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For centuries psychics and crafty showmen have been exploiting a psychological phenomenon known as the “Forer Effect” to take advantage of unsuspecting marks. Vague, general statements are made to an individual under the guise that they are specific to that person. In reality, the statements are so broad they could apply to anyone and any circumstance, as they target universal human qualities we all value. Due to their open ended nature, each person interprets the comments based on their own experience and values, giving it their own meaning. The statements are perceived to be true, even though they are mere platitudes.
Legendary showman P.T. Barnum so successfully used the phenomenon to dazzle patrons at his circus shows that “Barnum Statements” is the term applied to the use of such comments. Horoscopes and mediums use Barnum Statements to exploit the Forer Effect and make their random, generalized predictions appear precise and targeted.
With two months remaining until the General Election, candidates for elected office are making their promises to voters. Special interest groups are using op-eds and community meetings to advance their agendas. In the coming weeks, your mailbox will start to fill with these messages. By November, you will not likely be able to listen to the radio or watch the evening news without being bombarded by campaign promises. Scrutinize them carefully. Don’t find yourself the target of a Barnum Statement.
Like late night infomercials that promise quick, easy solutions for your weight, your acne, and your bank account, there are no shortage of bold promises to fix property taxes, college tuition, and your health care costs. As a voter, dig deeper. Ask candidates to identify specifically how they will approach each of these issues. Nobody expects a candidate to have all the solutions, but their responses will give you, the voter, a better sense of what they believe and how they will vote in office than any campaign mailer full of generalized statements ever will.
Specifically, I hear a lot of promises for increased spending for virtually every government program. Few things make a voter feel heard and valued more than a promise for more money coming to their favorite cause or interest. Like Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically moving throughout her audience, candidates love to proclaim: “You get more school aid! And you get free health care! And you get workforce housing! And you get economic incentives! And you get new roads! And we ALL get property tax relief!”. Unlike Oprah’s generosity, which was funded by advertisers and not the audience members who received the gifts, the bill for generous political campaign promises gets paid by you, the taxpayer.
Voters need to ask themselves what they are willing to pay from their pockets for each of the expanded services promised to them. Local journalists need to ask the follow-up questions and press candidates and interests groups to be specific about their approach. Everyone should be asking the “who” and “how” the state will pay for “solutions”. As well-crafted Barnum statements, campaign promises appeal to the desire all of us have to make Nebraska better. However, effective government must be more that the same principles that guide horoscopes and circus tricks.
California State psychology professor Michael Birnbaum is a leading researcher of the Forer Effect and Barnum Statements. His work focused widely on why people fall prey to these cons when they can be so readily exposed. His admonition for those who may find such showmanship entertaining is good advice for taxpayers this election season. Professor Birnbaum said: “Be skeptical and ask for proof. Keep your money in your wallet, your wallet in your pocket, and your hand on your wallet.”