highly general statements that can fit any individual.”
At best, it is delivered as an assessment tailored to that one person, but it relies on gathering information beforehand, either openly or surreptitiously. For the “stock spiel,” Hyman quotes examples from psychologists who repeated Forer’s experiment.
So, pretty much the same idea. The Forer effect is what makes a cold reading possible.
Except Hyman takes it a step further. He shows you step by step how to do it, which I’m repeating in abridged form here. If you read (or maybe write) some of the blogs I read, these will hit home with you:
- Confidence. Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reading is your confidence.
- Numbers. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.
- Showmanship. Set the stage for your reading. Use a gimmick. Dramatize your reading. Tell the client you have only a limited amount of time for the reading.
- Trust. Gain the client’s cooperation in advance. Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. Emphasize that the success of the reading depends as much upon his sincere cooperation as upon your efforts.
- Patter. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue.
- Listening. Learn to be a good listener. During the course of a reading your client will be bursting to talk. The good reader allows the client to talk at will.
- Watching. Gauge the impact of your statements upon the subject. Very quickly you will learn when you are hitting home and when you are missing the boat.
- Inquiring. Use the technique of "fishing." Get the subject to tell you about himself, then rephrase what he has told you into a coherent sketch and feed it back to him.
- Mystery. Always give the impression that you know more than you are saying. Once you persuade the client that you know one item of information about him that you could not possibly have obtained through normal channels, the client will automatically assume you know all.
- Flattery. Don't be afraid to flatter your subject every chance you get.
- Support. Finally, remember the golden rule: Tell the client what he wants to hear.
Are you ready to put the Barnum effect and Forer’s, Hyman’s and others’ research to use for yourself?
Reaching Your Customers with Help from the Barnum Effect
The research says those who are naïve and who have a need for approval are more susceptible to the Barnum effect. The subjects of Forer’s experiments were college kids taking an “intro” course, so some of them likely would have been naïve, needy, neurotic, etc.
But they were college kids in the 1940s, when school was still reserved for the elite, so we can also assume they were smart and engaged.
And, as Hyman says, the “reader” in a character reading actually needs his subject to be on the ball.
“Once the client is actively engaged in trying to make sense of the series of sometimes contradictory statements issuing from the reader, he becomes a creative problem-solver trying to find coherence and meaning in the total set of statements. … In other words, the reading succeeds just because it calls upon the normal processes of comprehension that we ordinarily bring to bear in making sense out of any form of communication.”
So the Barnum effect isn’t about your customers being dimwits. Again, from Hyman’s conclusion, “The good reader, like anyone who manipulates our perceptions [e.g., marketing pros], is merely exploiting the normal processes by which we make sense out of the disorderly array of inputs that constantly bombard us.”
Now that we know we’re on firm ground here, let’s go back over what the research has taught us and see how it applies to e-commerce marketing.
Lesson: Due to the Barnum effect, people will accept broad, ambiguous statements about themselves as true and specific to them. They are more believable if the statements are seen as tailored to them. Flatter your client. Tell them what they want to hear.
Application: Use broad, positive statements to show that you understand your site users / customers. Address them, by using “you,” “your” or “yours.”
This business knows you are deserving. Would you deny it?
Monica de Liz’s business (above) is called Because You Deserve and, as a style coach, she’s all about telling women what they want to hear (ultimately, if not right away). Her site is full of praise for visitors as well as from others who praise her, i.e., testimonials.
This company below also knows what you deserve and that it’s perfect ... for you. “We’re here to make your hair look incredible and you feel fantastic, all in the comfort of your home.” It’s all about you.
And on the right side of the page, the use of testimonials to engender trust fits our second lesson below.
I used this example from Jif peanut butter in a previous explanation of another cognitive bias, the choice-supportive bias, but it does double duty. It’s all about what a great mom you are, which helps you believe what a great peanut butter Jif is.
Lesson: Users are even more likely to believe statements about them if they come from a confident, “prestige” or authoritative source.
The American Institute for Certified Public Accountants sells memberships, which entitle members to publications and other benefits. Notice at the bottom, you can get a list of all their awards.
Toys R Us wants shoppers to trust them:
And at the top of the page, “Us” includes you:
Lesson: Leaving “an air of mystery,” or the impression that you know more than you are saying, enhances your acceptability. Users find more meaning in any situation than is actually there.
Application: Tout your intuition, insight, unique abilities, etc., for yourself if you offer personal services, or the unprecedented qualities your product possesses. Build trust through creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.
Here’s a counselor doing the “air of mystery” thing right:
These guys are all about being way out of ahead of everyone else with their technology. They must know something we don’t.
Statistics? This article backs up its claims with stats about companies you know and love:
Lesson: Use a gimmick. Create urgency (“limited time”).
Application: Use a logo, catchphrase or other elements to make your brand and website stand out. Then, create a sense of scarcity and urgency to flatter your customer into thinking they are special if they have your product.
Dollar Shave Club (Only available to members. Get it?) debuted a video that explains its concept with a wry sense of humor and a naughty tagline in 2012. Four years, 22 million views and a $615 million valuation later, it was still front and center on the home page when I wrote this.
Lesson: Use stock phrases.
Application: Write ad and page copy in language and terms your users expect from your industry or type of business. Copy should also reflect who your customers are and where they are in the buyer funnel. Please and thank you are obvious stock phrases/words to use with CTAs and completed conversions.
Lesson: Watch the impact of your statements upon the subject. Learn when you are hitting and missing – and, if necessary, adjust.
Application: Run A/B tests on your changes! Keep an eye on your analytics. This is one way your customers communicate with you. You can exploit their biases, but nothing works for all of the people all of the time. Know who your customers are.
Hyman’s "fishing" technique – getting the subject to tell you about himself – and advice to be a good listener also translate to today’s qualitative testing and building customer personas. The more you know about your customers, through user experience testing, surveys, heatmaps, etc., the better you can appeal to them, even by making general statements that aren’t really specifically about them.
As Steve Kemish of Junction Marketing Agency says, this approach not only helps you work out the right type of message, but also to work out where in the buying process the message is needed and which channel it should be communicated through.
Kemish also suggest, quite rightly, that some marketers might cite the Forer effect internally to help others in their organization understand the need for persona-based and funnel-specific marketing. The example of Forer’s students “can help others buy into (why) persona segmentation is so valuable – as humans we like to believe that we are understood and the more we see language and messaging that feels relevant and about us, the more it feels that the author of that messaging ‘gets’ us.”
It’s easy for us to believe what we want to hear about ourselves, especially if it’s flattering or it seems to come from a credible source. Our human nature even allows us to overlook some ideas that are negative or don’t quite fit. It’s an unavoidable cognitive bias, the fallacy of personal validation.
No one is hurt by hearing a few nice things about themselves, as long as they’re not said for nefarious purposes. If it’s just a ploy to get us to take a longer look at an online product or service and maybe click on a CTA, where’s the harm?
A little flattery can go a long way for an online marketer who understands the Forer effect.