F is for Bertram Forer

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday is billed as The Farewell Tour so this may be my last trip through the alphabet of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten.

Bertram Forer was an American psychologist who is remembered for describing the technique for self-deception familiar to psychics, astrologers and even popular business personality tests.

Forer was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1914 and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1936. He then received his MA and PhD in clinical psychology from the University of California.

He served as a psychologist in a military hospital in France during World War II. After the war he worked in a veterans mental clinic in Los Angeles and in private practice in Malibu.

It was his 1948 experiment that became known as the Forer Effect that he is remembered. Forer gave each of his students a personality test and one week later handed them an individual analysis of the results. In fact, the ‘readings’ were exactly the same and based on phrases lifted from newspaper astrology columns. It read:

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 worrisome 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 as 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.

The students were asked to rate the accuracy of the ‘reading’ on a scale of 0 to 5 with 5 being ‘excellent’. The class average was 4.26 meaning that Forer had convinced his students that he had correctly read their character when he had done nothing of the sort.

What Forer had demonstrated was at least a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology and some types of personality tests and the very human trait of seeking personal connections in even the most general of generalisations.

For further information, see Forer’s Wikipedia page, the Barnum Effect on Wikipedia, Forer’s Fallacy of Personal Validation paper from 1949 and the Skeptics Dictionary.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

8 comments… Add yours
  • Yorkshire Pudding 15th February 2017

    All very well and good but which football team did Bertram Forer support? He sounds and looks like a Manchester United fan to me.

  • rhymeswithplague 15th February 2017

    I know you can’t judge a book by its cover,but he appears to be from the 19th century, so much so that I thought at first that the dates contained a typo. Then I read the words “World War II” and realized I was wrong. But he must have been a relic, a misfit, a throwback to another time. I think he might have been a bit of an eccentric. I know, I know, it takes one to know one.

  • PhenoMenon, ABC Wednesday 15th February 2017

    Forging connections with the students !! 🙂

    PhenoMenon, ABC Wednesday

  • leslie 15th February 2017

    This is funny! Sometimes I read ALL the horoscopes and analyze them, noting that a lot of the signs said basically the same thing, but in a different way! I read mine only for fun now! I wonder if any of Forer’s students talked among themselves and discovered that they had all received the exact same information!

    abcw team

  • Melody Steenkamp 15th February 2017

    Some are good in that line of work, others are not sadly enough, no matter their degree

    Have a nice ABC-Wednesday / _ Week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc=w=team)

  • Roger Green 16th February 2017

    I’m a Pisces, and my moon is in…oh, I have no idea.


    • rhymeswithplague 18th February 2017

      I’m a Pisces too, and my moon is safely ensconced in my trousers, where all moons, Piscean and otherwise, should be. In their own respective trousers I mean, not in mine.

  • Trevor Rowley 17th February 2017

    He has a striking resemblance of veteran American TV and film actor, Karl Malden. Think of Streets of San Francisco, opposite a very youthful Michael Douglas. That nose is a dead giveaway.


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