The Barnum Effect: What Do ‘I’ Want?

I felt my heart skip a beat, from anxiety really as the nausea lowered my blood pressure that suddenly darkened the bright space around me. The skin on her soft cheeks looked like overripe garnet plums that with one wrong touch could peel right off, her ageing lips muttering words I did not want to hear. What am I doing here? I thought to myself as I watched this elderly tea-leaf reader holding the blue teacup, this talented talker.

“I see a man here,” she continued, “He has been cheated on, so he is hurting when you meet. You will meet informally, like coffee or breakfast. He is close to your age or a little older, a very quiet person. I see a little girl here too, so you both will start a family together. I also see a fish, a very big one which means a lot of money. You are standing on this house so you will invest in property.”

Perfection. She said everything that any woman would want to hear. I want a partner who understands the importance of loyalty and goodness, someone who seeks an honest person rather than a beautiful one, who is morally worthy given that his past was not his fault, who wants to be friends and take it slow, who appreciates what is actually worth appreciating – a quiet life away from the poison of society – and of course, a child, money, a home.

So when I go out and make that happen are her predictions suddenly accurate?



When I realised recently that most of my motivation over the last few years have been structured around trying to prove that I am worthy despite the opinions of others, I realised I was struggling because people did not value or see me for who I was but rather what I was. Was I pretty? Was I sexually appealing? Was I popular?

I used to worry about how I looked, what others would think, felt like I was at risk that others would mock me and I wanted to protect myself from that potential hurt, so my decisions to do or not to do something were motivated by them rather than by me.

People are more likely to behave immorally when they are in groups, consumed into a collective consciousness where they are no longer using their own minds. The group provides the ‘moral licence’ that permits one to act – even immorally – as long as there is a collective agreement.

They create an imagined hierarchy that gives those higher on the scale a sense of entitlement, the permission to be cruel, dismissive and authoritative over those sitting lower on this scale. A young student who sits at the back of the bus is ‘cool’ over the one sitting at the front and they – in their mind – believe they have the permission to mistreat those at the front.


The Barnum Effect provides an explanation behind the structural characteristics of our cognitive behaviour to believe that – despite clearly following a group dynamic and behaving the same way as others around them – they nevertheless believe themselves to be ‘individual’ and ‘unique’ so it extends beyond mere belief in the generalisations offered through horoscopes and fortune telling.

It stems from our fear of the unknown, that to be yourself without society or family directing you would mean to be alone in a dark abyss where you and your thoughts left. What do you do then? Who are you exactly when there is no need for approval, when no one is motivating you to create a persona and where your identity is based only on connecting to the group?

Who am I? What do I want?

I am left only with my values, my moral principles, and work toward a sustainable happiness through knowledge and my efforts to improve. I have learnt that I don’t want to be around people who believe in this hierarchy. It only brought me unhappiness. I want to feel respected and appreciated, not conscious of my appearance, lonely and trying to reach up a scale that doesn’t even exist.

I realised what I wanted. I finally felt free.

This freedom is embracing the unknown, understanding what I want rather than what I think I should want. I like conversations, one or two people on the couch where the discussion is actually interesting. 

I like small. Intimate. Peaceful. I like the idea of having a small family. I imagine being in my garden working with my chooks and flowers as my son or daughter plays around me. I like going on outings with my small group of friends, hiking and camping, stargazing or having a bbq.

If that means without a partner then I will adopt and I am okay with that because I know that I would prefer to be alone then try and make an unhappy relationship work. I want to be respected and admired, to grow and mature in a relationship with someone that I care about and want to support. Someone who makes an effort to show that they care.

I cannot afford a home, but after living so long from place to place, I will try my best to find a way. I like being creative, writing and dabbling in art. I love my work and my job. I hope that one day I can write in peace with my own family that I have created.

I don’t need fortune tellers to give me a purpose to create. I don’t need society, or even a partner or family to swallow my existence into some hasty generalisation. I embrace the unknown and can damn well do it on my own. I just am.