The Forer Effect is a trick used by astrologers, psychics, and social psychologists. Given a list of statements like these:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure 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 pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof.
You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
Security is one of your major goals in life.
…most people will agree that the statements accurately describe them. In fact, most people will feel like they’re unusually accurate descriptions, which is how astrologers get you.
What statements show a Forer effect? Wikipedia just says they should be vague and somewhat positive. Can we do better?
A lot of Forer statements above are about the contrast between internal experience and outward behavior - for example “disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside”. All of this is implicitly comparative - since there’s no objective measure for how disciplined you should be, “disciplined” implicitly means “more disciplined than other people”. Take this into account, and you can rephrase many of these statements as “Although everyone else is really X, you are Y pretending to be X”.
Now the trick is obvious. You can access your internal experience, and you know what kind of things you’re pretending. But you can only access everyone else’s external presentation, which (absent specific evidence otherwise) you mostly believe. So whenever everyone is Y pretending to be X, it will feel like “although everyone else is really X, I am Y pretending to be X”.
Consider the fifth statement above: “Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you”. Everyone has to go through their own sexual adjustment. But usually they hide it from everyone else except maybe some unlucky early sexual partners. Sexual adjustment is terrible, and so without any opportunity to calibrate, most people assume it can’t possibly be quite that bad for other people. So if an astrologer reads a star-chart and predicts “I bet you had an unusually tough sexual adjustment”, most people will agree the astrologer is right.
The very fact that “your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you” is an effective Forer statement lets you turn it around and discover something new: most people’s sexual adjustments are harder than you previously thought. Phrased differently, you should decrease your confidence that your sexual adjustment was unusually hard.
We can go through the list of Forer statements above, and rephrase each one as a useful potential update you can make to your model of the world:
Most people care more about being liked and admired by other people than you previously thought.
Most people are more critical of themselves than you previously thought.
Most people feel like they have a lot of wasted potential.
Most people are more likely to feel like they’re desperately compensating for personality weaknesses, and less likely to feel like things come naturally to them, than you previously thought.
Sexual adjustment is harder than you previously thought.
Most people are more worrisome and insecure inside than you previously thought.
Most people doubt themselves more than you previously thought.
Most people feel more dissatisfaction at their stable lives than you previously thought.
Most people feel like they use logic and think critically more than other people do.
Most people are more guarded and less open than you previously thought.
Most people are more reactive to conditions than you previously thought (this one is just the fundamental attribution error!)
Most people have more pie-in-the-sky daydreams than you previously thought.
Most people crave security more than you previously thought.
Or you could phrase them as affirmations, or arguments for self-compassion:
I’m not unusual or pathetic for wanting to be liked and admired by others. Even though it might seem like I’m obsessed with this to an unhealthy degree, I should consider the possibility that I am pretty normal in this regard.
I’m not unusually self-critical. Other people probably criticize themselves about this much, they just don’t talk about it (as I may not talk about it).
When I fret about wasting my potential, this is normal. Other people fret just as much.
When I feel like I have deep personality weaknesses that I have to compensate for, that’s fine. Other people also feel this way; I’m not supposed to be naturally good at everything.
Everyone feels weird and awkward during puberty as they first learn about sex and relationships. My level of weirdness and awkwardness probably isn’t unique.
I’m not unusually insecure. Everyone else feels insecure about the same amount that I do.
Most people have a lot of doubts about what they’re dong, including most of the people who are ultimately successful. The fact that I doubt myself a lot doesn’t mean I won’t succeed.
I’m not weird or ungrateful for feeling dissatisfaction about my life even if it’s going okay.
Everyone thinks they’re using logic and thinking independently; I’m not as much better than they are as I would like to think, and I should be wary of ignoring their opinions or dismissing them as sheeple.
I don’t have to feel secretive or ashamed of having secrets that I keep from others. Everybody does that.
I’m not unusual in having trouble maintaining a consistent identity or changing my mind a lot.
I’m not unusual or bad for having lots of daydreams and unrealistic plans.
I’m not unusually boring or too much of a sell-out if I crave security.
These affirmations aren’t foolproof. 50% of people are in the top 50% of most-sexually-awkward people, and 1% of people are in the top 1% most sexually-awkward. When I read these, I feel like most of the time I can think “Ah yes, this is a Forer Effect, good thing I caught myself before I believed it”, and then for one or two of them I think “No, I am just literally objectively in the top 10% of the population on that trait.” This is why I’m calling these “potential updates” instead of “absolutely correct articles of dogma”.
Looking at this list, I can’t help thinking of what 4chan calls “normies” and what Tumblr calls “neurotypical people” (I know there’s a meaningful definition of “neurotypical” as people who don’t have some specific psych condition that you’re talking about, but I claim Tumblr uses it differently, in a way precisely equivalent to 4chan’s use of “normies”.) There’s a material aspect of normiehood - for NEETs, normies are people with jobs and happy relationships; for queers, normies are straight people. But this coexists with a psychological aspect. Normies don’t anxiously beat themselves up about things or fret about wasting their potential. Neurotypicals don’t have deep personality weaknesses they try hard to compensate for, or struggle with awkward sexual adjustments. They’re not unusually insecure, they don’t doubt what they’re doing, they’re not dissatisfied, they’re not logical independent thinkers.
(confession: I had to omit the first Forer statement, the one about seeking the admiration of others, because that does sound like a normie trait)
Is this use of “normie” / “neurotypical” what happens when a bunch of people talk to each other, realize that they all agree Forer statements apply to themselves, and imagine an anti-Forer outgroup?
This would be hilarious, but I’m not sure it’s true. It does feel like (to spin up a stereotypical normie) some extroverted jock in a fraternity is less likely to say they’re self-critical, or pride themselves as an independent thinker. Is this because they really have less interiority? Do they just talk about interiority less, or so differently that people from other cultures don’t notice it? Or do they talk about interiority just as much, but I don’t hang out with enough fraternity jocks to ever hear them? I don’t know.
Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations