We hardly know you


My younger daughter is a total Virgo, I thought when I read a basic description of Virgos some years ago (very independent, focused on the smallest details, obsessively organized, fussy), so that the other night, when I was trying to get her comforter into her comforter cover and not getting it all lined up on the inside properly, and she exclaimed, I can’t even watch this! and walked out of the room, I thought to myself, Typical Virgo. But was she? Who knows.

This kind of thinking (what am I, an introvert? An extroverted introvert? Some combination of four letters? A visionary/healer? A Pisces??) eventually led me to a psychological phenomenon known as the Barnum effect. Named for legendary circus showman and notorious hoaxer Phineas Taylor Barnum, the Barnum effect is described (in Wikipedia) as “the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.” Which you could, if you were so inclined, apply not only to astrology but to fortune telling and psychic readings and maybe even personality tests.

Consider the following statements: “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.” Many people, reading this on a psychology test, would probably think, Yes, that’s me exactly! But I have to say that this is not particularly revelatory.

What interests me more than the Barnum effect actually is just what seems to be a common need to define ourselves using certain terms (shorthands, really) and then being able to explain away most of our behavior simply by employing these terms (“I’m an introvert so if you invite me to a party I probably won’t ever come. But don’t take it personally! I’m just such an introvert!”). I have written about this sort of shorthand categorizing before and I am still no closer to understanding it.

The thing is, nothing delights me more than discovering that people do not fit into the categories I’ve assigned them. There’s a woman I work with that I wrote off as an annoyingly repetitive loudmouth who one day came in with a surprisingly gorgeous carrot cake that she had baked from scratch. It was probably the best carrot cake I’ve ever had. Of course, I had to like her after that.

I love the fact that people will always continue to surprise me. Even P. T. Barnum, who I discovered was the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, after his circus impresario years were over, and brought gas lighting to the streets and improved the water supply and, in 1878, started Bridgeport Hospital, the third hospital in the state. He was very likely an extrovert, though, not a Virgo,  and happens to be buried in a cemetery that he designed himself. We hardly  know anything about anybody really. We are constantly learning about ourselves.



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