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In the 8th century BC, a Greek shepherd found his goats behaving strangely. Nearby was a chasm, with vapors coming out of the ground. When he got close, he inhaled the fumes and began to have strange visions of the future. Word got around, as you would imagine. Others wanted to see their own futures, so they came to inhale the mysterious vapors, too. Jostling for position was so fierce that some fell into the chasm and died. As a community safety measure, officials decided the public must be kept away and only one person would be allowed access the magic vapors. They chose a young woman of chastity and purity as their designated representative. She would sit on a tripod above the chasm and inhale the vapors. This would cause her to fall into a trance, muttering words incomprehensible to mere mortals. Priests would translate this gibberish into language the commoners could understand.

Demand for these Oracles of Delphi was high.

In spite of the oracles always being deliberately ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, they became infallible “truths.” The crowds grew so large that that officials built a sanctuary to keep the peasants even farther back. Those who wanted to skip the long line were given the opportunity to pay great sums for VIP treatment. In time, commoners were banned altogether in favor of granting audiences only to people of wealth and influence. This was when Pythia gave up fortunetelling and became the exclusive spokesperson for Apollo, the god of oracles and knowledge.

So if you think “great wisdom” when you hear the Oracle of Delphi, think again.

The use of intentional vagueness allows the “seer” to always be right. This technique has been carried on for centuries by fortune tellers and astrologers.

“You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision. Sometimes you are extroverted and other times introverted.”

Manipulators know that most people do not see these statements as generalizations.

Instead, they see positive statements about themselves as accurate if they are flattering enough. The Forer Tests presented the exact same information to people who were told it applied only to their astrological sign. Not for nothing is it known as the Barnum Effect, described by the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as the phenomenon that occurs when individuals believe that personality descriptions apply specifically to them – and more so than to other people – despite the fact that the description is actually filled with information that applies to everyone. The Barnum Effect came from the phrase often attributed to showman PT Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.”

In my MBA classes, I liked to occasionally conduct experiments.

A favorite was when I would ask students to trace the outline of their left hand on a piece of paper and hand it in for analysis. The following week, I handed the outlines back, stapled to a sheet of paper upon which I had written a series of deliberately vague statements, telling them this is what analysis of their hand tracing told me about them. Responses were invariably amazement that I could be so spot on about them.

HowStuffWorks says the psychologist Bertram Forer first figured out people would agree with vague descriptions about themselves without realizing those descriptions were so vague as to apply to most people. He gave a “personality test” to psychology students and then asked how well the results matched them. They all got the exact same results that “described” their personality, based on their unique answers.” Nearly everyone thought the description was insightful and accurate. A few examples from the sketch are phrases like, “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you,” “You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others” and “You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.”

Can you guess about what industries might find the Forer Effect particularly helpful?

Psychics, magicians, palm readers, and crystal ball gazers use the Barnum Effect to convince people that these obviously vague descriptions are highly unique and could never apply to anyone else. But surely you are aware that marketing and advertising are also quite dependent on people believing that they are the “kind of people” who would benefit from a product.

Seventy years of testing and the results are remarkably consistent – nearly nine of every ten believe the information to be highly accurate descriptions of themselves.

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