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In 800 BC, near a town named Delphi, a Greek shepherd saw his herd of goats behaving strangely near a deep crack in the ground where steamy vapors were rising from the hole. When he came to take a closer look, he inhaled the fumes and began to have strange visions of the future. ThoughtCo says modern geologists investigating the fissures at Delphi identified the substances emanating from the crack as a potent combination of ethane, methane, ethylene, and benzene, all capable of causing harm. But in the days before science, people called such naturally occurring phenomena the work of the gods. 

People who heard about this magical place came to inhale the mysterious vapors so they could see their own futures. Competition for a spot near the rising mists was so fierce that religious officials decided the area would be closed to visitors and only one person would be allowed to breathe the magic vapors. They chose Pythia as their designated representative because she was chaste and pure. They built her a special chair so she could sit directly above the abyss and inhale the vapors as they rose around her, causing her to fall into a trance and mutter words incomprehensible to mere mortals.

Before Pythia would tell their future, supplicants had to pay a fee and donate a goat. Magical water was sprinkled on the goat’s head, and if the goat nodded or shook its head, that was seen as a sign that the gods were willing to pass along some advice to Pythia. Because she was speaking in unknown tongues regular people couldn’t understand, priests would translate these “divine revelations” for them, again for a small fee. None of the paying public desperately hopeful to learn what their futures held were aware that these priests were frauds who didn’t understand what Pythia was saying, either.

The prophecies always came true.

Simple people were unaware they were being manipulated by unscrupulous charlatans who issued deliberately ambiguous oracles so that people would think they were personalized communications straight from the gods. With so many happy customers, these Oracles of Delphi became infallible “truths” and the priests had trouble keeping up with the demand.

The crowds grew so large that officials built a large temple on the site and surrounded it with walls to keep the peasants even farther back. Those who wanted to skip the long lines were given the opportunity to pay substantial fees for VIP treatment. In time, commoners were banned altogether in favor of granting audiences only to people of wealth and influence.

Delphi proved to be such a successful scam that temples devoted to oracles-for-money opened all across Greece.

Like all superstitious ancients, Greeks believed communication with the gods was possible only through specially-chosen people at specially-chosen locations. If you went to those places, the gods would tell the oracles about your future in unintelligible speech translatable only by special priests who would pass that information along to you – for a fee.

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

The use of intentional vagueness and language trickery allows the “seer” to always be right. This technique has been used for centuries by astrologers, psychics, fortune tellers, palm readers, and crystal ball gazers to make customers believe they are being given deep truths about themselves and their futures. Marketers and advertisers use similar techniques to convince consumers they are the “special people” who deserve the latest in goods and services.

Manipulators know that most people see statements about themselves as accurate when 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 the outcome 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 these descriptions are actually filled with information that applies equally well to nearly everyone. The term was chosen because it seemed to prove showman P.T. Barnum’s famous claim that “a sucker is born every minute.”

Did That Astrologer Read You Right?

In her article in HowStuffWorks, Kate Kershner says the psychologist Bertram Forer (yep, the test guy) figured out people would nearly always agree with deliberately vague descriptions about themselves when the statements were mostly positive.

Forer would give his “personality test” to psychology students. They all got the exact same results but were told their description was unique to them only. Nearly everyone thought the description they were given was insightful and accurate, a concept known as subjective validation.

More importantly, Forer figured out that almost no one was able on their own to recognize how their personality descriptions were so purposefully vague that they would apply to millions of people.

Here are a few examples from Forer’s experiment:
  • You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  • At times, you have doubts as to whether you have made the right decision.
  • You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.

I illustrated the principle to my MBA students with a twist of my own devising.

Without explanation, I asked students to use their weak hand to trace the outline of their dominant hand on a piece of paper, put their name on it, and hand it in for me to analyze later. The following week, I handed their drawings back attached to what I said was a personalized analysis of what their off-hand tracing revealed about them. I even concocted a bit of mumbo-jumbo about how psychologists know that by using your untrained hand, your natural self came through.

All were amazed that I could produce such accurate insights from a simple drawing.

When I asked them to compare their analysis with others around them, they did, slowly at first until the con had been grasped by all. Some felt foolish for being so gullible, others were amused, and a few were angry that I had deceived them.

Seventy years of psychology professors conducting this experiment and the results are remarkably consistent – nearly nine of every ten people believe vague and flattering information to be highly accurate descriptions of themselves.

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