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Cross-Cultural Differences in the
Acceptance of Barnum Profiles
Supposedly Derived From
Western Versus Chinese Astrology
University of Central Lancashire
The present study examines cross-cultural differences in the Barnum effect. At Stage 1 of the
study, 287 respondents (comprising 149 Westerners and 138 Chinese nationals) provided birth
details and completed a belief-in-astrology questionnaire. At Stage 2 a week later, 258 of these
(130 Westerners, 128 Chinese) then completed a second belief-in-astrology questionnaire
before receiving a Barnum profile supposedly derived from either Western or Chinese astrol-
ogy, which they rated for, among other things, perceived accuracy (a) for themselves and
(b) for other people in general. Although preliminary analysis offered initial support for a
universal Barnum effect, this disappeared after respondent gender, age, general education, and
psychological knowledge were controlled for. Further analyses revealed little support for
cross-cultural differences in either astrological beliefs or susceptibility to the Barnum effect,
although surprisingly, Chinese nationals who believed in astrology did perceive their own
(Barnum) profile to be more accurate for people in general than did Chinese skeptics. Finally,
Barnum acceptance was not influenced by the apparent source of profiles. The role these
factors play in relation to Barnum susceptibility and methodological limitations of the present
study are discussed.
Keywords: Barnum effect; astrology; paranormal; cross-cultural; Chinese
espite limited scientific evidence for astrology (Culver & Ianna, 1984; Eysenck &
Nias, 1982; Groome, 2001), thousands of people continue to read their daily horo-
scopes and/or consult astrologers for advice and personal guidance (Roe, 1998
Correspondingly, Chinese astrology seems just as popular in China (e.g., Yip, Lee &
Cheng, 2002). According to skeptics, the apparent validity of astrology stems from peoples’
tendency to accept vague, ambiguous, and generalized personality descriptions as being
Journal of Cross-Cultural
Volume XX Number X
Month XXXX xx-xx
© 2009 SAGE Publications
Authors’ Note: The authors would like to thank various staff in the University of Central Lancashire’s
Department of Languages and International Studies, most notably, Dr. Isobel Donnelly and Dr. Brian
Austerfield, for allowing us to sample their Chinese students. Special thanks also go to Ms. Lingling Peng and
Dr. Xiaohu Guo for (back-) translating study materials and to Dr. Thanzami Van Lai plus several anonymous
reviewers for their advice regarding earlier drafts of this article. Correspondence should be addressed to Dr.
Paul Rogers, Department of Psychology, Darwin Building, University of Central Lancashire, Preston,
Lancashire PR1 2HE, United Kingdom; e-mail: email@example.com.
2 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
uniquely accurate of themselves (Forer, 1949), a phenomenon known as “the Barnum
effect” (Meehl, 1956). Individuals who succumb to the Barnum effect fail to realize such
generalized character profiles may be true of most people.
The Barnum effect is a robust phenomenon, having been demonstrated in clinical, occu-
pational, educational, forensic, and military settings as well as numerous ostensibly par-
anormal contexts (Dickson & Kelly, 1985; Furnham & Schofield, 1987; Synder, Shenkel &
Lowery, 1977; Thiriart, 1991). In the first Barnum study, Forer (1949) administered a fake
personality test to undergraduate psychology students and a week later presented each with
the same generalized (Barnum) profile, which included statements such as “You are often
critical of yourself” and “You have a great deal of unused potential.” Overall, students rated
these profiles to be extremely accurate descriptions of their own personalities.
Various aspects of recipient character, profile content, and (apparent) profile source have
since been explored (e.g., Furnham & Schofield, 1987). For example, Barnum acceptance
tends to be higher among recipients who have an external locus of control, lower self-
esteem, less (educational) sophistication, or more faith in test procedures. Likewise,
Barnum profiles are deemed more accurate when they are more generalized, more favora-
ble, or believed to be unique to oneself. In contrast, Barnum acceptance appears unaffected
by recipient gender, age, or occupation; the status or prestige of the test administrator; or
whether profiles stem from a human versus computerized source. Evidence for a relation-
ship between Barnum acceptance and global paranormal belief has been mixed (Hughes,
Behanna, & Signorella, 2001; Tobacyk, Milford, Springer, & Tobacyk, 1988).
Unsurprisingly, much of the Barnum literature has explored its role within the acceptance
of (fake) astrological or horoscope profiles (see Tyson, 1982). In one study, Stachnik and
Stachnik (1980) gave high school psychology students a Barnum profile supposedly con-
structed by an expert astrologer and found that more than half (54%) the sample rated their
profile as being excellent, with virtually all (92%) rating it to be at least a good description of
their own personalities. In another study, Synder (1974b) found that fake astrological profiles
were deemed more accurate when recipients believed they had been calculated from more
precise birth details, namely, their date, month, and year as opposed to just the month and year
of their birth. Others have found that the profiles supposedly derived from astrology are seen
to be at least as accurate as those supposedly derived from other sources, such as graphology
or psychological testing, with astrological believers generally more accepting of the former
(Glick, Gottesman, & Jolton, 1989; Rosen, 1975; Snyder, Larsen, & Bloom, 1976).
Interestingly, even astrological skeptics accepted fake astrological profiles when these were
positively toned (Glick et al., 1989). Taken together, these data suggest that astrological
believers are prone to confirmation biases and that even skeptics will accept a fake astrologi-
cal (Barnum) profile as being uniquely accurate to them if it is favorable enough.
The impact of recipients’ knowledge of astrology on Barnum acceptance has also been
explored. French, Fowler, McCarthy, and Peers (1991/1998) found that Barnum profiles
were judged more accurate than either genuine or false horoscopes, regardless of the
recipient’s knowledge of astrology.
Fichten and Sunerton (1983) examined the perceived
accuracy of genuine, false, and fake (Barnum) horoscopes in relation to knowledge of
which sun sign a given profile (supposedly) represented. They found that Barnum profiles
were deemed at least as accurate and useful as genuine horoscopes when sun sign informa-
tion was provided and more accurate and useful when such information was withheld.
Rogers, Soule / Cross-Cultural Difference in the Barnum Effect 3
These findings suggest that even a person’s knowledge of—rather than merely his or her
belief in—astrology is not sufficient to offset Barnum susceptibility.
Other work suggests that Barnum acceptance cannot be explained as mere gullibility
(Dean, 1991; Piper-Terry & Downey, 1998; Standing & Keays, 1985), demand character-
istics (Johnson, Cain, Falke, Hayman, & Perillo, 1985; MacDonald & Standing, 2002), or
a greater motivation to find self-referent matches within profiles (Wiseman & Smith, 2002).
In sum, susceptibility to the Barnum effect reflects a general information processing bias
whereby individuals consistently fail to discriminate unique from universal character
descriptions and thus fall victim to a fallacy of personal validation (Forer, 1949). This can
lead to the assimilation of profile content into one’s own self-concept (Hamilton, 2001;
Lillqvist & Lindeman, 1998; Van Rooij, 1999) and ultimately to confirmation (Davies,
[AQ: 2]) and self-serving biases (MacDonald & Standing, 2002).
Cross-Cultural Differences in the Barnum Effect
There is evidence to suggest the Barnum effect is a worldwide phenomenon. Pulido Rull
(2000) found that both Mexican students and Mexican mental health professionals were
prone to Barnum acceptance following apparent psychological testing, findings that the
author claims are comparable to those for U.S. populations. To date, only one study has
examined cultural differences in the Barnum effect, with Diamond and Bond (1974) finding
no differences across Japanese, Japanese American, and Caucasian American college stu-
dents’ acceptance of Barnum profiles supposedly derived from a Rorschach inkblot test. As
yet, no studies have examined Barnum acceptance among Chinese recipients, nor have any
studies examined the acceptance of fake astrological profiles across differences in recipient
ethnicity. Likewise, no studies have yet explored Barnum acceptance given cross-cultural
differences in the apparent source (i.e., cultural origin) of fake astrological profiles. The
present study aims to correct these omissions.
Although no studies have yet examined Western versus Chinese differences in astrological
belief and knowledge, there is evidence to suggest such cross-cultural differences are plau-
sible. McClenon (1988, 1990) found that native students at three Chinese universities had a
more pronounced belief in several paranormal phenomena, and reported more allegedly
paranormal experiences, than did Western students in both Europe and America. He later
found comparable differences in Chinese versus Caucasian American, African American,
and Japanese students that were unrelated to respondents’ religious preferences, general
religiosity, and/or levels of scientific training (McClenon, 1993, 1994). According to
McClenon, these trends can be explained, partly, by cultural variations in national folklore.
Belief in the validity of astrology and horoscopes is often seen as being part of a wider
belief in paranormal phenomena (e.g., Randall, 1997; Tobacyk, 1988; see Irwin, in press).
Thus it is possible native Chinese students will also have a higher belief in, and more expe-
rience of, astrology than their Western counterparts. By extension, the former might also be
more prone to the Barnum effect for profiles supposedly derived from astrology than the
latter (cf. Tyson, 1982). Evidence that Chinese adolescents are more likely to engage in
norm compliance (Nelson, Badger, & Wu, 2004) adds further weight to this claim. Finally,
given the influence Chinese astrology has on Chinese culture generally (e.g., Yip et al.,
4 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
2002), coupled with evidence that astrological believers are more prone to ethnic prejudice
(Dambrun, 2004), it seems reasonable to suggest that Chinese students will be especially
prone to accepting Barnum profiles seemingly derived from Chinese astrology.
Aims and Hypotheses
The present study aims to fill gaps in the literature by examining the extent to which
Barnum acceptance differs across Western versus Chinese recipients given a fake astro-
logical (Barnum) profile supposedly derived from either Western or Chinese astrology. By
presenting character descriptions as a fake Western or Chinese horoscope, the present study
also examines the impact of cross-cultural differences in the apparent source of Barnum
profiles, something previous studies have so far overlooked. One possibility is that respond-
ents will rate same-culture profiles to be more accurate because they have more trust in
their own astrological system (Snyder & Shenkle, 1976). Alternatively, respondents may
judge cross-cultural profiles to be more accurate because these appear more mysterious
(Snyder, 1974b). Given the ambiguity of evidence surrounding profile mysteriousness
(Snyder, 1974a), cross-cultural differences in the Barnum effect are expected to reflect a
more pronounced faith in familiar assessment procedures.
The study comprised two stages. In Stage 1, respondents complete the Belief in Astrology
Questionnaire (BIAQ), a demographics questionnaire, and the Birth Details Questionnaire
(BDQ). A brief introduction to the history of either Western or Chinese astrology was also
included to highlight the apparent cultural source of each profile. In Stage 2, approximately
a week later, respondents are given a second BIAQ plus the same Barnum profile based on
the one used by Forer (1949). Thus, Stages 1 and 2 represent the preprofile stage and post-
profile stage, respectively. In line with all Barnum studies, profiles are rated for how accu-
rately they described the respondents’ own personality (“accuracy for self”). However, it is
possible Barnum profiles are accepted because being so general, they actually do apply to
everyone (Bayne, 1980; French et al., 1991/1998; Johnson et al., 1985; Snyder & Larsen,
1972). To assess whether recipients recognize their universality, profiles are also rated for
how accurately they appear to describe other people in general (“accuracy for others”).
Direct comparison of self versus other accuracy ratings will thus provide a more stringent
definition of the Barnum effect than that found in previous research (e.g., Forer, 1949;
Stachnik & Stachnik, 1980). Finally, three additional items, examining the perceived help-
fulness of profiles, their perceived tone, and the extent to which they offer evidence that
astrology works, are also included. Several hypotheses are forwarded.
First, in line with work by McClenon (1990, 1994), Chinese respondents are expected to
have a more pronounced belief in, and experience of, astrology than Westerners. Second,
given the robustness of Barnum acceptance for fake astrological profiles (Tyson, 1982),
respondents are generally expected to rate the present Barnum profile as more accurate for
the self than for other people in general. Third, consistent with work by Glick et al. (1989),
believers in astrology are expected to rate their Barnum profile as more accurate for the self
(relative to others) than are nonbelievers. Fourth, and with the first and third hypotheses in
mind, Chinese respondents should also be more accepting of a fake astrological (Barnum)
profile than Western respondents. Fifth, the apparent cultural source of Barnum profiles is
also expected to be important, with believers predicted to be more accepting of profiles
Rogers, Soule / Cross-Cultural Difference in the Barnum Effect 5
supposedly derived from their own—as opposed to an alien—culture. Thus, Chinese
believers should be more accepting of Barnum profiles seemingly derived from Chinese
astrology, with Westerners endorsing the opposite view.
Sixth, similar main and interaction
effects are predicted for the three remaining dependent measures, namely, profile helpful-
ness, profile tone, and “astrology works” ratings. Finally, in line with work by French et al.
(1991/1998), the perceived accuracy of Barnum profiles should be unrelated to respond-
ents’ knowledge of astrology, regardless of their culture of origin.
A total of 365 respondents (208 Westerners, 157 Chinese) were sampled from classes at
the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Of these, 287 respondents (149 Westerners,
138 Chinese) returned usable questionnaires at this first stage of sampling (see Procedure
subsection below), a preliminary response rate of 78.6%. Most (n = 258) also returned usable
questionnaires at Stage 2, for a final response rate of 70.7%. This final sample of 258
respondents comprised 130 Westerners plus 128 Chinese individuals,
the majority of whom
(69.5%) were female. Overall, respondents were ages 18 to 48 years (M = 22.0 years; SD =
4.9 years) with the vast majority (97.3%) educated to at least A level or equivalent.
As expected, virtually all Chinese respondents (99.2%) claimed English was not their
first language, with the vast majority (98.4%) also stating they had not lived in the United
Kingdom, Europe, or America prior to coming to UCLan. Any claiming otherwise or with
missing language and/or residence data were removed from further analyses. The remain-
ing Chinese respondents had spent an average of 1.68 years (SD = 1.00 years) studying in
the United Kingdom.
This study had a 2 (sample type: Western vs. Chinese respondents) × 2 (apparent profile
source: Western vs. Chinese astrology) × 2 (belief in astrology: believer vs. nonbeliever)
between-subjects design. Dependent variables were two measures of perceived profile accu-
racy (i.e., for self and for other people in general) plus three support-for-astrology measures
(i.e., profile helpfulness, profile tone, and “astrology works” ratings) as described below.
Several new questionnaires were constructed for use in the present study. All versions for
the Chinese sample were rewritten into Chinese by an experienced translator (LP), a Chinese
postgraduate student from the UCLan’s Department of Languages and International Studies.
The equivalence of English and Chinese materials was later verified through back-translation
(Brislin, 1970) by a Chinese member of staff (XG) recruited through the same department.
BDQ. The BDQ included a brief historical description of either Western or Chinese
astrology before asking participants to give their name plus date, time, and place of birth
6 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
to create the illusion that a real astrological profile was to be generated. No BDQ data were
BIAQ. The BIAQ comprised 11 items assessing people’s beliefs about the use of astrol-
ogy for predicting various aspects of life, such as a one’s personality, relationship out-
comes, career or business decisions, and the likelihood war or natural disasters. Two further
items assessed how scientific and how trustworthy astrology was seen to be. These items
were rated along a 7-point Likert-type scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly
agree), with higher scores reflecting more belief in (the validity of) astrology.
The BIAQ also included five astrology experience and knowledge items. These assessed
the frequency with which respondents read their horoscope (from 1 = never to 7 = all the
time), visited a practicing astrologer and/or called an astrology telephone helpline (both from
1 = never to 7 = more than 12 times per year), how much respondents felt they knew about
astrology (from 1 = absolutely nothing to 7 = I can interpret an entire astrological chart),
how much money (in British pounds) they had spent on astrology in the past year, and
finally, whether they had participated in a similar study of astrology (yes or no). Although
no distinction was made between Western versus Chinese astrology on any specific item, one
of the two systems was implicated via the historical introduction outlined above.
Fake astrology (Barnum) profiles. These contained a series of generalized statements
relating to each participant’s personality, preferences, opinions, and concerns (e.g., “You
prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by
restrictions and limitations”) as used extensively in previous Barnum effect research (e.g.,
Forer, 1949; French et al,, 1991/1998). Two minor modifications were made to profiles.
First, any reference to recipients’ sexual adjustment was removed for reasons of impropri-
ety (cf. French et al., 1991/1998). Second, each profile was titled either “Your Western
Astrology Profile” or “Your Chinese Astrology Profile” to highlight the system from which
the profile was supposedly derived, that is, the apparent profile source (see Appendix A).
Profile Accuracy Questionnaire (PAQ). The PAQ comprised five dependent measures,
two assessing the perceived accuracy of profiles (i.e., for self and for other people in gen-
eral) plus three assessing the extent to which profiles appeared to offer support for the
validity of astrology (i.e., profile helpfulness, profile tone, and “astrology works”; see
Appendix B). All dependent variables were rated along a 7-point Likert-type scale from 1
(not at all or none) to 7 (extremely or totally).
Demographics. Finally, respondents were asked to indicate their gender, age, ethnicity,
educational qualification, current occupational status (full-time student, part-time student,
or other), and degree subject; whether English was their first language; and how long they
had studied in the United Kingdom, in Europe, and/or in America. Each participant was
also given a unique identification code.
All respondents were students at UCLan, a large university in the northwest of England.
Western and Chinese students were opportunistically sampled from a 1st-year undergraduate
Rogers, Soule / Cross-Cultural Difference in the Barnum Effect 7
psychology elective and from English as a Foreign Language classes, respectively.
Sampling comprised two stages. At Stage 1, respondents were asked to complete the BDQ,
the BIAQ, and the demographics questionnaires in anticipation of receiving a unique astro-
logical profile (supposedly) derived from a new astrology computer program. At Stage 2,
approximately a week later, respondents were given a named envelope containing a second
BIAQ, a fake astrology (Barnum) profile, and the PAQ, which they were to read and com-
plete without conferring. After completed questionnaires had been returned, respondents
were thanked and debriefed. No form of payment was made.
Preliminary analyses revealed several demographic differences across the two sample
groups. First, the Western sample (75.4%) contained more females than the Chinese
(63.5%) sample (phi = –.13, p < .05, n = 256). Second, Western respondents (M = 21.5
years, SD = 6.5 years) were significantly younger than Chinese respondents (M = 22.7
years, SD = 2.24 years), t(160.2) = –2.05, p < .05. Third, Westerners who were qualified to
A level or equivalent (median = 3) had fewer qualifications, χ
(df = 5, N = 254) = 125.11,
p < .001, than their Chinese counterparts who were qualified to Higher National Diploma
or undergraduate degree level (median = 4). Finally, more Westerners (69.4%) had studied
at least some psychology (phi = –.72, p < .001, n = 250) than Chinese respondents (0.0%).
Future analyses will partial out respondent gender, age, general educational attainment, and
psychological knowledge as potential covariates.
Belief in Astrology
All analyses involving BIAQ scores were conducted across the two samples separately.
Reliability tests revealed that at preprofile (Stage 1) BIAQ scores had a high internal reli-
ability for both Western (alpha = .97) and Chinese (alpha = .90) samples. Similarly, post-
profile (Stage 2) BIAQ scores were again highly reliable for both Westerners (alpha = .95)
and Chinese (alpha = .93) groups. Correlational analysis across the two stages confirmed
that the BIAQ had high test–retest reliability for both Western (r = .83, p < .001, n = 83)
and Chinese (r = .76, p < .001, n = 82) respondents. Hereafter, all references to BIAQ rat-
ings refer to those at Stage 1 unless otherwise stated.
Finally, analysis of covariance
(ANCOVA)—controlling for respondent gender, age, general education, and psychological
knowledge—revealed that Westerners and Chinese respondents did not differ in their BIAQ
scores at either Stage 1 or Stage 2 sessions.
Mean BIAQ scores are given in Table 1.
Experience and Knowledge of Astrology
Analysis of the five experience and knowledge items revealed that a third of Westerners
(30.1%) and a fifth of Chinese respondents (19.5%) claimed they never read their daily
horoscope and that on average, both groups rarely pay much attention to newspaper astrol-
ogy pages (median = 2 for both). Whereas most Westerners (85.5%) claimed they had never
8 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
received a full astrological reading from a practicing astrologer, only a fifth of Chinese
respondents (19.5%) made this claim. Sample group comparisons via ANCOVA—again
controlling for the aforementioned covariates—confirmed that on average, Westerns
(median = 1) had received significantly fewer full readings, F(1, 142) = 21.76, p <. 001,
= .13, than their Chinese counterparts (median = 3). In addition, most Western and
Chinese respondents had never telephoned an astrology help line (98.8% and 82.9%,
respectively), with the two groups spending comparatively little on astrology in the past
year (£2.06 and £1.81, respectively). These differences were not significant. Likewise, with
gender, age, education, and psychological knowledge all controlled for, Westerners’
reported general knowledge of astrology did not differ significantly from that of their
Chinese counterparts (median = 3 and 4, respectively).
Further analyses revealed significant positive correlations between BIAQ ratings and the
extent to which both Western and Chinese respondents claimed they read their daily news-
paper horoscopes (rho = .37, p < .001, n = 130, and rho = .35, p < .001, n = 128, respec-
tively), received full astrological readings (rho = .33, p < .001, n = 130, and rho = .26,
p < .005, n = 128, respectively) and spent money on astrology in that year (rho = .32, p <
.001, n = 130, and rho = .19, p < .05, n = 128, respectively). Western and Chinese BIAQ
ratings also correlated positively with respondents reported knowledge of astrology (rho =
.29, p < .005, n = 130, and rho = .39, p < .001, n = 125, respectively). Taken together, these
data provide good evidence of the BIAQ’s content and concurrent validity (Howitt &
Cramer, 2005) for both samples.
Stage 1 BIAQ ratings were dichotomized via median split analysis for Western (median =
2.63) and Chinese (median = 3.27) samples separately, thereby creating a believer-versus-
nonbeliever dichotomy for both groups. Eight respondents who scored median BIAQ
ratings for their respective sample were removed from further analyses. Of the remaining
250 respondents, 161 returned useable profile (PAQ) scores, a Stage 2 response rate of
64.4%. This smaller sample comprised 82 Westerners (40 Western believers and 42 Western
nonbelievers) plus 79 Chinese respondents (43 Chinese believers and 36 Chinese nonbe-
lievers). All subsequent analyses are performed on this revised sample.
Belief in Astrology Questionnaire (BIAQ) Ratings
at Stages 1 and 2 Across Sample Group
Western (n = 130) Chinese (n = 128) All
M (SD) M (SD) M (SD) Difference
Stage 1 BIAQ (preprofile) 2.84 (1.33) 3.23 (1.12) 3.03 (1.25)
Stage 2 BIAQ (postprofile) 2.68 (1.11) 3.21 (1.23) 2.96 (1.20)
Note: Significant sample effects found at the *p < .05, **p < .01, and ***p < .001 levels (two-tailed).
Rogers, Soule / Cross-Cultural Difference in the Barnum Effect 9
Accuracy of Profile Ratings
Means and standard deviations for both accuracy-for-self and accuracy-for-others
dependent variables are given in Table 2.
As Table 2 shows, overall accuracy-for-self and accuracy-for-others ratings were both
moderately high. Despite this, a paired-samples t test revealed that overall accuracy-for-self
ratings were significantly higher than accuracy-for-others ratings, t(160) = 2.96, p < .005.
To assess the extent to which profiles were seen as uniquely accurate to oneself (cf. French
et al., 1991/1998) across respondent and profile types, a 2 (accuracy type: self vs. others) ×
2 (sample type: Western vs. Chinese respondents) × 2 (apparent profile source: Western vs.
Chinese astrology) × 2 (belief in astrology: believer vs. nonbeliever) mixed ANCOVA—
controlling for respondent gender, age, general education, and psychological knowledge—
was performed. No significant covariates were found. Moreover, no significant main effects
for accuracy type, sample type, or profile source were found, either. However, ANCOVA did
reveal a significant main effect for belief in astrology, F(1, 132) = 8.64, p < .01, eta
with astrological believers rating profiles to be more accurate overall (i.e., without differen-
tiating between accuracy for self versus others) than nonbelievers. Analysis also revealed a
significant three-way Accuracy × Sample × Belief interaction, F(1, 132) = 4.34, p < .05,
= .03. Post hoc simple effects analyses—again, controlling for the aforementioned
covariates and with alpha adjusted to the .01 level—confirmed that Chinese believers
(M = 4.94) rated profiles as being more accurate of people in general, F(1, 67) = 14.76,
p < .001, eta
=.18, than did Chinese nonbelievers (M = 3.83). All other simple effects failed to
reach significance at the adjusted level. ANCOVA revealed no other significant interactions.
Separate 2 (sample type: Western vs. Chinese) × 2 (apparent profile source: Western vs.
Chinese astrology) × 2 (belief in astrology: believer vs. nonbeliever) between-subjects
ANCOVA—controlling for the same four covariates—were performed on each of the three
remaining support-for-astrology dependent variables (i.e., profile helpfulness, profile tone, and
“astrology works”). A single significant covariate was found, with respondent gender posi-
tively associated with profile tone, F(1, 132) = 4.54, p < .05, eta
=.03, such that males per-
ceived the profile to be less positive than females. As Table 2 shows, a significant main effect
for belief was found in ratings for helpfulness, F(1, 133) = 24.68, p < .001, eta
= .16; profile
tone, F(1, 132) = 5.79, p < .05, eta
= .04; and “astrology works,” F(1, 132) = 21.00, p < .001,
=.14; astrological believers rated profiles as more helpful, more positive, and providing
more evidence that astrology works than did nonbelievers. Similarly, a significant sample
effect was found in scores for both helpfulness, F(1, 133) = 15.11, p < .001, eta
“astrology works,” F(1, 141) = 5.94, p < .05, eta
=.04, with Westerners rating profiles less
helpful and as providing less evidence that astrology works than did their Chinese counter-
parts. No other significant main or interaction effects were found for these three measures.
Correlations With Knowledge of Astrology
As noted earlier, Western and Chinese respondents did not differ in their reported knowl-
edge of astrology. Correlation analysis was performed for each sample separately to assess
Mean Accuracy and Support-for-Astrology Ratings Across Sample Type, Profile Type, and Belief in Astrology
(Controlling for Respondent Gender, Age, General Educational Attainment, and Psychological Awareness)
Note: Range was from 1 = not at all/none to 7 = extremely/totally.
Significant accuracy type (A), sample (S), profile source (P), belief in astrology (B), and subsequent interaction effects found at the: *p < .05, **p < .01, and
***p < .001 levels (two-tailed).
Believer 4.73 (1.44) 4.50 (1.29) 4.61 (1.34) 4.95 (1.32) 4.45 (1.43) 4.70 (1.38) 4.86 (1.35) 4.47 (1.35) 4.66 (1.36) B **
Nonbeliever 5.48 (0.87) 4.72 (1.18) 5.13 (1.08) 4.65 (1.27) 5.33 (0.98) 4.97 (1.18) 5.11 (1.13) 5.00 (1.12) 5.06 (1.12) A × S × B *
5.17 (1.18) 4.61 (1.23) 4.89 (1.23) 4.81 (1.29) 4.83 (1.32) 4.82 (1.29) 4.99 (1.24) 4.72 (1.27) 4.85 (1.26)
4.67 (1.29) 4.28 (1.36) 4.45 (1.33) 4.15 (1.18) 3.50 (1.28) 3.83 (1.26) 4.37 (1.24) 3.87 (1.36) 4.11 (1.32)
4.57 (1.12) 4.72 (1.18) 4.64 (1.14) 5.00 (1.00) 4.87 (1.06) 4.94 (1.01) 4.76 (1.08) 4.79 (1.11) 4.77 (1.08)
4.61 (1.18) 4.50 (1.28) 4.56 (1.22) 4.54 (1.17) 4.09 (1.36) 4.32 (1.28) 4.58 (1.17) 4.30 (1.32) 4.44 (1.25)
Believer 2.27 (1.33) 2.39 (1.46) 2.33 (1.38) 3.80 (1.40) 3.55 (1.54) 3.68 (1.46) 3.14 (1.56) 3.00 (1.59) 3.07 (1.57) B ***
Nonbeliever 4.05 (1.43) 3.28 (1.64) 3.69 (1.56) 4.76 (0.97) 4.38 (0.96) 4.58 (0.97) 4.37 (1.28) 3.79 (1.45) 4.10 (1.39) S ***
3.31 (1.64) 2.83 (1.59) 3.07 (1.62) 4.24 (1.30) 3.92 (1.36) 4.08 (1.33) 3.78 (1.54) 3.38 (1.57) 3.58 (1.56)
Profile tone Believer 4.13 (0.64) 3.83 (1.47) 3.97 (1.16) 4.10 (1.25) 4.05 (1.36) 4.08 (1.29) 4.11 (1.02) 3.95 (1.39) 4.03 (1.22) B ***
4.43 (1.16) 4.17 (0.86) 4.31 (1.03) 4.82 (0.95) 4.87 (1.06) 4.84 (0.99) 4.61 (1.08) 4.48 (1.00) 4.55 (1.04)
4.31 (0.98) 4.00 (1.20) 4.15 (1.10) 4.43 (1.17) 4.40 (1.29) 4.42 (1.22) 4.37 (1.07) 4.20 (1.25) 4.28 (1.16)
Believer 2.53 (1.68) 2.44 (1.20) 2.48 (1.42) 3.75 (1.33) 3.55 (1.70) 3.65 (1.51) 3.23 (1.59) 3.03 (1.57) 3.12 (1.57) B ***
Nonbeliever 4.19 (1.36) 3.28 (1.41) 3.77 (1.44) 4.53 (0.87) 4.73 (1.16) 4.63 (1.01) 4.34 (1.17) 3.94 (1.48) 4.15 (1.33) S *
3.50 (1.70) 2.86 (1.36) 3.18 (1.56) 4.11 (1.20) 4.06 (1.59) 4.08 (1.39) 3.81 (1.49) 3.45 (1.58) 3.63 (1.54)
Western Sample (n = 130) Chinese Sample (n = 128)
Rogers, Soule / Cross-Cultural Difference in the Barnum Effect 11
the relationship between each group’s reported knowledge of astrology and their degree of
Barnum acceptance. Analyses for the Western sample revealed a single significant, positive
correlation between knowledge of astrology and accuracy for other ratings (r = .28, p < .05,
n = 82), with more knowledgeable Westerners perceiving Barnum profiles to be more accu-
rate for other people in general. For the Chinese sample, significant and positive correla-
tions were found between astrological knowledge and both profile tone (r = .23, p < .05,
n = 80) and “astrology works” (r = .32, p < .005, n = 80) ratings, with more knowledgeable
Chinese respondents perceiving profiles to be more positive and as providing more evi-
dence that astrology works. All other correlations were nonsignificant. To compare the
comparative strength of these correlations across the two samples, Pearson’s (r) correla-
tions were subjected to Fisher Z transformations followed by independent samples t tests.
Results confirmed that Westerners’ reported knowledge of astrology was just as strongly
associated with accuracy for others, profile tone, and “astrology works” ratings as they
were for Chinese respondents.
Correlations With Time Spent in the United Kingdom,
Europe, and/or the United States
Finally, no significant correlation was found between the length of time Chinese
respondents had spent studying in the United Kingdom and either their accuracy-for-self or
their accuracy-for-other ratings. Because of small numbers (n = 2), corresponding trends
for living in Europe and/or America were not analyzed.
Previous studies (e.g., French et al., 1991/1998; Glick et al., 1989; Sosis, Strickland, &
Hakey, 1980) have assessed belief in astrology using only a one- or a two-item measure.
Unlike these, the present study is the first to incorporate a psychometrically sound, multi-
ple-item measure of astrological belief. Several interesting findings emerged.
First, having controlled for four potential covariates (i.e., gender, age, general educa-
tional attainment, and psychological awareness), Chinese respondents were found to have
just as strong astrological beliefs as Western respondents. This unexpected finding is con-
trary to previous claims that Chinese nationals are more likely to endorse the existence of
paranormal phenomena than are people from other cultures (McClenon, 1988, 1990, 1993,
1994). It is possible that having studied in the United Kingdom for just longer than 20
months, the present Chinese sample was more “Westernized” and thus may have developed
a more skeptical view of astrology than those in previous studies. The possibility that
Chinese students here may be atypical of Chinese nationals is recognized throughout the
remainder of this discussion.
Second, respondents generally perceived their (fake) astrological profile to be at least
moderately accurate in describing their own personality. In line with early Barnum studies
(e.g., Forer, 1949; Stachnik & Stachnik, 1980), these findings suggest that respondents in
the present study were generally susceptible to the Barnum effect. But early studies gener-
ally failed to distinguish between measures of self versus other accuracy, relying on just the
12 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
former as a less stringent measure of Barnum acceptance. Preliminary (t test) analysis of
current data suggests that profiles were seen to be a better description of oneself than of
other people and that profiles were seen as being uniquely accurate for oneself (cf. French
et al., 1991/1998). However, when respondents’ gender, age, general education, and psy-
chological awareness were all controlled for (via mixed ANCOVA), this perceived unique-
ness disappeared. Thus, with a more stringent definition of the Barnum effect, and all other
things being equal, it seems respondents were able to recognize the universality of their
(fake) astrological profiles. These conflicting results cast some doubt on the general robust-
ness of the Barnum effect (Dickson & Kelly, 1985; Furnham & Schofield, 1987; Thiriart,
1991; Tyson, 1982) and suggest that Barnum acceptance is affected by at least some demo-
graphic factors (cf. Synder et al., 1977). Findings also suggest that Barnum profiles might
be accepted as accurate descriptions of the self because they actually do apply to everyone
(Bayne, 1980; French et al., 1991/1998; Snyder & Larsen, 1972). Future research needs to
reexamine the extent to which Barnum profiles are accepted as accurate self-descriptions
over and above the rejection of other person descriptions (cf. Johnson et al., 1985). In the
meantime, all subsequent discussion of “Barnum acceptance” reflects the less stringent
measurement, namely, perceived accuracy for the self (alone), as used often in previous
research (e.g., Forer, 1949; Stachnik & Stachnik, 1980).
Third, astrological believers deemed a Barnum profile supposedly derived from astrology
to be a better description of their own personality than did astrological skeptics. This was true
regardless of respondent’s ethnicity and/or apparent profile source. These trends are consist-
ent with the view that Barnum acceptance is influenced by prior beliefs and top-down
processing (French et al., 1991/1998; Glick et al., 1989). Similarly, believers also judged
Barnum profiles to be more helpful, to be more favorable, and to offer more support for the
validity of astrology. This reinforces still further the view that individuals who endorse astro-
logical beliefs are prone to judging the legitimacy and usefulness of horoscopes according to
their a priori expectations (Dean, 1991; Fichten & Sunerton, 1983; Munro & Munro, 2000).
Fourth, but contrary to expectations, Chinese respondents were just as accepting of a fake
astrological (Barnum) profile as were Westerners. This finding has several implications. First,
it is consistent with the aforementioned lack of group differences in astrological belief.
Second, it is consistent with previous evidence that Japanese and Japanese American students
are just as prone to Barnum acceptance as Caucasian American students (Diamond & Bond,
1974). Third, it suggests that these cross-cultural consistencies apply not only to Barnum
profiles supposedly derived from psychological testing (Diamond & Bond, 1974) but also to
those supposedly derived from astrology. Finally, Chinese respondents were just as prone to
Barnum acceptance regardless of how much time they had spent studying, and thus becoming
Westernized, at a British university. This suggests Barnum acceptance is immune to the
effects of accultualization
[AQ: 3] (see Berry, Poortinga, Segall, & Dasen, 2002).
Fifth, Chinese believers rated a Barnum profile supposedly derived from Chinese astrol-
ogy to be just as accurate in describing their own personality as a profile supposedly
derived from Western astrology. Similar nonsignificant trends were also found for
Westerners. Thus, contrary to expectations, believers were just as accepting of a Barnum
profile supposedly derived from their own culture as they were of one supposedly derived
from an alien culture. This was despite several theoretical differences between the two
Rogers, Soule / Cross-Cultural Difference in the Barnum Effect 13
astrological systems (see footnote 2). In sum, it seems Barnum acceptance across cultures
extends to Chinese recipients and exists regardless of the alleged assessment procedure
and/or the apparent cultural source of profiles. Future research should explore whether
cross-cultural similarities exist for other ethnic groups (e.g., Afro-Caribbean, Asian,
Hispanic) and/or for profiles purportedly derived from other sources (e.g., graphology or
Interestingly, although Chinese believers and nonbelievers did not differ in their percep-
tions of how accurate Barnum profiles were of their own personality, the former did per-
ceive profiles to be a more accurate description of other people in general. It seems Chinese
believers failed to recognize the vagueness and generality of fake astrological profiles to a
greater extent than Chinese skeptics. Such differences were not found for corresponding
Westerners and, further, were irrespective of apparent profile source. This is ironic, given
that Chinese horoscopes, which are derived from less specific birth data (cf. footnote 2),
really ought to be more generic. One interpretation is that Chinese believers maintained
particularly robust stereotypes about other peoples’ characters, which may in turn reflect a
greater susceptibility to two psychosocial processes, namely, (a) the strong expectancy
effects that underpin all belief in astrology (Munro & Munro, 2000) combined with
(b) societal pressures toward norm compliance and the suppression of individuality, which
are intrinsic of collectivist cultures, such as China’s (Nelson et al., 2004; Shiraev & Levy,
2007). More research is needed to explore this possibility.
Sixth, Chinese respondents also judged Barnum profiles to be more helpful and more sup-
portive of the validity of astrology than did Westerners. Surprisingly, this was regardless of
Chinese respondents’ degree of belief in astrology. Thus, in partial support of hypotheses, it
seems Chinese nationals—even those comparatively skeptical of astrology—were more open to
at least the possibility of astrology being a useful and valid tool for assessing personality. The
additional finding that Chinese respondents had received a greater number of full astrology
readings from a practicing astrologer than had Westerners supports this view.
There are several plausible explanations for these data. First, the median split in BIAQ
ratings meant some Chinese nonbelievers really ought to have been labeled low believers
in astrology. But this argument is weakened if one considers the same biases ought to apply
to Westerners, too. Alternatively, findings may simply reflect the tendency for Chinese
societies to endorse a more esoteric or metaphysical worldview (McClenon, 1988, 1990)
and/or make key decisions based on the Chinese zodiac (e.g., Yip et al., 2002). Third, it is
possible that Chinese respondents scored higher on some third mediating factor, such as
locus of control (Rotter, 1966). Previous studies suggest that people from non-Western
societies tend to have a more pronounced external locus of control and thus see events as
being caused by outside forces, such as fate or destiny (Shiraev & Levy, 2007). Given that
an external locus of control is also associated with stronger astrological beliefs (Sosis et al.,
1980) and a greater susceptibility to Barnum acceptance (Snyder & Larsen, 1972; Snyder
& Shenkel, 1976), current trends might reflect a tendency for Chinese respondents to
be particularly extreme in their external attributions. Similar considerations might also be
given to private self-consciousness, which tends to be lower in collectivist cultures
(Triandis, 1989) and is also associated with the acceptance of false personality feedback
14 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
Seventh, the two groups did not differ in their reported knowledge of astrology, with
both claiming they could at least name the 12 (sun) signs of the zodiac. Westerners who
reportedly had more knowledge of—as opposed to belief in—astrology subsequently
judged their fake astrological (Barnum) profile to be more accurate of people generally than
did Westerners who reported less knowledge of astrology. By comparison, Chinese
respondents claiming more knowledge saw profiles as being more positive. Taken together,
these data offer partial support for the claim that one’s assumed knowledge of astrology is
no protection against misperceiving the generality of Barnum profiles (cf. French et al.,
1991/1998). Furthermore, the lack of sample group differences in the strength of these
associations suggests that this applies to recipients regardless of their cultural background.
Finally, the length of time Chinese nationals spent studying in the United Kingdom had
little impact on their perceptions of Barnum profiles. The implication here is that Chinese
nationals’ susceptibility to such misperceptions is robust enough to withstand exposure to
Western, or at least British, culture.
Several methodological limitations are worthy of mention. First, as noted above, the
Barnum effect was only present when respondent gender, age, general education, and psy-
chological knowledge were not controlled for. This was surprising (cf. Furnham &
Schofield, 1987) and suggests that more research is needed to explore to the impact these
demographic factors have on Barnum acceptance.
Second, the current Chinese sample may have been atypical compared to Chinese
nationals living in China. Furthermore, a rather crude measure of acculturation (time spent
in the United Kingdom) was used to explore levels of cross-cultural transmission. Future
studies should compare Westerners with Chinese recipients unexposed to Western culture
or use a more sensitive measure of how Chinese nationals integrate into Western culture.
Third, Barnum profiles and/or questionnaires may have suffered from limitations in cross-
cultural equivalence, a necessary condition for cross-cultural validity (Chen, Snyder &
Krichbaum, 2002; van de Vijver & Tanzer, 2004). According to van de Vijver and Tanzer
(2004), equivalence can be compromised by the inappropriate translation of culture-specific
terms (“item bias”); cross-cultural differences in the definition, associated behaviors, or cover-
age of construct domains (“construct bias”); or from the use of culturally incomparable sam-
ples and/or variation in instrument familiarity (“method bias”). In the present study, three
profile terms (i.e., affable, wary, and reserved) were back-translated from Chinese to English
with slightly different, albeit conceptually similar, interpretation (i.e., as courteous, suspicious,
and conservative, respectively), suggesting that item equivalence was not perfect. It is possible
these minor item biases had undue influence on Barnum acceptance. Similarly, it is possible
some of the psychological constructs described in a standard Barnum profile (e.g., pride, affa-
bility) were conceptually different for Western versus Chinese respondents. For example,
people living in collectivist cultures tend to generate more group-centric descriptions of self-
hood (Shiraev & Levy, 2007), place more emphasis on moral attributes (Cheng & Watkins,
2000), and associate shame with aspects of family life (Stipek, 1998) more than those living
in individualistic cultures. Future studies should ensure construct equivalence by modifying
Rogers, Soule / Cross-Cultural Difference in the Barnum Effect 15
Barnum profiles accordingly (see Zhang, Oian, & Yuling, 2003). Finally, because Chinese
respondents were recruited via seminars and Westerners via lectures, it is possible group dif-
ferences in class size may have affected Barnum ratings (e.g., via socially desirable respond-
ing), thus leading to some degree of method biases (cf. van de Vijver & Tanzer, 2004). Future
research should account for this.
A final methodological limitation concerns respondents’ focus on their own astrological
system. Although the present study manipulated the apparent profile source by providing a
brief historical overview of either Western or Chinese astrology (Stage 1) and by labeling
the Barnum profile accordingly (Stage 2), other BIAQ items did not differentiate between
the two astrological systems. It may be that respondents given an alien profile may have
answered their belief and knowledge items with their own astrological system in mind. As
such, future cross-cultural studies of astrology and/or the Barnum effect should provide
culture-specific instructions and questionnaire items where appropriate.
Summary and General Conclusion
Findings from the present study offer little support for cross-cultural differences in either
astrological beliefs or susceptibility to the Barnum effect. Contrary to expectations, no
evidence was found to suggest that the apparent cultural source of profiles has any impact
on Barnum susceptibility, with respondents just as accepting of a fake astrological horo-
scope supposedly derived from their own, as opposed to an alien, culture. Interestingly,
Chinese respondents were more optimistic of the perceived value and validity of their pro-
files, which presumably reflected their greater ignorance of its universality. Finally, results
suggest that the Barnum effect is influenced by the recipient’s gender, age, general educa-
tion, and psychological awareness, as least for profiles presented as a (fake) horoscope.
Future studies should reexamine the robustness of the Barnum effect in relation to these
demographic factors and, furthermore, establish whether current findings extend to other
ethnic groups and/or to Barnum profiles supposedly derived from other sources.
The Fake Astrology (Barnum) Profile
Your Western [Chinese] Astrology Profile
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable and sociable, while
at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing
yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept opinions without
satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed
in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right
decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the
inside. While you have some personal weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have
a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be
critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you. (from
French, Fowler, McCarthy, & Peers, 1991/1998; previously adapted from Forer, 1949)
16 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology
1. How accurately does this profile describe you personally? [“accuracy for self”]
2. How helpful will this profile be to your everyday life? [“profile helpfulness”]
3. How positive was the content of this profile overall? [“profile tone”]
4. How accurately does this profile describe people in general? [“accuracy for others”]
5. How much does this profile support the claim that astrology works? [“astrology works”]
1. Genuine horoscopes include characteristics traditionally associated with a particular sun sign (e.g., a
courageous Leo, an optimistic Sagittarian; see Diagram Group, 1993; White, 1993) regardless of the validity of
astrology. By comparison, false horoscopes include characteristics not traditionally associated with a given sign
(e.g., a cowardly Leo, a pessimistic Sagittarian), whereas a fake horoscope refers, simply, to a standard Barnum
profile (see French, Fowler, McCarthy, & Peers, 1991/1998).
2. Like Western astrology, Chinese astrology includes 12 zodiac signs, although the names and hieroglyphs
differ. Several other differences also exist. In Western astrology, an individual’s sun or zodiac sign is determined
by the precise time, date, year, and place of birth, whereas in Chinese astrology, this is determined solely by
the year in which a person is born. Thus, Chinese horoscopes are by definition more generic at least in terms
of to whom they apply. Second, Western astrology reflects the solar year (orbits of the earth around the sun),
whereas Chinese astrology reflects the lunar year (orbits of the moon around the earth). Third, Western astrol-
ogy incorporates four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), compared to Chinese astrology’s five (earth, fire,
water, wood, and metal). Finally, unlike Western astrology, Chinese astrology also incorporates two opposing
but complementary forces of yin (masculine) and yang (feminine), which, it is claimed, influence all other
aspects of the zodiac (see Giles & Diagram Group, 2000; White, 1993). These differences are assumed to be of
little relevance to the present study.
3. The Western sample comprised mainly Caucasian respondents (92.1%), with the Chinese sample consist-
ing of Chinese nationals studying English as a Foreign Language. To avoid ethnic ambiguities, respondents who
either (a) were in the Western sample but who indicated having a Chinese or other Asian (e.g., Indian, Pakistani)
ethnicity, (b) were in the Chinese group but who indicated they were of non-Chinese origin, or (c) failed to state
a specific ethnic origin were all removed from the data set. As such, the term Westerner hereafter refers to
Caucasian respondents of predominantly British origin. Finally, any respondents who stated they had taken part
in previous studies of astrology were also removed. In all, 24 of the 365 individuals initially sampled were
omitted for these reasons.
4. Virtually all questionnaire and profile terms were back-translated into their original English format, with
only three original profile terms (affable, wary, and reserved) translated differently (as courteous, suspicious,
and conservative, respectively). Given the conceptual similarity of these terms, Chinese translations were
5. This is justified on two counts: first, because fewer Western (n = 83) and Chinese (n = 82) respondents
returned useable Belief in Astrology Questionnaires (BIAQ) at Stage 2, and second, because respondents were
new to the study at Stage 1 and thus were deemed less likely to give socially desirable responses.
6. Respondents’ levels of psychological awareness was a significant and positive covariate for Stage 1 BIAQ,
F(1, 222) = 7.27, p = .008, eta
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Paul Rogers has completed a BA (Hons) in economics and social policy and administration (University of
Canterbury, 1985 to 1988), an MSc in experimental psychology (University of Sussex, 1991 to 1992), an MSc
in psychological research methods (University of Exeter, 1994 to 1996), and a PhD in psychology (University
of Hertfordshire, 1997 to 2001). He has worked at the University of Central Lancashire since 2002, first as a
lecturer, and since 2007, as a senior lecturer in psychology. His research interests include the psychology of
belief in the paranormal, the Barnum effect, self-perceived intuitiveness, psychological factors underlying lot-
tery play, and child sexual abuse blame attributions.
Janice Soule graduated with a BSc in psychology (University of Central Lancashire, 2003 to 2006). In that
time, she worked as a volunteer research assistant on several psychology studies and is currently undertaking
an MA in social work at the University of Lancaster.