Friday, May 4, 2012

Suspending My Disbelief: The Barnum Effect

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In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true either is true or becomes true.


-John Lilly


The assignment required me to assess the possible outcome of the Barnum Effect on people by means of performing a simple experiment entitled The Person-Tree Test. The test was relatively simple I looked for a participant, and given a pencil and a sheet of paper, I allowed my participant to freely draw a person and a tree, saying that the said drawing will more or less reflect his personality. Upon receiving the accomplished sheet of paper, I asked my participant to wait awhile for 0 minutes as I “evaluate” his work. I returned to him after the said time, his “personality assessment”, which consists of 6 general statements I have copied verbatim from a reading, at hand. I gave him the sheet of paper, and as he reads his “personality sketch”, surprisingly, he nods in total agreement.


The exercise required a participant who has not taken Psych 101 (the Introductory Psychology course), lest the results might be confounded. Some how, most of the people I know have already taken the Introductory Psychology course, so my original plan, since I was left with no choice anyway, was to approach any random person. However, by some stroke of luck, I chanced upon one of my orgmates for the time being that I was at PHAn, and she was with a friend, who also happened to be my former busmate back in high school, and who is now a second year student from the College of Engineering, taking up Industrial Engineering. I walked up to him and asked nicely if he could participate in my little experiment for my Personality class. He agreed, which gave my heart a tiny jump for joy. Oh boy.


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As I gave out the instructions for the test, I would say that he was very open to it. He even thought that there were still other things that I will ask him to draw, so he only occupied a fraction of the paper. When I clarified that he could use the entire page for his drawing, he laughed and he marked his previous work with an X mark. He started anew, this time more detailed and more, I should say, artistic the tree even bore fruits.


I returned after 0 minutes to give him his results, and I was quite amazed that he was nodding in complete agreement as he read those 6 general statements. He even asked me about what process I used in arriving at his traits. I smiled and told him that there was a distinct relationship between his drawings and his personality, that the characteristics of impromptu drawings reflect an individual’s personality. I guess he was satisfied with my not-so-true answer since he didn’t have any further questions. Subsequently, I gave the evaluation sheet for him to accomplish. I was then not surprised that he gave a 5 (extremely accurate) for the test’s accuracy. In addition, as for his other comments about his results, he wrote, (and to quote), “More people should try it. I was greatly amused by the fact that most/all the results were correct.”


I was impressed.


The debriefing was not exactly easy. Luckily, he was very open to the idea. At first, he was quite confused, he had this notion that given the aforementioned test an example, anybody can be a psychologist and analyze other people’s personalities. I explained to him that the point of the experiment was the exact opposite, stressing that the traits he thought were very personal to him also apply to almost everyone, and there’s nothing really personal attached to it besides that. He was very amenable to the entire exercise, and didn’t mind about the part wherein a little deception was involved. Whew.


Performing the exercise made me think about the manner by which I easily believe the things that are presented to me. I myself am a fan of numerous personality tests, especially the ones found within the Internet. I think individuals possess this inherent thirst to know more about themselves, and are exceptionally interested especially when these are seen through other people’s eyes, like personality tests. No wonder we always cringe upon receiving personality test results, saying to ourselves, “Eerie. This is so me. Wow.” We then admire our psychologists and parallel them to everyday palm readers, online quizzes and astrologists. Some things are just too easy to accept as true.


Nevertheless, this exercise further strengthened good judgment and criticism of these kinds of activities that claim to reveal my personality. It urged me to think twice before accepting, to examine whether they are valid and reliable. After all, it’s no personality test if it were too general, too Barnum-ish.


However, on some occasions, it wouldn’t hurt me to suspend my disbelief and believe in tarot card readings, the daily horoscope, and my online quiz results. For certain, they’re still interesting to me, in their own little respects.





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