The Barnum’s Effect In Job Applications: How It Can Make Your Career Development Hard and How To Tackle It

Natalia Bielczyk, PhD
7 min readApr 26, 2022

The Origins of Barnum Effect: Who Was Barnum, Actually, And What Does It Have To Do With Your Career Development?

Although the phenomenon as known in psychology for centuries, the term “Barnum Effect” was coined in 1956 by a psychologist Paul Meehl. The effect was named after a showman, entrepreneur, author, philanthropist, and politician P. T. Barnum (1810–1891) who had become infamous for his fishy ways of making money back in the day.

Despite owning several successful businesses, Barnum primarily considered himself a showman. He established a variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” which he then upgraded to “Barnum’s American Museum.” The venue soon became a popular showplace in New York City and started attracting an international audience. By 1946, the museum was hosting more than 400,000 visitors a year.

What Was It About Barnum That Actually Made Him Famous?

Barnum was non-apologetic and bold with advertising. In particular, he saw nothing wrong with using a hoax to attract attention of potential clients. For instance, to get the attention for his musical theater, he leased a creature with the body of a monkey and the tail of a fish known as the “Feejee” mermaid. It was a hoax, but it did the job! He also dressed a four-year boy named Charles Stratton as an 11-year old and introduced him to the public as “General Tom Thumb” (“the Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone”). And then, he let the boy drink wine and smoke cigars by the age of seven for the public’s amusement.

Barnum could go to any length to sell his shows. He was believed to be the author of the phrase “There is a sucker born every minute,” although there is no formal proof of it. Although he was fond of conning people into buying stuff, at the same time he was critical of mediums, astrology, and other supernatural means of communication.

How The Barnum Effect Was Discovered And What It Means

Ironically, the effect named after P. T. Barnum has much to do with astrology. It describes a phenomenon whereby individuals assign high accuracy ratings to generic and vague descriptions of their personalities, especially when these descriptions were introduced as tailor-made for them. This effect is possible due to the fact that people are, in general, more similar than they think. We all have some fears and doubts in our lives, and most of us suffer from impostor syndrome to a certain extent. Therefore, it is not difficult to construct a piece of text that sounds personal, yet, applies to the wide majority of people.

The effect was first formally investigated by Ross Stagner in 1947. In the study, Stagner distributed a personality test among a group of managers. After they had taken the test, then instead of responding with individual feedback based on their answers, he presented participants with generalized feedback that had no relation to their answers. Instead, the feedback was based on horoscopes and alike. Despite the lack of correlation between the feedback and individual results, the overwhelming majority of the study participants assessed the results as accurate!

In the following year, Bertram R. Forer conducted his famous psychological study. He presented a group of 39 students with 13 statements that were supposed to represent their individual personality profiles. While in fact, all statements were generic phrases found in an astrology book by the author of the study.

Where Is Barnum Effect Commonly Utilized

As you might have already guessed, Barnum effect is commonly used in astrology, both in written horoscopes and in face-to-face fortune-telling. All the horoscopes are generic, and typically explore various scenarios without giving any definite advice.

Furthermore, Barnum Effect is the mechanism underlying a so-called “cold reading.” It means nothing else than rendering information about another person by analyzing their facial microexpressions, body language, clothing style, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, education, pitch, place of birth, etc. And then, using this information to sell an idea that a supernatural force was involved in the process. Cold readers typically interact with their victims by making high-probability guesses and universally true statements, and then quickly picking up on the threads which led to correct guesses and quickly moving on from missed guesses.

Cold reading is not only seen among the magicians and fortune-tellers. Prof. Michael Birnbaum from California State University, Fullerton, has noted that the Barnum effect is also utilized by certain TV personalities (to read: Dr. Phil) who claim psychoanalytical expertise and the ability to diagnose their guests’ mental issues on air.

Even though it has been known for decades, the Barnum Effect still fascinates researchers and the entertainment industry. In 2009, a study by Roger and Soule demonstrated that the Barnum effect is universal and that Chinese people are as prone to accept Barnum personality profiles as Westerners. British mentalist Derren Brown conducted social experiments exploring Barnum effect on TV.

I Don’t Believe In Horoscopes, So Why Does It Matter? On Barnum Effect In Your Job Search

You might be asking yourself: why would the Barnum effect even matter if I don’t believe in horoscopes? Well, Barnum effect is also detrimental when it comes to job search. Have you ever thought that the job offer you are reading was crafted for you? That in 100%, it describes you as a person and as a professional?

Well, this is for a reason. Most job offers are standardized and written according to one template appealing to the maximal number of potential job candidates. The strategy is: the more good candidates searching the job are attracted to the position and apply, the better chances for getting the best labor for the price.

Hence, the job offers are stuffed with statements attractive to the vast majority of job hunters such as “opportunities for growth,” “dynamic team,” “competitive salary,” “flexible working hours, wordwide career management” et cetera. And the description of the desired employee is also what most job hunters would say about themselves: “self-motivated,” “ambitious,” team-player,” traits of a good employee,” “enthusiastic,” etc.

Job Offers Are Not As Customized As You Might Think

Actually, when you want to post a job offer on LinkedIn as an employer, you don’t even need to make an effort of drafting the proposal from scratch. LinkedIn will load a predefined template for you instead. For instance, if you declare that you are now searching for a Data Scientist, this is what you will get on your plate at “Hello”:

Other, more specialized recruiting platforms typically give even more specific requirements towards job candidates and can go deep into personality traits and professional demeanor. And how are these templates prepared? Well, they are data-driven. Namely, they are optimized to represent what most job hunters would say about themselves — to maximize the interest of potential job candidates. Of course, some employers will customize their offer, but it often so happens that they do it to a minimal extent to find their next employee. with characteristics of a good employee.

What it means is: every time you are FOMOing into projects, then more likely than not, hundreds or even thousands of other prospective employees are now FOMOing into the same job offer. And if you decide to apply, you will only lose your precious time. Barnum Effect is one of the main reasons why many professionals need to apply for hundreds of jobs before they get any interview invites.

How To Tackle The Barnum Effect In Your Career Development?

First of all, you need to increase the amount of time spent on looking for the right job offers, on the cost of the time spent on drafting your job application documents. The problem is: we use to get a dopamine shot every time we press the button “Send.” Applying is inherently rewarding as it gives you the feeling that you’ve actively done something to improve on your career opportunities.

However, it is researching the offers and active networking for the right, often tailor-made positions, that really does the job and will get you hired. Applying for jobs also means investing your time in career development process . And just as with investing your money, it is better to make fewer decisions based on more extensive research.

The important part of the process in the job search is combating wishful thinking. Do you really fit this position, or is this a far stretch from reality? In fact, to get a good position at a reputable company, you should be able to frame your entire career journey in a way that this position feels like your destiny in career development process. So that everything you’ve ever done has led you to that place and made you a perfect candidate for the job.

Secondly, in the today’s job market, getting jobs is often more about fitting into a team than about having particular skills. That’s why networking and looking for jobs using an informal job search is so much more effective than applying for jobs online. You need to identify your tribe first and then look for contact points to help you get in. The more initiative and the more consequence in keeping your network alive, the better for your career path.

Good luck with your job applications!

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Do you feel lost in your career? Would like to get an intensive training oriented at discovering your identity as a professional, and learning effective strategies for landing great jobs? Please join us at our intensive online career transition workshops! We will help you choose the right career path, help you land your new job, and teach you self-navigation strategies that will stay with you for a lifetime! Please find all the information about the workshops and registration links HERE.

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This blog post was originally posted at the Ontology of Value, November 15th 2021.



Natalia Bielczyk, PhD

A neuroscientist helping professionals in finding their dream career paths at Privately, enthusiast of tech with affinity to blockchains.