Monday, May 23, 2011

Day 2: The Barnum Effect

The shelf life of our collective foolishness is aided by our own psychological defense systems, which make it difficult for us to notice our own impulses. No matter how far removed we feel we may be from some of these silly, bizarre, or even hurtful follies, there's still an elusive thread binding us to them - if only that they remind us of the need for further self-reflective work. 

The One Hundred Parable Sutra was translated into Chinese in 492 C.E. by Gunavriddi as the Bayu-jing and starts with the salt story: 

A fool was invited to dinner and found the food tasteless. His host offered him some salt, which made the food much tastier. The fool, amazed by the culinary efficacy of the salt, pushed aside his meal and opted for the salt alone. Shortly thereafter, the fool's mouth began to burn and he was in agony. 

It goes on to say that people who misconstrue the Buddhist Way of Understanding by starving themselves for weeks on end, starve in vain and learn nothing. This misconception is similar to today's New Age practitioners and followers who, like the advertisement below, abuse language to distort meaning, pretending they are more knowledgeable on a subject. 

Teach a New Age class today! Randomly add prefixes ("meta-," "trans-," "inter-,") to any number of words to make them sound more meta-impressive. Use Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, or other exotic sounding words ("Toltec," "mantra," "tantric," "mandala") to add ancient sounding wisdom and legitimacy to whatever you say. 

The Forer Effect (Barnum Effect after P.T. Barnum's observation that "we've got something for everyone") is the observation that people ascribe higher accuracy ratings to vague generalities that apply to a wide range of people if they have a bias which causes them to believe they are meant for them alone. This helps explain why many people accept concepts like astrology, fortune telling, and Facebook Princess Personality Tests. 

When people expect to find a related connection between two entirely different concepts, their belief or expectancy fills in the gap to form the relationship. From a fortune cookie to a daily horoscope, psychologists have revealed that people give further credence to the analysis when they believe it applies only to them, that the evaluator is credible, and in particular, when the analysis lists mostly positive traits. 

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave identical personality test results to his students, which he had compiled from a number of horoscopes. On average, the students rated the personality test 4.26 (students were to rate the accuracy of the analysis on a scale of 0 [very poor] to 5 [excellent] on how well it applied to them) before they were informed that they had all received identical copies. 

"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. 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, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life. 

A number of us have fallen prone to this type of subjective validation, holding onto miniature strips of paper imbued with classical inspirational quotes from fortune cookies that claim we will inherit a large sum of money or gain the admiration of our peers. The belief in the accuracy of the coincidences is the cognitive biases we recognize in ourselves that allow us to laugh at our own foolish tendencies. It's why we can still laugh at a 1,500-year old salt story. 

And by the way, the funnier the joke, the higher likelihood it has some personal meaning or significance to us. 

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