I have, for many years, enjoyed teasing my father about his belief in horoscopes.  I can tease him in good faith because I know he doesn’t take them very seriously, he’s simply amused when a horoscope seems to accurately describe a person’s character or circumstance.  I enjoy reading not only my own but every horoscope to see how many of them seem to apply to the circumstances of my life and, without fail, about 80% seem to click.  They are what’s called Barnum statements which represent another epic failure of common sense.  Here’s five for your consideration:

1.  You make friends very easily but you have very few close friends because you tend to bottle your feelings up.

2. There’s an older man that you associate with the letter “B” who has always suffered with a pain in the back of his chest area.  When you think of him, you think of the funny thing he does that makes you laugh.

3. You’re outgoing and sociable but occasionally you feel very detached like you’re zooming out and watching yourself from above.

4. You have a scar, not from an operation but from an accident years ago, on your left leg in the middle.

5. You have a recurring dream about falling or flying which alternates with an occasional dream about bring held underwater or struggling to catch your breath.

Most people can connect with at least a couple if not all of these statements because they are designed to apply to almost everyone but seem quite specific to your own experience.  This is where out common sense fails.  We are highly susceptible to being tricked in this way.  We believe that the person uttering the Barnum statement knows something about us when they truly know nothing.  There is good news though: the more you understand how Barnum statements work, the less you’ll think they apply to you.  Lets go through them.  Reread the statements above if you need to remember.

1. This is simply flattery combined with universal experience.  Everyone bottles some of their feelings up and everyone has a few close friends.

2. Because the letter “B” is an association and not the first letter of his name, it’s easy to find someone in your life who applies.  By saying “the back of the chest area” I’ve covered all heart and back pain problems, which almost all people suffer with.  And all older men do something that makes us laugh.

3. By focusing on a very personal experience that people aren’t likely to discuss with each other, this seems like quite an insight, until you realize that most people seem to have the same experience.

4. By saying the scar is in the middle instead of on the knee, it could be on the knee, in the middle of the calf, or in the middle of the thigh.  Your legs are also probably the most likely place for a person to get cut up as a child.

5.  This is an interesting one.  I have never had a flying or drowning dream.  However, they are extremely common and people are very impressed if you can tell them what they’ve been dreaming about.

You see, when you consider each one, you realize that they are engineered to seem personal and be universal.  Our common sense lets us down because we accept the details as true without stopping to think just how many people the same details might apply to.

Here’s a clip of Darren Brown using using Barnum statements to demonstrate his supposed psychic abilities.

As i’ve said before: some people say common sense isn’t too common but I say it doesn’t make much sense.

Previous posts on the failure of common sense:

Universal Expansion

The Monty Hall Problem