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.