By Dan Monheit 10.5.23
I feel you Reece. Whether you’ve been scouring the shelves for a new book or scrolling through podcast recommendation lists looking for a fix, it’s hard to escape the self-help avalanche. So many gurus offering so much advice with so many variations of ‘the F word’.
First thing’s first, you’re not imagining it. Self-help is booming. In fact, the industry was valued at a staggering $44.11 billion (US) in 2022 and is on track to eclipse $70 billion by 2030. That is a lot of self-help.
But how did we get here? After all, we’re an infinitely diverse population, comprised of millions of individuals who each bring their own context, strengths, weaknesses, issues and opportunities. How is it possible that a small collection of books and podcasts can be so applicable to so many?
The Barnum Effect
The Barnum Effect describes our tendency to believe that vague and general descriptions about ourselves are highly accurate and personally relevant, even though the statements could apply to a wide range of individuals.
In 1948 Psychologist Bertram Forer handed out a specially devised questionnaire to his students. The students were told to complete the questionnaire honestly, and were promised a personalised ‘sketch’, or description, of their personality type in return. Forer collected the completed questionnaires and returned the following week with personalised sketches for each of his students. Upon receiving their sketch, each student was asked to provide a rating, from 0 (poor) to 5 (spot on) in regard to how accurately the sketch described them.
The average accuracy rating was 4.3, which is rather incredible when you consider that each student received the exact same sketch (which Forer had assembled from a newsstand astrology book the night before). As it turns out, almost anything can apply to almost anyone.
Back to your question, Reece. What self-help authors and podcasters have nailed is what fortune tellers have known all along. They’ve found a way to deliver general advice in a way that can be interpreted as personally applicable.
“Visualise success on your terms”.
“Embrace each failure as a learning opportunity”.
“Rid yourself of the things that no longer serve you”.
Hell, I feel heard, motivated and inspired just writing these things!
Whether you’re a self-help author or a curious marketer, the Barnum Effect is a powerful tool for getting people to self-identify as prospective customers. Use it by highlighting product truths that flatter the audience (‘cycling gear for people who know that ‘bad conditions’ are only a state of mind’) or by heroing a specific but widespread mindset (‘nappies for mums who want the best for their kids’). If all else fails, there’s nothing a trip to the marketing self-help section can’t resolve.
PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check why every home reno goes over time and over budget here.
Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about the Barnum Effect in episode #26 of the Bad Decisions podcast.
Got a question?
Is there something you’ve always wondered about?
Send it through to AskDan@hardhat.com.au
Check out Dan’s write up in Mumbrella on why ‘Agency leaders should feel confident to drop out of ‘disappointing’ pitches’ here.