Extending the Forer Test beyond Face Validity: An Experiential Approach to Teaching Social Science Methodology

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Many psychology students are familiar with the 'Forer Test'. In the test, a personality evaluation is administered and every participant gets the same personality profile as a result (Forer, 1949; Carroll, 2005). Most participants consider the profile to be fairly accurate, thinking it is a personalized profile based on the test. This face validity is due to the generally positive nature of the profile (Leung, Su & Morris, 2001), the accepted authority of the evaluator and the belief that the analysis was unique to them (Hannay, Arisholm, Engvik & Sj0berg, 2010; Dickson & Kelly, 1985). The test is used to show the problems with relying only on face validity to judge a measurement instrument or evaluation. In this exercise we go beyond the traditional 'Forer Test' lesson. We administer the 'personality test' online, and analyze the actual results from test using legitimate, established social science methods to see if indeed the test does reveal patterns that indicate latent constructs. In this way, an interesting but limited demonstration of a psychological phenomenon is used as a starting point for illustrating more sophisticated concepts. In addition to describing the basic exercise, we illustrate how it can be used in different but related behavioral disciplines within business education. Specifically we describe the basic exercise, and illustrate how it was successfully used in undergraduate and graduate management and marketing courses.

The paper begins with a description of the Forer test, its history and application. This is followed by a brief explanation of experiential exercises in general. A description of our exercise is presented next. After the basic exercise is presented, a specific implementation of the exercise will be examined in detail. The materials and procedures will be presented first, followed by the analysis methods and results. The presentation of the results in class and the ensuing discussion are explored next. The paper concludes with proposals of how to modify the exercise for different contexts.

BACKGROUND--THE FORER TEST

In 1949 Bertram R. Forer introduced "the fallacy of personal validation". Specifically he found that people had a tendency to accept vague, general descriptions of personality as very true for them even though the descriptions could apply to almost everyone. The personality evaluation given by Forer was as follows:

"You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the 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 also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic" (Forer, 1949).

Participants in Forer's test, performed in 1948, rated this passage as 4.26 on a scale of 0 to 5 with 4 indicating it was a 'good' assessment and 5 as 'excellent' (Forer, 1949; Hannay, Arisholm, Engvik & Sj0berg, 2010). The test has been repeated hundreds of times in the succeeding decades with the average remaining about 4.2 (Carroll, 2005).

This phenomenon of individuals tendency to accept 'bogus' feedback as accurate is also known as the 'Barnum Effect' (Meehl, 1956; MacDonald & Standing, 2002). The Barnum effect was initially used in classrooms to illustrate gullibility and deception; however it later was used to teach ethics (Beins, 1993). …