‘Let me tell you who you really are’

Three Men in a Boat:  Has this ever happened to you? You find yourself waiting outside the doctor’s surgery and you are idly browsing through the magazines there when you come across an ad for a new medicine or medical exam. You go through the symptoms and all of a sudden it dawns on you – you have them all! OK – this is from the opening page of ‘3 Men in a Boat’, where the main character describes how he discovered he was suffering from practically every known disease (except housemaid’s knee). It is meant to be funny, but the reason we tend to smile is that we recognize the grain of truth in all this; we tend to relate everything to ourselves. And if this is true when we read some general symptoms, it is even more true when we read something about ourselves – especially if it happens to be positive. Astrologers of course know all about this – just watch this short clip…


The Forer Effect:  In 1948, psychologist R. Forer actually did an experiment resembling the one in the video. He gave his students a personality test and then an analysis – ostensibly on the basis of their responses. The analysis contained such items as ‘You have a great need for other people to like and admire you’ or ‘You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage’ or ‘At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved’. Does anything strike you about these statements? That’s right – they are true of everybody. Notice also the element of flattery in the second and the use of the key phrase ‘at times’ in the third – you simply cannot go wrong!  If they sound like the kind of stuff one might expect to find in astrology charts, that’s because they are – Forer had lifted them verbatim from an astrology book. When asked to rate how closely the description matched their character, the students gave it 4.26 out of 5! No surprises there… (Forer 1948).

There are three main reasons why this phenomenon is so powerful:

i) We are extremely self-focused. As Fine (2005) points out, the human brain is vain. We tend to relate everything that is happening to ourselves. No wonder then that when told that we are ‘kind’ for instance, we tend to think of incidents which confirm this without pausing to think whether it could equally well apply to others.

ii) We are programmed to try to find connections. Even where none exist (Ramachandran 2012 – p. 228) . Thus when we are informed that we are ‘creative’, we might for instance connect this with our ability to try out different approaches at work (which some might label as ‘resourcefulness’) rather than to our non-existent artistic propensities.

iii) We focus on ‘hits’ and ignore the ‘misses’. If told that we like ‘being with friends and having a good time’ we are likely to remember the two occasions when we went to parties and did enjoy ourselves and forget that these were the only occasions within the past decade (Gilbert 2007).

Applications in the field of ELT:   Given these all-too-human tendencies, it should be extremely easy to get people talking about themselves and others. As teachers, we can make use of this fact in order to help our learners develop their reading and speaking skills and (very importantly) help them learn all sorts of words and expressions related to personality. I have found the following activities extremely popular with my learners:

A walk in the woods: This is an amazing activity. Students listen to some instructions (see the clip below). They are then asked to make brief notes of what the scene is like and to describe various items. This is supposed to reveal something about their ‘inner self’. Then they listen to someone providing an analysis of the personality of someone who has completed this task (same clip – after 2:45). Then the students, working in pairs, analyse each other’s personality on the basis of what they heard earlier and discuss how accurate this is. Variations of this activity can easily be found on the web (e.g. here).

Graphology: Graphology is supposed to be able to deduce things about our personality on the basis of our handwriting. This task is simplicity itself. Students work in pairs. You ask each of them to write a short paragraph on a white sheet of paper (without lines). They then pass it to their partner. Once the writing is done, you give each student some short paragraphs which explain what certain elements of our handwriting reveal about us (e.g. ‘Size: large letters show seriousness and generosity’ or ‘Slant: if your writing slopes upwards it means you are ambitious and optimistic’). Students then take it in turns to interpret each other’s handwriting on the basis of the information they have got. Once again this is something one can easily find on the web (e.g. here).

Doodling: This is a similar activity, the only difference being that instead of asking someone to write something, this time they are asked to just make some doodles. The ‘expert’ then looks at these doodles and tells the other person what certain elements might mean (e.g. ‘flowers and animals might mean you are in love’ or ‘confused lines mean that you lack self-control’). Again, there are lots of such examples on the web (e.g. here) but the best version for me was one used by Gillian Porter Ladousse (1983 – pp 63-65) as students are given specific little boxes to doodle in, so the whole thing is less open-ended. The extra benefit here of course is that students love to doodle/draw!

Astrology RUAstrology: Astrology of course is the most easily used springboard. For one thing, no additional input is necessary as most people have some idea of what the most representative traits of their zodiac sign are (e.g. ‘Leo: Magnanimous, generous and dominant’ [If your class know little about such things, they can find brief descriptions here]). Students can simply take turns talking to each other about how well these traits reflect their own personality (e.g. ‘I would not say I am bossy, but I can be assertive if I have to’). One can then follow this up with a more serious discussion about how valid these descriptions are – perhaps by making use of the first clip with the Astrologer and the Psychologist. [NB: To round off the lesson one can use the brilliantly funny clip ‘Madam Zodiac’ (link here; for a handout click here)].

A word of warning:  McRaney (2012 – p. 122) relates a fascinating anecdote about the Psychologist Ray Hayman. The latter had started out as a magician and then moved on to mentalism. His specialty was ‘cold reading’ where you start off with vague generalities about the person opposite you and then depending on how they respond you fine-tune your statements so that by the end it looks like you could read them like a book, when in fact it is they who (inadvertently) provide you with all the information. So successful was Hayman and so enthusiastic was the response he got that he actually came to believe he genuinely had a gift! It was at this point that another mentalist came to his rescue. ‘Try telling them the exact opposite of what you intended to tell them’ he advised Hayman. So Hayman did and amazingly, his ‘victims’ were just as stunned by his perspicacity as they had been before! Hayman switched to science… 🙂


Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 44 (1): 118–123

Gilbert, D. “Stumbling on Happiness” Harper Perennial 2007

Ladousse, G. P. “Speaking Personally” Cambridge University Press 1983

McRaney, D. “You are not so Smart” Oneworld 2012

Personality – A walk in the woods: http://www.allthetests.com/quiz26/quiz/1264264524/True-Seasons-Personality-Test

Personality – Astrology: http://www.the12houses.com/2008/09/20/the-12-zodiac-signs-short-version/

Personality – Doodling: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2036328/What-doodles-really-say-Arrows-ambition-flowers-family.html

Personality – Graphology: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2380858/What-does-handwriting-say-Study-finds-5-000-personality-traits-linked-write.html

Ramachandran, V. S. “The Tell-Tale Brain” Windmill 2012