Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

NON-RIVIAL SOLUTION: How to describe a person’s character accurately?

NON-RIVIAL SOLUTION: How to describe a person's character accurately?
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Caravaggio. Fortuneteller. c. 1594




Psychologist Bertram Forer back in 1948 tested his students and handed out to each a text with an analysis of his personality.

The students rated the coincidence with their true character very high, putting an average of 4.26 points for it on a five-point system – this is a lot!

This analysis was compiled according to a method developed not by psychologists, but by other specialists. Who are they?

The answer is a little later.




Is this possible? Why not? For example, a real fortune-teller told me a lot about me. It was in Tartu, on the square where the Montserrat Caballe concert took place. It was raining, but everyone was handed out cloaks, and the concert went on in the open air, as if nothing had happened.

My neighbors turned out to be lovers of “What? Where? When?”. They recognized me and invited me after the concert to go to the best fortune-teller in Estonia. “She will accurately predict your future fate,” they said. They even took over the payment of her services – after all, it’s nice to be a person from TV!

The fortune-teller laid out the cards and immediately began to tell me about me. The expressions were somewhat vague, but when I admired the fidelity of guessing, she was happy to elaborate some details. She also gave advice – say, not to abuse alcohol, because it has already harmed me more than once.

In the end, she allowed me to ask what worries me. I confessed that it seemed to me that the sympathy of my eldest daughter was not a worthy person, and asked what should be done to get rid of him. She laid out the cards and reassured me that my daughter would soon chase him away.




My new acquaintances were delighted with the show and asked me how I liked it. I replied that it was very interesting and did not go into details. What is the point? I practically do not drink, I have never had these problems, and I have two sons, I have not any daughters, I know for sure …

In the fortune-teller’s monologue a mile away one could discern the old trick of her fellow gypsies – “cold reading”. This is a very simple thing: trial weak statements and observation of the reaction – words and movements. Any success is emphasized by repetition and rephrasing. That is all.

Of course, I am also a bad person – when they tried to persuade me not to drink, I nodded my head and said that I understood my problem, but it was difficult to resist, so she continued to warn me about the dangers of alcoholism. And I made up the information about my daughter, and her cards did not warn her about my evil goals at all.

It is “cold reading” that gypsy fortune-tellers use when they promise to identify your name – they quickly name several popular names and monitor your reactions. Doesn’t work with you – go in peace, it will work with others. Why do I need my name at all – I don’t know it, or what?




Bertram Forer did not engage in “cold reading. But did he only receive written answers and with their help achieved his amazing results? Very interesting results are achieved without any “cold reading” – there are tricks for this.

One day Elena Hanga invited me to the Domino Principle TV show. The topic was suspicious – they invited people who saw goblins, waters and other similar things. A completely natural addition to this menagerie was the white magician Yuri Longo – he called himself that.

To win attention, he used the old, as the world, tricks – to stun, surprise, disorient and say things incomprehensible and undeniable directly. He came out in a bathrobe, with a candle in his hand, and said that there are goblins, and here and now he will disperse them.

To argue with such is of little use. I didn’t – I talked about something else, and when asked about him, I briefly said that obvious charlatans were not interesting to me. He boiled like a kettle and started cursing – mostly making fun of my appearance. I paid no attention, and they quickly stopped listening to him.

After the broadcast, he came up to me and said with sincere resentment that he did not expect such an affront from a fellow showman. I replied that I acted within the framework of my role as a showman – he has the role of a sorcerer, and I have the role of a unmasker, and I could not say anything else. He was clearly offended.




Laughing at people like Longo is not enough – their tricks work, and not always to deceive. Unusual clothes, lofty expressions, and the pseudoscience of the vocabulary work for one task – to create the impression that you are communicating with a person who has knowledge.

The same Bertram Forer did not neglect these techniques – he warned his audience that they became participants in serious scientific research. He conducted special testing with them – for us an integral sign of a scientific approach. They wanted to believe him.

An undeniable sign of the objectivity of the study was another experiment conducted – the participants of the experiment filled out the MMPI questionnaires, one of the most famous tests, and then they were given their characteristics obtained by the MMPI and by the Forer method – which one is better?

NON-RIVIAL SOLUTION: How to describe a person's character accurately?
MMPI test scales/hr-director.ru

At the same time, Forer’s methodology unambiguously surpassed the globally respected MMPI – 59% of participants recognized its assessment as more consistent with their true nature than the assessment obtained by the MMPI. Quite a significant advantage – how can you deny that it is actually better?


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People, by definition, want predictions – but correct ones. Forer’s characteristics are what they value because they help to see what will happen. Those who predict the future are listened to. Time will pass, and everyone will see if the predictions came true – but will they be remembered?

I saw such a predictor on another program called Domino Principle. His name was Grigoriy Grabovoi. I spoke to him before filming – he insinuatingly and lovingly talked about his native Tashkent, not forgetting to add that he had bewitched the plane of President Karimov so that it would not fall.

I did not argue, and he said: “I liked you so much that I want to reveal to you an important secret. You quarreled with a woman named Maria – it was a mistake. Make peace and you will immediately become happy”. I thanked and promised to make up, although I never had such a friend.

I immediately went up to Hange and told her this. She replied: “Excellent!” and went to talk to him, and then before the broadcast told me: “Absolutely the same, only the name is Alexander. Make peace, they say, and you will be happy”. I just nodded – everything was clear.

On the air, I told him: “You say that you can predict catastrophes, so do it right now. If you don’t say, everything will be clear”. He replied, “Okay. In about six months, a terrible disaster will strike London. But if we all want it not to be, it will not happen”.




I didn’t argue – it’s pointless, the prediction “my team will win, lose or draw tomorrow” is always fulfilled. As well as the future statements of Grabovoi that for only 1000 euros he revives the children killed in Beslan and they live in other people, but they cannot appear.

They do not argue with such – they shrug their shoulders and walk away, waiting for the reptile to really pierce. What happened to Grabovoi – he did not escape prison. But this is an obvious crime, and in general, the use of statements that no one can refute is a common technique.

The famous American impresario Barnum used similar phrases all the time. Once he offered to look at a miracle of nature – a cherry cat for a considerable sum. Displeased people were told: “Yes, the cat is black, but haven’t you seen a black cherry?”

NON-RIVIAL SOLUTION: How to describe a person's character accurately?
Phineas Taylor Barnum/connecticuthistory.org

What were the character predictions made by Bertram Forer? Maybe the same as Grabovoi’s statements? And who was the author of the methodology for developing such predictions? I have already said that they are not psychologists – so who invented this and is using it successfully?




They are astrologers – everyone has already understood everything!

The text was given to all the participants in the experiment and  to everyone it was the same, and everyone recognized that it was for them.

By the way, here’s this text – look, isn’t it written about you?




You really need other people to love and admire you. You are pretty self-critical. You have many hidden opportunities that you have never used to your advantage. While you have some personal weaknesses, you are generally able to level them out.

Disciplined and confident, but sometimes you tend to worry and feel insecure. At times, you have serious doubts about whether you made the right decision or did the right thing. You prefer some variety, boundaries and limitations make you dissatisfied.

You are also proud to think independently; you do not take someone else’s statements on faith without sufficient evidence. You have learned that being too frank with other people is not very wise.

Sometimes you are extroverted, affable and outgoing, sometimes you are introverted, cautious and reserved. Some of your aspirations are rather unrealistic. One of your main goals in life is stability.




The observation that people highly value the accuracy of descriptions of their personality that they assume were created for them individually, but which are actually vague and generalized enough to be equally applicable to many other people, are called both the Barnum effect and the Forer effect.

The main difference between Barnum and Forer is that Barnum used this effect to deceive people, and Forer warned about the possibility of such deception and taught how to notice this deception quickly and how to avoid its bad consequences.

Reread the testimonial that Forer gave to the participants in the experiment. Doesn’t it suit you, doesn’t it describe your character exactly? If even a timid thought slipped through you that this is absolutely true, keep in mind that in this way you can be deceived.

This Barnum-Forer experiment has been repeated hundreds of times with consistent success. A French psychologist ran an advertisement for an astrologer in newspapers, and then sent out to his clients the same horoscope of general abstract judgments. More than 200 people sent him letters of gratitude for the very accurate forecast.




Many people, often very clever people, fell into this trap. The difference between them and you is that you are warned.

If you are told something like “You are very talented, but external circumstances prevent you from showing this talent” or “You are a kind person, but it prevents you from noticing your fervor,” consider that you were told the truth, but completely unverifiable and absolutely useless.

Do not argue with those who work with you according to the methods described by Forer – you yourself will be wrong. Turn around and run – the worst defeat for these people is that they simply stop communicating with them.

As soon as you suspect “cold reading” from someone who communicates with you, reinforce him in something obviously wrong, but subtly. If he runs briskly in the direction indicated – see above.

If the Barnum-Forer effect works so well, why not take advantage of it? Because they will be caught and whipped. And there will be noone to complain – if only because you have been warned about this too.

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