What a psychology experiment from 1948 can teach you about being a better founder


Dear reader, it may surprise you, but I know you personally. This is how I would sum you up:

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. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.

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. Disciplined and selfcontrolled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.

You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. 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 pretty unrealistic.

In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer crafted this passage (I slightly modified it to fit the time and context) using astrology columns from various magazines. He then gave it to his students to read, suggesting that each person was getting a personalized assessment.

From 1 to 5 how much does this piece speak to you? You don't have to tell anybody, be honest.

On average, his students gave it a 4.3, meaning the professor was 86% correct in identifying the student's exact characteristics. 86%! Where have you ever seen conversion rates like that?

The experiment was repeated hundreds of times in the decades that followed, with virtually identical results.

Science labels this tendency the Forer effect (or the Barnum effect).

Why does it work?

What’s behind the Forer effect?

When I was a teenager a lot of girl friends would religiously read the horoscope on those teens magazines and swear they were always accurate and specific to them. Once I read them all (you weren't supposed to, it brings bad luck) and guess what, they all applied to me. The problem? They were so generic that they could relate to everyone: Sometimes you seriously doubt your actions. Who doesn’t?

Second, we tend to accept flattering statements that don’t apply to us: You are proud of your independent thinking. Obviously! Who sees himself or herself as a mindless follower? Especially as a startup founder you want to be at the edge of innovation, building the next big thing.

Third, the so called feature positive effect plays a part: the text contains no negative statements; it states only what we are, even though the absence of characteristics is an equally important part of a person’s make-up.

Fourth, the father of all the fallacies, the confirmation bias: we accept whatever corresponds to our self-image and unconsciously filter everything else out. What remains is a coherent portrait.

The implications on you and I as entrepreneurs

I admit it, I gave it a 4. Even tho I was prepared for it, I still couldn't help it but seeing myself in it.

Looking back at my career as an entrepreneur, and the many conversations I've had with other founders, I feel that we're constantly fighting with a general stereotype of the successful founder. One that is very much generic and flattering just like the passage above. The internet is full of it, all those startup success stories often hide the details and just portraits positive looking founders that we can't but aspire to be.

Once we have identified ourselves with that narrative we're quick to execute on the follow up steps, whatever those may be, without much consideration if they actually truly belong to our path or not.

So as I remind myself of that while I go through the highs and lows of the entrepreneurs life I thought I'd put this out and remind you as well, my friend, to watch out for those fallacies and biases as you decide what's next for yourself and your startup.

Learn more about keeping your mind solid and sound to make good decisions for yourself and your startup

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