I was reading some article, “What Your Netflix History Says About The Contents Of Your Stool” or “It’s Okay To Be An Introverted Pescetarian” or any other number of pieces for which “My Brain Is Either Empty Or Constipated, And I Can’t Tell The Difference” would be a suitable tagline. The writing was so broad and equivocal that anyone could superficially relate.
Have people always been so susceptible to bullshit? I did some research.
Turns out that there’s been scientific evidence proving this type of subjective validation since 1948. Dr. Bertram Forer, a psychologist, had his students sit for a personality test. Unlike Cosmo classics such as “Which Foodborne Parasite Sums Up Your Dating History?” or “Which Natural Disaster Should You Have Perished In?”, the results were unimportant.
Dr. Forer hypothesized that people would view descriptions that were sufficiently vague as thoroughly and accurately describing themselves. Picture an evangelical pastor on television.
“OH LORD, I have a vision!”
“Do tell us!”
“It’s coming… God is telling me that you woke up this morning!”
“Yes, so did most people.”
“AND SHORTY AFTER, you went to the bathroom to urinate!”
“It was an outhouse, but yes!”
“AND THEN, you came here!”
“Yes! Yes I did!”
“AND I AM FEELING, OH LORD YES I AM, that someone important to you has died!”
The audience cheers. Everyone’s experienced a death.
In Forer’s experiment, the test subjects all received the same exact analysis.
It is presented here:
“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.”
Tell me that doesn’t sound like 95% of the blog posts you’ve ever read. Add some references to Justin Bieber and “that cool loft in Brooklyn”, and it sounds like 100% of the blog posts you’ve ever read.
The test subjects were asked to score its personal applicability on a scale of 0 to 5. They rated it 4.26. This experiment has been repeated hundreds of times, with an average rating of 4.2.
Next, they received a genuinely personalized analysis and were asked to choose which one best described them. 60% of the time, they chose the generic description.
We already know what we want to hear. Our minds, in the absence of something actually stimulating, will fill in the blanks. Then we’ll make no progress whatsoever because we haven’t actually learned anything.
It’s a classic psychological trick. Spiritual mediums have made it their bread and butter. Self-help writers have built an industry on it.
“Would you like to improve in some way?”
“Yes, of course!”
“Focus on it and make it your priority!”
When something sounds like a paraphrased Dave Matthews song, ask if it’s genuine or just convenient. Am I reading something edifying? Am I reading a random series of fortune cookie inserts?
I’m almost 26 years old and I would never consider myself a reliable source of general life advice or experience. Likewise, I don’t want that kind of consultation from someone like me (and there are many “like me”). If you need to know how to apply for a tax exemption or solder guitar pickups, I’m your man. If you are having an existential crisis, all I can give you is the same trite bullshit; “The bad times make the good times that much sweeter” or “Everyone deserves to be loved, it just takes time”. I don’t think those statements are even true, but that’s what you get. Go read about Raoul Wallenberg if you want to be inspired.
The distinction between therapy and indulgence has become blurred. Surrogate sentimentalism is indulgent. It’s a charlatan giving you a hug and telling you what you want to hear (Cue Skip Bayless, not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear). There’s nothing therapeutic about it. Do something else.