Monday, January 24, 2011

Demystification: The Forer Effect, or WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN I'M NOT A SCORPIO?

First, a thank you: I hit 100 followers last Friday, and a few of you have joined me since then. My babyblog is overwhelmed and a little dysregulated from all the excitement. At some point, when the blog calms itself and stops shaking, I will do some sort of nifty contest. Maybe when I get to 186 followers. Yes. We will have us a contest. Get ready. And--please keep up your intelligent, generous, and awesomely insightful comments. It has been so lovely reading your thoughts and opinions.

Now, a thing has happened. A week or two ago, there was a hubbub about astrological signs. I read an article that made my eyes bulge: despite my lifelong belief that I am a Scorpio, apparently, all this time, I have been a Virgo.

I used to feel sorta badass ...

Scorpio traits: determined, forceful, emotional, intuitive, powerful, passionate, exciting, magnetic ... and on the down side: jealous, resentful, obsessive, compulsive, secretive, and obstinate.

It's considered a feminine sign.

And now ... not so much.

Virgo traits: modest, shy, meticulous, reliable, practical, diligent, intelligent, analytical. On the down side: fussy, a worrier, overcritical, harsh, perfectionist, and conservative.

Also a feminine sign.

Well, I'm still a girl, so there's that.

But whoa--Scorpio and Virgo. They're so different. I had always thought Scorpio fit me pretty well. But then, when I read the Virgo traits, I was like, "hey, that sounds a little like me, too."

Has anyone else had this sort of disorienting experience in the last few weeks?

If so, take comfort, my friends. We have been victims of the Forer Effect. Also known as the Barnum Effect. When we read descriptions we believe apply to us, we attribute high levels of accuracy to them. Even if they are SO general that they could apply to most of the population in some way or another.

The Forer Effect has been demonstrated in numerous research studies. The original study: this psychologist had his students take a personality test, then he gave them their results. They all rated the results as highly accurate. And then he revealed that he'd given them all the SAME personality description, and that personality description was not based in any way upon their test responses.

This is how psychologists punk people.

There are a lot of other reasons people find astrology persuasive, and if you really want to know more, you can find them here. Maybe they will make you feel better about having your astrological identity stripped from you.

And on the writing side, I think it shows the caution we should use in our adjective choices ... so much better to show the reader your characters' distinct personalities rather than telling the reader with these general personality descriptors, right? I have noticed that some writers try to do this in their query letters as a sort of shorthand to the agent: "Strong-willed, conservative so-and-so" or "Shy, self-deprecating other-person" ... but I've rarely seen it work.

So: are you still recovering from the Great Astrological Shuffling of 2011? Have you fallen prey to the Forer Effect? Or perhaps an evil, punking psychologist? And do you think my suspicion of personality adjectives is unfounded ?

Wow, my questions are random today. While I go in search of coherence, please check out Laura's post on self-evaluation.


  1. Great post. I never read astrology forecasts for me. I am afraid of them. Maybe that's a symptom that I believe they are even more real than the people who take the time to read them.

    As for adjectives, I never use them to describe a character's personality. Their actions and what they say in the context of the narrative gets the job done.

  2. I hit 100 last week, too. :) We are both 106 followers, until I just followed you so now you're up by one. LOL

  3. Well, I used to fall neatly on the cusp, which was great, because then I got to choose the sign that had the most good fortune coming up.
    Now I'm strictly ONE sign, and I have to accept whatever it says.
    So I've decided I'm not going to change. I'm sticking with what I know! No-one can tell me what to do! But I guess that's just the stubborn Leo in me.
    Oh no, wait, it's not. :P

  4. LOL, you've been punked!! Hahaha! ;)

    I've been wanting to do a post on the zodiac "changes," but I like how you spun this to include psychology, the zodiac, AND writing!!! You da bomb!

    Congrats on hitting 100+ followers! :D

  5. LOL! I've always wondered about astrology readings and predictions. The ones I've seen always fit almost anyone, though I was told "of course" they didn't. Nice to know there's a name for it.

  6. I don't need to wait for the zodiac changes, I get a daily dose of (as Linda said) punked. People attribute traits to me on a daily basis that leave me going 'huh'. Apparently I'm a better person at heart than I tend to give myself credit for. Who knew...(Hugs)Indigo

  7. LOVED the punk'd shout-out! Yep. Psychologists can be evil, too :D

    I'm a Capricorn, and I was super disappointed when I thought I'd been changed to a Sagittarius. Nothing against that sign, but I just didn't see myself that way. So yeah, it was the opposite of the Forer Effect!

    Congrats on 100 followers!!! *throws confetti*

  8. As for The Shuffle, I am (was) an Aquarius, which are known to be individuals to start with, not following anyone's drummer. I'm still okay with that;0) I am what I am. I also read that the shuffle only affected the eastern sphere, for whatever reason.
    Congrats on the 100 followers benchmark!

  9. I'm a Leo ... hear me ROAR!!!!!!!!!!!!! Seriously, I am a Leo,I don't care what the new signs say. I am NOT a Cancer. Nope. The description is not me at all.

    You guys punk people? Is that legal? LoL ;-)


  10. JD--well, if it gets past the Institutional Review Board and you sign an informed consent ... it's considered both legal AND ethical.

    Andrew--I'm glad you share my dislike of the telling personality description.

    Thanks for all the congrats, everyone! It sounds like most of you are sticking with your astrological signs, no matter what. Although I admit I don't really believe in astrology, I think I'd like to remain a Scorpio, so I'm with you there.

  11. Actually it was a relief to find out I might be more Pisces than Aries. Couldn't figure out how my creative aspirations fit in the Aries framework. Now I know!

  12. LOL! I used to be a Scorpio, too. I'm just going to stay one because I like to imagine I drive fear into people--with my poisonous tail. Oh. Wait. Nevermind.

  13. I think I'm still a Sagittarius. Not that I pay much attention to it. It's describes me, but I can get the same results from any of the signs. They probably all have something that represents me. ;)

  14. ha! that's funny how the descriptions (for the most part) can fit anyone. it's sort of like the predictions in fortune cookies- but pertaining to personality.
    great point about descriptions in a query letter. i'd never thought of that before... in the actual story, yes. but the query letter...
    however, i do have a bone to pick with you! you made me laugh so hard with that punked line, coffee came out my nose!!! do you know how much that hurts!?!? :)
    seriously though, i wonder if a lot of people grew up knowing their sign, and unconsciously tilted their personalities towards that, and that's a reason why they don't want to abandon their old sign... would that be the effect you're talking about??

  15. I had no idea this change came about but after looking at the article I can still say I am not a leo but still very much a virgo, minus the obsessive orderliness. My house is a mess. lol

    goodness, if my MIL finds most of the signs have changed she will be beside herself with worry.

    Very entertaining Sarah.


  16. Looks like I'll have to reconsider my entire personality, now. Or not, I stopped reading my horoscope about 18 years ago. :)

  17. I've never really paid that much attention to my horoscope other than just reading it for kicks. In my mind, I will always be a Leo.