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Flaws in Reasoning and Arguments: Subjective Validation

Seeing Patterns & Connections That Aren't Really There

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Subjective Validation is also sometimes called the “personal validation effect” because it refers to a process by which people accept some claim or phenomenon as valid based solely upon a few personal experiences and/or subjective perception. In practice, this error is cited when a person perceives two independent events as having some sort of deeper, hidden relationship because of that person’s prior beliefs, expectations or hypotheses about the world.

According to the premises from which this person interprets the world, such a relationship must necessarily exist, and so the person will find a way to explain the data in terms of the assumed relationship. This subjective validation is often accompanied by Confirmation Bias whereby the person weighs the supporting data much more heavily than information which might cast doubt upon their beliefs.

This subjective validation is generally at the heart of people’s reports of the experience of paranormal phenomena. For example, when it comes to readings by astrologers or psychics, a person will quickly focus on and remember the “hits” or accurate statements, but forget and ignore the “misses,” or inaccurate statements. In this manner, the person has subjectively validated their preconception that there exists some sort of astrological or psychic connection between things in the universe.

Subjective validation is also sometimes used to describe how people can become overconfident about their prejudices and pet ideas. Essentially, we talk ourselves into believing that we are right even when the evidence at hand should convince us that we are wrong — or at least that the case for our position isn’t very sound. It could be said that we “know” better, but our desires are so powerful that they override our better sense.

This, in turn, can lead us into all sorts of problems when it comes time to actually defend our position in the face of challenges and questions posed by others who are not emotionally or psychologically wedded to the idea that our claims must be true. We might become economical with the truth, we might avoid certain questions, and we might even engage in general rationalization of our position.

Another common name for subjective validation is “The Forer Effect,” named after psychologist B.R. Forer. He discovered in experiments with his undergraduate students in 1948 that a person can be quite willing to accept some general or vague description of their personality as being unique to them, even though the exact same description would apply equally well (or equally badly) to everyone.

In his experiment, Forer gave a personality test to his students and then, without bothering to even read them, gave back a general personality analysis — the exact same one to each student, taken from a newspaper astrology column. He asked his students to rate his analysis and received an overwhelmingly positive response — his students were convinced that he could “read” their personalities. The same or similar experiments have been performed repeatedly through the decades in a vareity of contexts, and the results continue to be the same.

Why does the Forer Effect operate? Various explanations have been offered, from human gullibility to ignorance to plain wishful thinking. It does, however, seem to provide a basis for understanding people’s acceptance of things like astrology, graphology, divination and other pseudosciences.

The best way to deal with someone whose claims rely upon subjective validation is to point out that what they really need is independent validation and confirmation. Independent evidence from some source that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome would be particularly useful. An experiment which could disconfirm the belief would also be very good. If such things cannot be provided, then it is reasonable to point out that the belief isn’t very rational.

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