Bertram Forer Experiments: Your Personalised Generic Profile

Here is the ‘personalised’ personality profile as used in a 1948 experiment by Bertram Forer:

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. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. 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. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

On a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent), participants in the study rated the accuracy of the above statement as 4.26 (mean). Only after these ratings were provided did Forer reveal to the participants that all of them had been provided with the exact same statement.

It was after this experiment that Forer famously described the personal validation fallacy (or: the Barnum effect)

In Tricks of the Mind (an excellent Christmas present for those interested in such things, by the way), Derren Brown discusses an updated version of this experiment that he conducted for his TV show of the same name. The fifteen participants in this experiment (from the U.K., U.S. and Spain) provided personal items to Brown (a traced outline of their hand, the time and date of their birth, and a small, every-day ‘personal object’), and in return were provided with personality profiles such as that above and were asked to mark its accuracy out of 100.

Three participants scored it poorly, between 40 and 50, while the remaining twelve rated the profile as highly accurate–one rating it as 99% accurate, while another was so drawn in to the profile that she believed the TV crew had secretly read her diary. Two more felt so revealed by the statement that they refused to discuss their profile on film.

Even though all participants in Brown’s experiment expected to receive a series of “vague and ambiguous statements” that could apply widely, they all still fell foul of the personal validation fallacy.

No matter how much we know, we seem unable to account for our biases and beliefs.

Update: I’ve now transcribed the text Derren Brown’s used in his Barnum effect experiment.



5 responses to “Bertram Forer Experiments: Your Personalised Generic Profile”

  1. I’m obsessed with this experiment, which I think’s been done in various forms throughout the years.

    I like Derren Brown’s text the most (I have it printed next to my desk waiting for a day when I fancy some mind-numbing tedium and transcribing it to Tumblr) of all of them.

    What I don’t get is why everyone focuses on the logical fallacy. Big deal, we’re all sucky losers.

    Isn’t it amazing that we’re pretty much all sexually maladjusted outwardly-extrovert would-be novelist pipe-dreamers?

  2. It really is a fantastic experiment, and I, too, want to transcribe Derren Brown’s version to Tumblr/here. If you do it before me, let me know!

    This other angle is intriguing, too. Personal validation fallacy aside, the majority of Barnum statements are quite specific on some areas: would-be novelists, for example.

    As you say, it really is amazing that “we’re pretty much all sexually maladjusted outwardly-extrovert would-be novelist pipe-dreamers”.

    It’s amazing that we are the above, yet still think we’re the only people with this ‘unique’ set of traits.

    How self-centred we can be, right? How dare you have my aspirations.

  3. Derren Brown’s text:

    You are a person prone to bouts of self-examination. This is in sharp contrast to a striking ability you have developed to appear very socially engaged, even the life and soul of the parrt; but in a way that only convinces others. You are all too aware of it being a facade.

    This means that you will often be at a gathering and find yourself playing a part. While on the one hand you’ll be talkative and funny, you’ll be detaching yourself to the point where you will find yourself watching everything going on around you and feeling utterly unable to engage. You’ll play conversations back to yourself in your head and wonder what that person really meant when he said such-and-such – conversations that other people wouldn’t give a second thought to.

    How have you learned to deal with this conflict? Through exercising control. You like to show a calm, self-assured fluid kind of stability (but because this is self-consciously created, it will create bouts of frustrated silliness and a delight in extremes, or at least a delight in being seen to be extreme). You most easily recognize this control in how you are with people around you. You have learned to protect yourself by keeping people at bay. Because in the past you have learned to be disappointed by people (and because there were issues with you adjusting to your sexuality), you instinctively keep people at arms’ length, until you decide they are allowed over that magic line into your group of close friends. However, once across that line, the problem is that an emotional dependency kicks in which leaves you feeling very hurt or rejected if it appears that they have betrayed that status.

    Because you are prone to self-examination, you will be aware of these traits. However, you are unusually able to examine even that self-examination, which means that you have become concerned about what the real you is. You have become all too aware of facades, of sides of yourself which you present to the world, and you wonder if you have lost touch with the real and spontaneous you.

    You are very creative, and have tried different avenues to utilize that ability. It may not be that you specifically, say, paint; it may be that your creativity shows itself in more subtle ways, but you will certainly find yourself having vivid and well-formed ideas which others will find hard to grasp. You set high standards for yourself, though, and in many ways are a bit of a perfectionist. The problem is, though, that it means you often don’t get stuff done, because you are frustrated by the idea of mediocrity and are wearied by the idea of starting something afresh. However, once your brain is engaged you’ll find yourself sailing. Very much this will likely lead to you having considered writing a novel or some such, but a fear that you won’t be able to achieve quite what you want stops you from getting on with it. But you have a real vision for things, which others fall short of. Particularly in your academic/college situation, you are currently fighting against restraints upon your desire to express yourself freely.

    Your relationship with your parents (there is a suggestion that one is no longer around, or at least emotionally absent) is under some strain. You wish to remain fond of them but recent issues are causing frustration – from your side far more than theirs. In fact they seem unaware of your thoughts on the matter. Partly this is because there are ways in which you have been made to feel isolated from certain groups in the past – something of an outsider. Now what is happening is that you are taking that outsider role and defending it to the point of consciously avoiding being part of a group. This will serve you well in your creative and career pursuits. You have an enormous cynicism towards those who prefer to be part of a group or who exhibit any cliquey behaviour, and you always feel a pang of disappointment when you see your ‘close’ friends seeming to follow that route. Deep down it feels like rejection.

    However, for all that introspection, you have developed a sensational, dry sense of humour that makes connections quickly and wittily and will leave you making jokes that go right over the heads of others. You delight in it so much that you’ll often rehearse jokes or amusing voices to yourself in order to ’spontaneously’ impress others with them. But this is a healthy desire to impress, and although you hate catching yourself at it, it’s nothing to be so worried about.

    There’s also an odd feeling that you should have been born in a different century. You might be able to make more sense of that than I can.

    There are some strong monetary shifts taking place at the moment. Both the recent past and what’s in store over the next few months represent quite a change.

    You have links at the moment with America*, which are quite interesting, and will look to yield worthwhile results. You’re naturally a little disorganized. A look around your living space would show a box of photos, unorganised into albums, out-of-date medicines, broken items not thrown out, and notes to yourself which are significantly out of date. Something related to this is that you lack motivation. Because you’re resourceful and talented enough to be pretty successful when you put your mind to things, this encourages you to procrastinate and put them off. Equally, you’ve given up dreams a little easily when your mind flitted elsewhere. There are in your home signs of an excursion into playing a musical instrument, which you have since abandoned, or are finding yourself less interested in. (This may alternatively relate to poetry and creative writing you’ve briefly tried your hand at and left behind you.) You have a real capacity for deciding that such-and-such a thing (or so-and-so a person) will be the be all and end all of everything and be with you for ever. But you’d rather try and fail, and swing from one extreme to the other, than settle for the little that you see others content with.

    Conclusion: It’s very interesting doing your reading, as you do present something of a conundrum, which won’t surprise you. You are certainly bright, but unusually open to life’s possibilities – something not normally found among achieving people. I’d say you’d do well to be less self-absorbed, as it tends to distance you a little, and to relinquish some of the control you exercise when you present that stylized version of yourself to others. You could let people in a little more, but I am aware that there is a darkness you feel you should hide (much of this is in the personal/relationship/sexual area, and is related to a neediness which you don’t like).

    You really have an appealing personality – genuinely. Many thanks for doing this, and for offering something far more substantial than most.

    *This was changed to ‘Britain’ for US subjects. (I suggest ‘people abroad’ as a catch-all.)

  4. Lucy

    Where do I get more information about the Forer experiment?

  5. Lucy — If you follow all of the links provided in my post above, all your answers about the Forer experiment should be answered.

    If not, however, what information are you looking for exactly?