Showman P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” and if you believe he actually said that you may be one of them. Barnum promoted sideshow hoaxes like the Fiji mermaid and the Cardiff Giant but his biographer, Arthur H. Saxon, casts doubt on the idea that Barnum would openly “disparage his patrons.”
We believe misattributed quotes for the same reason we believe conventional theories that have been disproven time and again: they have staying power.
Take the Myer-Briggs personality test. The Myers-Briggs is based on outdated Jungian theories. It’s accuracy has been dwarfed by tests like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, yet more people know their Myers-Briggs type than their MMPI. One test just has better branding.
The Meyers-Briggs enjoys popularity, because people are satisfied with their results. This is due to how encompassing each personality type is defined. Of all the traits in the 16 personality types there’s a little something for everyone.
The psychiatric community dismisses the Myers-Briggs as pseudoscience, but if there’s anything the Internet has taught us is that if enough people perpetuate a myth they can start an epidemic. That feeling of truth will persist even when the myth is shown to be false.
As P.T. Barnum actually said, “Exposing an illusion is not the same as revealing a truth.”
The Barnum Effect
In 1948, Bertram R. Forer tried an experiment on his psychology students. He gave his class a personality test and told them he’d use the answers to give each student a thorough psychological profile. Upon receiving their profiles the students were asked to rate their accuracy on a scale of 0-5. The averaged was 4.3. It was only after the ratings were in that Forer revealed his scheme. He’d given everyone identical profiles with affirmations he’d plagiarized from an astrology book he got at a newsstand. The profile read:
1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
11. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
13. Security is one of your major goals in life.
This phenomenon of people seeing themselves in strategically vague material has been dubbed The Barnum Effect in honor of the deception prone showman.
While Forer used these generalities to trick his students, story-tellers should consider what these items say about the human condition. We’re inclined to see ourselves in horoscopes, in tarot readings, and in the stories written by our friends, because, well, we’re inclined to see ourselves everywhere. We hold on to the highlights that hit home and minimize the misses.
We are so vain, and yes, we do think that song is about us.
The Value of Universal Character Traits
Writers know the value of a blank-slate every person Keanu Reeves-type character for audiences to project themselves onto, the so-called hero with a thousand faces. Writers know that likeable leads tend to be longing, sympathetic, complex individuals with room to grow, you know, like pretty much everyone you know.
Writers know that horoscope truisms make for good characterization short hand. If all of Forer’s 13 profile items apply to your hero then congratulations they’re basically human.
It’s a great feeling when a reader tells you they relate to one of your characters. It’s validating knowing your sense of empathy is compatible with other human beings. If only an understanding of the human condition could get more eyes on the page though.
Well, now writers can make the Barnum Effect work for them.
Convince People You’re Writing about Them
By harnessing the power of social media, social engineering, and sociopathy you can trick your friends, family, and ex-lovers into looking for themselves in your writing. This will boost your Amazon search placement, traffic to your blog, and overall engagement.
Use these 4 easy steps.
1. Become a Stenographer
Subtly plant the seeds that you’re drawing your writing material from the real world. Start with innocuous declarations like, “That’s going in the quote book.” Then get slightly more problematic, “Shhh, I’m mining the Tinder Date behind us for material. That couple is a gold mine.” Then leave your phone on the table with the voice memo application running while you’re in the bathroom.
Pro tip: have hidden camera equipment up in your Amazon cart and leave your browser there whenever you have company.
2. Become a Profiler
Get into the habit of peppering personality test questions into casual conversations.
“Do you prefer to mingle or observe at parties?”
“Do you lean more toward randomness or routine?”
“Are you big on being the center of attention?”
When your friends ask why you’re ask simply respond, “I have an idea for something, but it may be nothing.”
Then escalate your questioning to include questions from Robert D. Hare’s Psychopath checklist.
“Do you have constant need for stimulation?”
“Do you ever think you have a parasitic lifestyle?”
“Do you ever think you display criminal versatility?”
3. Become a Softcover Shit-Talker
You know that friend who talks shit about all of your mutual friends whenever you hang out? You know that sneaking suspicion you get that they talk that shit about you when they’re with those same friends?
Harness that same social suspicion and apply it to your fiction. You can do this by boosting about how you’ve gotten revenge on people who’ve wronged you by dismembering them in your writing.
“The first character the monster feasts on has all of my ex’s mannerisms.”
“The one who loses all his limbs was based on a boss of mine.”
“Oh, and the one who gets eviscerated was an old professor.”
Convince everyone around you that you are petty, vindictive, and cruel and they will comb through your writing looking for references to them.
Now here’s the best part. You can still build your characters from the ground up, with traits based on the needs of your story. Your characters can be as original, colorful, and outlandish as you want.
The Barnum Effect teaches us that you don’t have to draw any inspiration from genuine interactions with others. People are prone to see themselves on the page whether they’re there or not.
4. Become a Topic of Conversation
Once your nearest and dearest have been conditioned to think your writing is about them they’ll make assumptions and pass them along. That gossip is good word of mouth. The more people who feel personally offended the more likely they are to write long winded condemnations of you (and more importantly your book) on social media.
Just remember: There’s no such thing as bad publicity, burning bridges are a sight to see, and you can always lean on plausible deniability if you find yourself in a courtroom setting.
The information age has made it harder than ever for emerging authors to elevate their work from the masses. A truly dedicated writer has to be willing to do whatever it takes, including tricking their friends into thinking their material is about them.
A serious writer will harness the power of the Barnum Effect to build a brand.
We want to believe we’re individuals, that our personal traits aren’t universal. We want to believe we’re diamonds in the rough, unlike all that basic bedrock. We want our individuality to be acknowledged, so much so that we’ll see acknowledgement where it isn’t.
“This Instagram targeted advertisement makes me feel like someone is truly listening.”
“This aura reader sees the shade of burnt sienna I’m desperately trying to show the world.”
“This Buzzfeed quiz peered into my soul… and assigned me to house Gryffindor.”
As a writer it’s your duty to let your friends, family, and ex-lovers feel acknowledged. Let them know that they’re unique creative individuals, just like everyone else.