Category Archives: Social Cognition

Astrology, the Forer Effect, and the Allure of Personal Feedback

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

You may have heard some of the recent discussions that the astrological zodiac is actually astronomically inaccurate. Because of shifts in the earth’s axis called precession, similar to how a spinning top wobbles, the traditional zodiac has been drifting out of its original alignment for hundreds of years. That means that old zodiac signs have shifted in date and a new 13th constellation, Ophiuchus, could also be included in the zodiac. Thus, even if you buy into the idea that stars can influence your fate, astrologers have focused on the “wrong” stars for many hundreds of years. Now, hopefully most readers know that astrology is limited to, if we are being generous, “entertainment value” only (see Carlson, 1985 if you need empirical convincing). However, millions of people take astrology seriously, and that makes its appeal a topic of legitimate psychological investigation. So, why do so many people believe that horoscopes provide insight into their lives?

One answer is the Forer Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people are likely to interpret statements or predictions as being personally relevant. However, these statements can apply to nearly anybody. In a 1948 study, psychologist Bertram Forer gave participants a “unique personality analysis” and asked them to rate its accuracy from 1 to 5. The “unique personality analysis” was always the same, but had an average accuracy rating of 4.26. This was the statement:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

The “analysis” above was simply a combination of sentences from several different horoscopes. The effect has been duplicated by other researchers many times, with most people claiming it to be 80% to 90% accurate; it appears nearly any horoscope can apply to nearly any person. One of the tricks to this “accuracy” is to say two statements that appear to be opposites and cover everything in between, eg, “at times you are extroverted, while at other times you are introverted.” A similar trick is to say something that is true of just about everyone, eg, “you need for other people to like you” or “you have considerable unused capacity.” Finally, these statements tend to flatter our own egos. People tend to find personally relevant information satisfying, particularly when it is complementary, as many of the above statements are, eg, “you are an independent thinker.”

While most of you are already aware of the psychological tactics that make astrology convincing to some people, pop psychology can exploit many of the same cognitive biases. When you hear about a psychological analysis method or personality test, be critical, consider the Forer Effect and ask yourself the following questions: What evidence is there to support the claims? Is the evidence peer-reviewed? Is the promoter selling something? Pop psychology can appear convincing because it often appears to have a veneer of academic rigor, and for this reason we must be especially critical and skeptical when considering psychological theories.

Carlson, S. (1985). A double-blind test of astrology, Nature, 318, 419-425.

Dickson, D.H. & Kelly, I.W. (1985). “The ‘Barnum Effect’ in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature”. Psychological Reports, 57, 367–382.

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118–123.

What makes us happy on Valentine’s Day?

Cut-out book of Valentines circa 1940.

Valentine’s Day was established in honor of three early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, but today people celebrate romantic love or love more generally.  Since romance is so salient on this holiday, people who are single can feel ostracized and sometimes motivated to support an anti-love mantra.  I wonder if the second biggest Hallmark holiday is really worth the hype (either for or against). Is love or a partner really what makes people happy in life?

Perhaps one of the answers can be found by looking at one of the current hot topics in social psychology research: the intersection of emotion regulation and well being.  A quick look at the latest program from the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology reveals numerous talks and posters on the topic of mindfulness and emotion regulation.

A recent paper points to the importance of the perspective from which people try to adaptively reflect on their feelings.  According to Ayduk and Kross (2010), participants who analyzed negative experiences from a self-distanced perspective (versus a self-immersed perspective) were less likely to ruminate and reported less negative emotions.  Maybe people’s affective experiences on Valentine’s Day have more to do with how they think about their lives and less about relationship status.

Read more:

Ayduk, Ö. and Kross, E. (2010). Analyzing negative experiences without ruminating: The role of self-distancing in enabling adaptive self-reflection. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 841–854.

Meditation vs. Medication: Which Should You Choose?

“I” love “you”

By Erica Zaiser

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and so many couples may be reflecting on the status of their relationship. If you aren’t already over-thinking what every little thing your partner does (or doesn’t do) this season means, here is yet another way in which you can dissect the quality of your relationship during your romantic evening. Or, at the very least, this might give you something interesting to talk about with your date when you realize you have nothing in common but already paid for two overpriced three-course Valentine’s Day meals.

According to recent research on the language of couples, the words used when a couple discusses their relationship can be indicative of their satisfaction in the relationship and its longevity. In studies looking at daily Instant Messaging conversations between couples, researchers found that the pronouns used most could predict both satisfaction with a partner and the likelihood that the relationship would still be intact 6 months later. For women, their use of “I” was most related to satisfaction with their partner. But men’s use of “me” suggested a small negative relationship with their partner’s satisfaction with them. Although negative emotion words had no relation to satisfaction or stability, the use of positive emotion words by men was related to increased satisfaction for both partners and an increased chance of relationship survival.

There is other research suggesting that the use of “I” can be beneficial over “you” because “you” can be blaming while “I” is self-reflective, but this research shows that there may be gender differences between the perception of and meaning behind pronoun choice. Furthermore, the researchers suggest that word choice by couples is context dependent. Using “you” when discussing the relationship is very different from the use of “you” in normal everyday conversation.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. Try not to spend the whole evening with your date (if you are lucky enough to have one) counting their “you”s and “I”s.

Read more: Am “I” more important than “you”

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“Why didn’t anyone stop this? It seems so obvious!”

By, Adam K. Fetterman
After an act of extreme violence, it is normal for people to want answers. The shooting of Arizona officials a couple weeks ago is no exception. Briefly, a disturbed man opened fire on public officials killing six and leaving U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona in critical condition. Many accusations were thrown about to explain the man’s extreme behavior. For example, mental health was pointed out in an article on TheHill.com. While there is all this blame thrown around, many question why no one had noticed his erratic behavior and stopped it. According to The Hill article, polls have been conducted and many blame the mental health system for failing to identify dangerous individuals. It also notes that many people have the same feelings regarding other shootings. It seems so obvious to those around these shooters that these people are unstable. Unfortunately, they only notice after the fact.

Part of the reason that people only notice mentally unstable shooters after fact is because of a psychological effect called “Hindsight Bias” (Fischhoff, 1975). Hindsight bias occurs when one misjudges the predictability of an event after the event occurs. According to Campbell and Tesser (1983), one motive for this bias is that people have a need for predictability. Particularly in the case of these shooters, we have a strong motivation to believe that these events are predictable, and not random. Therefore, it is easy to blame an institution or individuals for not recognizing the instability beforehand and “do something” to prevent these atrocities, because we have all the evidence after the fact. With the benefit of hindsight, we believe the events are quite a bit more predictive than they really are, because it makes us feel safe. However, in reality, these events are fairly random. With this in mind, perhaps we should hold back on finding out who is to blame for not stopping these things from happening.

Poll: Mental health linked to Arizona shooting. By Jason Millman from TheHill.com

Campbell, J. D. and Tesser, A. (1983), Motivational interpretations of hindsight bias: An individual difference analysis. Journal of Personality, 51: 605–620.

Read all of Adam K. Fetterman’s posts here.

Priming racist symbol promotes racist voting

By: Erica Zaiser

Since the media is already beginning to review the last US presidential election in order to predict the next one, I thought it would be a good time to discuss a recent article in Political Psychology about the 2008 election. In their pre-election study, the researchers found that priming images of the confederate flag decreased white voters willingness to vote for Obama. Even when assessing a hypothetical black candidate, white participants evaluated the candidate more negatively after being exposed to the confederate flag. However, this wasn’t just an increase in negative attitudes in general, because there was no effect on attitudes towards white candidates.

This isn’t particularly surprising when you think about it. As the authors explain, by priming the confederate flag,  negative attitudes towards blacks are more accessible. However, these studies are good examples of how something somewhat obvious for psychologists in the lab is still striking when you think about the ramifications it can have in the “real world”. Especially when you realize that the results were controlling for political orientation and personal racial attitudes. So it wasn’t that people who already held strong racist views were reminded of their own beliefs; instead, people exposed to the image accessed a set of racist cultural beliefs that the flag represents, regardless of their personal attitudes towards race or politics.

I wanted to write about this because it’s interesting and important to be aware of. I am also worried that psychologists shouldn’t draw too much attention to this effect or we are going to see this type of priming used (or used more) on the campaign trail.

Read more: Exposure to confederate flag affects willingness to vote for Obama

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Yum! This imagined cake is as good as the real thing.

By Erica Zaiser

For some people, all the delicious calorific treats being pushed by friends and relatives during the holiday season can be a joyous and tasty time. But for others, the holiday season can feel like a constant battle of the wills due to the guilt-laden festive food. In the struggle for self-control many people force themselves to stop thinking about all the food they are attempting to avoid. It seems logical that if you think about eating it, you will want to eat it. But some psychology research has suggested just the opposite.

In a set of studies discussed in the Guardian online, participants who were asked to imagine eating large amounts of a treat actually ate less of the food afterwards compared to those who imagined eating a small amount or imagined interacting with the food in a different way. Although the difference was small, this might suggest that actually visualising the behaviour beforehand reduces the “wanting drive” for that behaviour. It would be interesting to see if this type of activity would work for other negative behaviours people want to avoid (smoking for example).

Some past research on behavioural intentions has shown that when imagining a positive behaviour, people report more intentions to engage in it. It’s interesting that with a positive behaviour, imagining it can increase willingness to do it; but imagining engaging in a negative (but wanted) behaviour can decrease the need to engage in real life.

Read more: Effects of Directed Thinking on Intentions to Engage in Beneficial Activities: Idea Generation or Mental Simulation?
Read more: Imagine eating if you want to lose weight, say scientists. Guardian.co.uk.


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Your evidence is wrong, because I disagree!

By, Adam K. Fetterman
After the Senate passed a bill to repeal the unpopular “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), it was up to President Obama to sign the bill. He did so on December 22, 2010. This was one of his many campaign promises that he has either completed or attempted to complete. For quite some time, it was uncertain whether this bill would be passed. While many found the DADT policy unjust and prevented dedicated individuals from serving their country, many others opposed repealing it for many reasons. For some it was just plain ignorance and prejudice. Others still thought that it would reduce morale in the military and would be dangerous for those LGBT individuals serving. Presidential candidate John McCain was one of those opposed to the repeal. However, he gave the impression that his mind could be changed by a study showing that a majority of those in the military approved of or saw little problems with the repeal. Indeed, a Pentagon study found just that. McCain rejected the study stating that it was flawed. This seems to happen quite often, but why?

According to research by Munro (2010), when presented with belief-disconfirming scientific evidence, individuals tend to disbelieve the efficacy of the research. That is, when presented with evidence to the contrary of one’s opinions or beliefs, many individuals will reject the evidence. This is what Munro refers to as the scientific impotence discounting hypothesis. Individuals want to believe that they are correct and therefore need to find a reason to discount disconfirming evidence. An easy way to do that is to reject the evidence. This is particularly easy to do when it comes to scientific evidence, as most people do not fully understand scientific methods. This appears to be what happened with the study conducted by the Pentagon. McCain had an opinion and many of his supporters agreed with his opinion. Therefore, it was probably pretty beneficial and easy for McCain to reject the evidence so that he could maintain his opinion. The question becomes, then, could anything change his or others’ opinions on this and other issues? How about in more controversial issues, such as reconciling science evidence with one’s religion?

Obama signs historic bill ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – David Jackson and John Bacon, USA Today

John McCain: ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal study flawed. – Anne Flaherty, Huffington Post.

Munro, G. (2010). The scientific impotence excuse: Discounting belief-threatening scientific abstracts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40, 579-600.

Read all of Adam K. Fetterman’s posts here.

Treat yourself to a health screening this New Year

By Kevin R. Betts

On the morning of December 12th, my aunt suffered a heart attack that nearly took her life. The attack was so severe that she was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance and escorted directly to an operating room. Following the incident, the surgeon informed our family that the main artery to her heart was one hundred percent blocked and expressed surprise that the attack was not fatal. As you might guess, this incident was incredibly traumatic for both my aunt and our family. Once things settled and we knew that my aunt would be okay, many members of my family were asking about prevention. What could have been done to prevent my aunt’s heart attack? What can be done in the future to prevent another heart attack in our family? Health screenings available at local clinics may provide useful information about personal health risks and what can be done to combat them.

Practitioners have long urged the public to obtain health screenings designed to detect behavioral and genetic risk factors for disease, as well as the early presence of disease. But the utility of these screenings is not controversial. Rather, people pass on health screenings for other reasons. One reason is distress associated with the procedures or potential results of the screenings. Recognizing this problem, Bennett (2009) examined causes of health screening related distress and simple techniques for overcoming this distress. For example, many people hold misperceptions about the procedures associated with health screenings that arouse anxiety. Health organizations could correct these misperceptions and thus alleviate this anxiety by providing the public with specific information about the procedures involved through websites or pamphlets. The public could then test their perceptions about these procedures by comparing them to this  information. Waiting for results from a health screening may also arouse significant anxiety. Some people may spend this time imagining catastrophic scenarios that could potentially follow undesired results from the screening. To alleviate this anxiety, Bennett (2009) recommends implementing coping strategies that facilitate emotional regulation. Distracting oneself with unrelated thoughts and activities may be one way to regulate negative emotions.

The thought of losing a close family member or friend to a heart attack or other preventable health problem is frightening. Health screenings may provide information about health risks and what can be done to combat them. If you or someone you know is considering obtaining a health screening, good for you! And if you are held back by anxiety associated with the procedures or potential results of the screening, remember that skipping the doctor does not reduce your risk. Try one of the techniques for overcoming this anxiety recommended by Bennett (2009) and start your New Year with a clean bill of health.

Read more:

Bennett, P. (2009). How can we reduce the distress associated with health screening? From psychological theory to clinical practice. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 939-948.

Matters of the Heart (CNN)

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts