The 12 Things I Know About You

I know 12 things about you.

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  5. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
  6. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  7. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  8. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  9. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  10. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  11. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  12. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Was I right?

In 1948, a psychologist named Bertram Forer offered a group of psychology students a bespoke personality sketch to each student. After interviewing each undergraduate, he provided them with this list above. Forer then asked each student to rate the accuracy of the sketch from 1 to 5. In aggregate, the students scored the assessments as 4.3 - highly accurate.

Unbeknownst to the class, Forer had provided the same list of traits to each student.

Called the Forer Effect, this test exposed the human cognitive bias that fortune tellers, astrology and personality tests exploit. We will attribute high confidence, uniqueness and fidelity to descriptions of our personalities or personal situations despite their vagueness. These imprecise pronouncements are broad enough to apply to thousands and potentially millions of people.

When receiving advice for your startup, remember the Forer Effect. As content marketing has become more important, advice is constructed to take advantage of the Forer Effect to maximize this distribution, whether deliberately or not. Topics and titles with broad addressability generate more traffic and reinforce particular writing patterns. This pattern is also true in conversations.

There’s no malice involved. Rather, most advice comes from a good place, a genuine desire to help, to share and to explore collaboratively. But as I’ve learned writing this blog, experimentation and data analysis will lead authors to share those insights in the most generalizable way possible.

Parse out the portions of advice that are trenchant and uniquely applicable to your business, and disregard the fortune teller’s pronouncements. Search for the key questions instead. Your business might be similar to others in some ways, but it’s one-of-a-kind in others. Your company deserves first-principles thinking about the right way forward.

Published 2016-02-01 in


I'm a partner at Redpoint. I invest in Series A and B SaaS companies. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 18,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.


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