The Barnum Effect

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January 2

Rolling With the Changes

In Social Psychology, there is something called the Barnum Effect. That is based on the famous saying by circus owner of times past, P.T. Barnum that "There is a sucker born every minute." The Barnum Effect in Social Psychology is that when people are given a generic description of their lives and personality, most people tend to heartily agree, and furthermore, think that the describer has some sort of special insight into their personalities. This is a technique clearly employed by fortune tellers. Give a general description, perhaps aided by a few observations about the person, and give the person something optimistic to hang their hopes on, and the person will most likely think that the fortune teller is some sort of gifted psychic -- and of course, be willing to pay good money for such services. It's that "glittering generalities" thing which operates in the Barnum Effect. Once, my Graduate School advisor at U.C. Riverside, Carolyn Murray, had me perform the Barnum Effect demonstration for one of her classes. I chose two random students from the class, and gave one, then the other, the exact same description of their personalities, a description which I had memorized prior to the class. Both of the students agreed with the description -- you have some issues relating to your parents, you have relationship issues with the opposite gender, you are an independent minded person, people are very important to you, you have a variety of talents, etc. -- and neither noticed that it was the same description. When I asked the class what was unusual about my demonstration, fortunately, several of them realized that the same description was given to both students.

My feeling about predictions for any given new year is that the Barnum Effect applies quite well, so unless somebody is particularly specific in making predictions, they are essentially useless. I can predict that this year, there will be significant natural disasters in the world, some human-caused calamities such as mass murders and perhaps genocide. There will be conflict in the Middle East, acts of terrorism around the world, famine somewhere in Africa and probably in North Korea as well, and the death of numerous celebrities, including a few young ones who die tragically. It will also be a tough year -- perhaps even many years -- economically around the world, but especially here in the U.S., where we have an unprecedented combination of great economic inequality, declining middle class, increasing bankruptcies and unemployment rates, relatively unproductive economic base (i.e., a lack of production of goods), and a huge and growing national debt. On the positive side, I can predict that this year will be a year of reform in the U.S. government, as the Obama administration begins to take action, and also, a year of greater international cooperation and togetherness, with improved international standing of the U.S. I can also predict that there will be technological breakthroughs which will help transform our lives in the future, as well as significant steps taken toward the implementaion of existing "green" technologies such as alternative energy cars, home solar panels, etc. It doesn't take a genius or a person who possesses prescience to make predictions such as these; all it takes is someone who is paying attention to trends and events, and uses some basic logic.

Furthermore, given the increasing human population in the world, I can make a few more inferences. One is that the impact of humans on our physical environment will continue to increase. Another is that the number of human events, both good and bad, will continue to increase. For example, even if the crime rates remain the same, there will continue to be more instances of actual crime, due to the increase in overall population. The only way for the overall number of crimes to actually decrease, is for crime rates to decrease faster than the population increases. Thirdly, social change will continue to occur at an increasingly frenetic pace. There will be more innovations and trends. There will be bad trends as well as good ones. People make change, and more people make more change. On the other hand, the more things change, the greater will be the conservative, anti-change backlash. Evangelicals will predict the imminant end of the world, Neo-Conservatives will lament the collapse of "traditional values," and so on.

The fact is, life is difficult, and change is inevitable. In order to thrive in this world, we must learn to adapt to change -- roll with the changes, as it were. We must accept that change is part of life, and that some change we cannot prevent, while other changes, we can affect. Thus, it behooves us to do what we can to change the world for the better. The idea that the optimal world is an unchanging one, or that the world used to be a better place, and is in an inexorable decline -- as many conservatives and believers in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition tend to believe -- is total nonsense. To the contrary, our basic drive toward self-actualization motivates us to make progress through change.