Fabulous You

Based on my extensive research and understanding of your particular interests and personality type, I have a clear idea of who you are. Here are my findings: You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. Although disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you can sometimes be worried and insecure on the inside. There are times when you have doubts as to whether you made the right decision or did the right thing. You like a decent amount of variety in your life and you don’t like to be hemmed in by restrictions or limitations. You’re an independent thinker and rarely accept other’s statements without proof. You can be extroverted and sociable, but what others don’t realize is that you are also introverted and can be reserved at times.

Does this sound like you? Amazing, right? Not really. This pretty much describes everyone. The “insights” above came from a 1948 experiment by Bertram R. Forer and the description was compiled from snippets of horoscopes. So, why did you bite? For just a moment you succumbed to the “Forer Effect”, which is part of a larger phenomenon psychologists call subjective validation, a fancy way to say we are much more vulnerable to suggestion when the fascinating subject is ourselves. This is why people are taken in by pseudoscience like biorhythms, iridology or even the Psychic Friends Network. If a statement seems specific but is ambiguous and you’re convinced it addresses you directly, you’ll ignore the ambiguity and find ways to match up the “details” so that they are compatible with your traits and view of yourself. If you want to believe that the psychic is the real deal or the I Ching can divine your future, you will look for patterns in the moment that reaffirm that belief and employ confirmation bias afterward when you tell your friend how the crystal gazer “told me things about myself that were uncanny.”

Psychologist Ray Hyman has spent years studying the art of deception. He even worked as a magician, then moved on to mentalism when he realized he could make a lot more money reading palms than doing card tricks. Hyman, like other mentalists, was using a technique called “cold reading”, starting with a series of generalities and watching the other person for cues (a nod, a faint smile, a furrowed brow) to constrict his focus to include just those statements that made it appear that he was peering into their soul. In fact, the people who came to Hyman for readings were so impressed he began to think that he might have a real gift. No one is immune to subjective validation, it seems. Fortunately for him, another mentalist, the great Stanley Jaks, took a shine to the young Hyman and decided to save him from delusion. He asked Hyman to try telling his patrons the opposite of what he really believed their palms were telling him. Guess what? His patrons were just as amazed and dumbfounded by his incredible insights. Hyman realized that, as powerful as a good cold reading was, what he said didn’t really matter all that much as long as his presentation was compelling. He had the Forer Effect working for him either way, and the real magic in play was his genuine warmth and charisma.

So read all the horoscopes not just your month, and pick the one you like best, since they’re all pretty much the same. And when someone claims they can peer into your psyche, enjoy the deception, um, attention, and remember that we’re all fabulous, and as human beings, much more alike than different.

Excerpted from You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney