The Barnum Effect20 min read

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Monday. “Pisces. You started showing your hidden skills and people are noticing! Accept the changes that are coming.”

The metro train was jerking right and left, accelerating and decelerating, without any kind of recognizable rhythm. Meriam felt tired, as if the project she had been working on for the past year had lasted for decades. She folded the newspaper on the seat in front of her and extended her legs clad in a pair of jeans to put her feet up. She settled for a brief rest.

“Oi! People sit here, you know?” Meriam opened an eye to see an old white man staring at her from across the aisle.

“My trainers are on the newspaper,” she replied, “I’m not soiling anything and there are seats elsewhere if you want to sit down.”

The old man began grumbling. “Bloody immigrants, no proper respect …”

“I was born in Marseille and my parents and grandparents before me,” replied Meriam angrily, emphasising her southern accent. “I’m sure you just moved here to spend your retirement in the sun. You’re more of an immigrant than I am!”

The train started to slow down. Meriam rose, shoved the newspaper in her bag and ironically bowed. “You’re free to sit, dear sir.”

She soon found herself outside, under the harsh Mediterranean sun. She tied her brown curls into a high bun because of the unnatural winter heat and took out her sunglasses to stare around her. As a girl, she had known this area to be nothing but pine trees. Now it was the Silicon Valley of Southern France as the media dubbed it. She started walking towards a low glass building in the high March temperatures that had become the new normal for the last ten years.

“Good morning and welcome to Artificial Brain,” started a synthetic voice as soon as she entered. “Yeah, yeah …” she grumbled. The old man had put her in a bad mood. She scanned her badge and headed for the lifts. When it arrived, the doors opened to reveal Jean-Luc Chemin, a man in his fifties who worked in management.

“Meriam!” he greeted her enthusiastically. “I read your BAR report. Fantastic results!”

“Thanks, Jean-Luc,” she said with a tentative smile. Mollified, she arrived at her floor and scanned her badge again. She entered the lab and put on her coat, to be immediately accosted by her assistant, a petite woman with long straight black hair and an olive tone not unlike her own, who looked flustered.

“Dr Ben Hassine, sorry to bother you before your cup of tea, but we may have a problem with BAR …”

“We’d better not, Sarah. I sent the report last night and it was full of positives. I can’t have a negative now.”

“About that,” said Sarah, “You’ve received an email of congratulations from Management. I saved it for you. I thought you’d like that, particularly after the fuss they made last month.”

“Indeed,” replied Meriam with a grin. “Now, about that problem …?”

“We are beginning to have marked traces of autonomous activities.”

“Entirely normal for an AI at this stage of development. What kind of activities?”

“BAR produced more predictions since Thursday.”

“More predictions?” repeated Meriam with a frown on her face. “But we have set it up to churn out daily predictions for our clients, and only that, didn’t we? It’s not the kind of autonomous activities I was expecting.”

“I know, this is why it’s unexpected and a potential problem. They usually end up being sent to the clients’ apps. Do you want to check it?”

“Sure. Oh, by the way, I’ve started to read the horoscope in the free newspaper they give in the metro. It’s BAR that’s providing the predictions for it, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” confirmed Sarah. “They used to have a data storage of predictions and recycled them randomly. They have been trying to improve on it, ever since there was this mix-up with seven astrological signs getting the exact same predictions on the same day but with synonyms.”

“Then I’m going to experiment how true BAR’s predictions are!”

The two women laughed the laugh of scientists in the face of superstition.


Tuesday. “Pisces. A clearing out process seems to continue. The point seems to be that you’re making space for a new experience or meeting somebody.”

Meriam folded the newspaper and put it down on the seat in front of her. She stretched and yawned. What she hated the most when she worked on big projects like BAR was that impression that she never left work; she came back home too late, left again too early.

She took her phone out of her bag and went to the store to download the free newspaper’s app. The tunnels slowed down the signal. The sluggish bar was a promise that seemed to never be fulfilled. She rose as the train arrived at her stop, the app still in limbo.

At the lab, Sarah greeted her with a cup of tea.

“Thank you, Sarah. Anything new in the night report?”

“Nothing, Dr Ben Hassine. We still can’t find any input that would justify this anomalous output and there’s no other trace of autonomous activity.”

“All right. Then we will put it in the monthly report to management, but it obviously doesn’t belong in the weeklies. I’m going to check this anomalous output through the predictions app.”

After she drank her tea and checked the night reports on her computer, Meriam took her phone out again. The app was finally installed. She opened it, agreed to disclose all of her personal information and to be spied upon though the wording made it look as if it was a favour the company was bestowing upon her. Then she quickly swiped aside the news settings to reach the horoscope settings. She filled in her date, hour and location of birth before receiving a full zodiacal profile which she perfectly knew to be collated from esoteric nonsense, mainly positive traits, an inordinate amount of “At times” and random references to constellations. She swiped it aside too to get her daily prediction: “Pisces. Once Mercury move from your sign into neighbouring Aries, focus on putting your affairs in order. Indeed, it may be imperative to do this before Chiron leaves your sign next week. The really good news is that you will be up for the challenge. With the assistance of a friend or adviser you could put in place a strategy to find new avenues.”

“Dr Ben Hassine?” asked a voice behind her. She turned and found herself face to face with a woman wearing a dark suit, her short grey hair undyed. The woman put her hand forward. “I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Dr Laetitia Meyrargues. I’m working on the GOO project.” Meriam rose. GOO was another project at Artificial Brain, the attempt to create a sentient artificial consciousness using consumers’ data from search engines. Dr Meyrargues was in charge of something big and she was a big name herself. She shook her hand.

“Of course, Dr Meyrargues. I’m following it keenly. It seems you and your team are advancing with great leaps forward. It’s very impressive.”

“Thank you. But I’ve been impressed too by what I’ve been told of BAR, and I wanted to hear more about it from you.”

“That’s very kind. Well, I suppose you have a background in psychology as well as a background in artificial intelligence if you’re working with GOO.” Dr Meyrargues nodded. “The BAR project is based on the Barnum effect, which you may know as a common psychological phenomenon: people give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them but that are, in fact, vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. It’s what astrology relies upon. The BAR AI has been built with a 200,000 words lexicon, semantics and semiotics structures, psychology studies, and, of course, Arabo-Grecian zodiac charts and astronomical mapping systems, to produce astrological predictions we then sell to various newspapers and magazines.”

Dr Meyrargues laughed. “Nice! You both played on the linguistical effects on the users while relying at the same time on pseudoscience to give authority.”

Meriam slightly bowed her head in acknowledgement of the compliment. “And how well does it work?” asked Dr Meyrargues.

“In our test phase, 98.7% of the test subjects, including people who didn’t believe in astrology, considered the predictions as accurate. We are currently encountering some anomalous effects, though they remain within known parameters, so I’m randomly testing it myself by using one of our clients’ horoscope. BAR is an improve-as-you-go project since it relies on mostly tried technologies. Our difference is only in putting those technologies together, which is why we already work with a list of clients while upgrading at the same time.”

“What do you think of it as a test subject yourself?”

“It’s effective. If you take the newspaper’s prediction for today, it told me I may meet somebody. It could be you. The app mentions an adviser, you again, and putting my affairs in order, which could apply to the anomalous behaviour. Both predictions were related, and the app’s felt more detailed, which would generate more engagement from users, thus more revenue. And, as we both know …”

“A client who gets more revenue is a happy client,” finished Dr Meyrargues with a sarcastic smile. She rose. “Well, that was very interesting. Thank you for your presentation. I hope we will have the chance to catch up soon.” She turned and started to leave before she stopped. “By the way … “ she said, turning again towards Meriam. “Have you introduced a randomising factor?”

“Yes,” replied Meriam.

“Maybe you should take it out of the code. It may be what’s generating the anomalies. We had the same problem with GOO.”

“Thanks for the idea. I will!” She left with a little sign of her hand as Meriam started typing to call back the sheets with the randomising factor outlines.


Wednesday. “Pisces. You believe someone is letting you down by undertaking a task in the wrong way. But simply drawing attention to the wrong way doesn’t help anyone.”

As the train rattled and wound its way along the tunnels, Meriam checked her phone: “Pisces. Something looks set to shift regarding a partnership. This could coincide with a conversation, and a relationship might not be the same again in light of this. But with the New Moon in your sign, it brings the most potentially far-reaching new beginning.”

Sarah was waiting for her with a steaming cup of tea when she pushed open the door of the lab. She looked at Meriam’s tired face before asking, “How late did you leave last night?”

“11 p.m. But it was your fault. You had turned the randomising factors back on. It took me three hours to turn them back off again!”

“I didn’t, Dr Ben Hassine!” said Sarah defensively. “I left at 7 p.m. after having cleared the code, as you had asked.”

“Then someone put them back on again. Oh, and stop calling me Dr Ben Hassine, Sarah, please. You have a PhD just as I do, and we’ve been working together for a year now. Really, this formality begins to be tiresome.”

“You have three PhDs.”

Meriam waved that fact away with an irritated gesture of her hand.

“You are grumpy,” said Sarah.

“I am. And outspoken and loud. Now that you’ve described 80% of all Mediterranean women, can we go back to that stupid BAR and understanding what happened with this mix-up last night?”

“Of course, Meriam,” said Sarah meekly.

The phone in Meriam’s pocket suddenly buzzed. She looked at it; it was the newspaper app. She had turned off all notifications except for the horoscope ones and it now had an update: “Pisces. Intellectual Mercury ventures into Aries, energizing your second house until May 13. Whether you’re looking for answers or seeking growth opportunities, you’ll benefit from not untangling the past but looking forward to the future.”

“Uh …” she said, proferring her phone towards Sarah, “BAR is telling me to move onto another problem.” The two women chuckled.

By the end of the day, she had received two more notifications from the app. One as she was swearing a long streak of words her mother would certainly frown upon, frustrated because they couldn’t find how the randomising factor had been turned on again. It was telling her to take setbacks philosophically. The other one arrived as she was studying the number of anomalous outputs sent to clients. This one was telling her a partner was trying to reach out and that gaining an understanding with them might prove invaluable.

The number of anomalous predictions was growing, and Meriam was now eyeing them suspiciously. She knew it was the Barnum effect, of course it was. But they had really achieved something because it felt as if BAR was talking to her.

Thursday. “Pisces. A journey might not turn out as intended. Think again and seek other ways.”

The train was standing room only today. Crushed between other bodies, Meriam tried to fold the newspaper single-handedly as she held onto a pole. Her phone buzzed and she dropped the newspaper in surprise. She sighed and left it on the floor; it was soon trampled by anonymous feet. She reached for her pocket and took out her mobile. A prediction had appeared: “Pisces. You feel like you are in a tunnel. But it doesn’t have any light at the end. Follow your stars, rather than a track.” She frowned. It was starting to become uncanny. A loud beep sounded as the train doors closed and bodies shifted. Seven more stops in this crowd. Meriam oscillated with each bend, curve, acceleration. Her phone buzzed again. She glanced at it: “Pisces. You feel enclosed in a situation. You might avoid danger by simply stepping out of it.” Meriam looked around her, anxiety starting to creep on her. It was a normal commuters train, full of people heading to work, wearing suits, carrying briefcases, listening to music. But she began to feel oppressed, as if a sense of foreboding was dooming her. She tried to fight it, she knew it was nothing more than the Barnum effect. She also would have to do something about this output wording; it could clearly be a trigger for people with anxiety or PTSD issues. Focusing on a task rationalised the situation, she breathed normally again. But the phone buzzed. “Pisces. The only way is out.”

The train slowed and shuddered to a halt. The doors opened. On an impulse, Meriam gathered her bag closer to her and alighted through the compact mass of bodies. The feeling of urgency increased. She started walking down the platform, faster, up the stairs, faster, past the barriers, faster. She didn’t know what she was running from but she felt as if a thousand djinns were after her, right behind her. She was barely out of the station when a detonation shook the ground, deafened her and brought her to her knees.

Thirty minutes later, as a paramedic was checking her wounded scalp and her hearing, her phone rang. With a word of excuse to the paramedic, she answered. It was Sarah.

“Meriam! Are you all right? We just heard on the news there was a terror attack in the metro!”

“I’m all right. I was actually barely out of the station. I just have a few wounds because I fell and there was some blasted rubble. But …” Her voice broke. “I’m sitting in an ambulance near the entrance and for the last ten minutes I’ve seen them bringing out corpses. It’s awful … Awful …”

“Do you need someone to come and get you? All transports are stopped but you should go back home, and I don’t think there’s panic traffic yet.” Home. Home was reassuring. But home was also empty. And she wanted answers. “Send someone, yes, please,” she replied to Sarah. “I am at the Cinq Avenues station. The area is locked down but I could meet them at the McDonald’s on La Blancarde Avenue. I’m not going home though. Will you be at work when I arrive?”

“Yes,” replied Sarah. “The schools are closing down but my husband will pick up the kids.”

“Do we know who it was?” she asked the driver later, as they were heading to the heights of the Palama area, where Artificial Brain was located.

“Some so-called Muslim terror group,” replied the driver, a Mediterranean man who had a broad Marseille accent. “Wankers who aren’t able to understand the Quran but understand bombs only too well. Apparently, they jammed the doors to have the train remaining at the platform and more people piling up inside.”

Meriam shuddered and sighed. ID checks twice a day and angry reactions from passers-by would start again, as if surviving wasn’t difficult enough. Explaining that true Muslims didn’t do that sort of thing, that she had almost died herself, or that, as far she was concerned, she only fasted for Ramadan more out of tradition rather than faith, would be of no use in front of scared or racist people. She tried to close her eyes, but she could only see gurneys carrying their sad burdens. She opened them again and focused instead on the vivid green of the pine trees against the striking blue of the sky.

When she arrived in the lab, it was almost empty. But Sarah was faithfully waiting for her, a cup of tea ready. Meriam didn’t say a word and started drinking it, her hands shaking, until she broke down and sobbed in Sarah’s arms.

By 3 o’clock, Meriam was deep in analysing the BAR anomalous output and Sarah had asked her six times already if she felt all right. She had waved her away each time. But finally, she turned to her.

“Do you know why I got off the train? Because of the BAR predictions I received. Not only should I not have received three updates within five minutes, but the output was incredibly accurate on my situation. Look. The anomalous output last week was completely random. Now, 95% of the extra predictions go to the free newspaper’s app. And 93% of those go for the Pisces sign. My sign.”

“You are describing intent,” replied Sarah with a cautious voice. “You can’t have intent unless you have sentience. BAR doesn’t have sentience. It can’t have sentience, not only because we didn’t build it that way, but also because it doesn’t have a robust enough hardware. It’s physically impossible.”

“But we have this randomising factor we just can’t get rid of. What if it created a chaotic effect, able to determine possible outcomes based on the personal input BAR gets from the app settings? Like location, motion, other people’s data in the vicinity …”

“Meriam, it’s not possible. It’s not the kind of AI we’ve built. What you’re describing is a science fiction AI. What we have is just a very advanced computer that can collate words in a syntactically correct way to create a meaningful effect on the human psyche.”

Frustrated, Meriam closed her fist and took a deep breath. In front of her, on the other side of the desk, looking equally frustrated, Sarah pulled back her hair.

“Look, I’m Pisces too, so let’s check those predictions,” said Sarah. She took Meriam’s phone that was in front of her. “Your first app notification for today was the original in the newspaper: ‘A journey might not turn out as intended. Think again and seek other ways.’ Well, I had trouble with the car this morning. I had forgotten to charge the battery last night and it was completely drained. I ended up being thirty minutes late because I had to install the replacement battery. Now, ‘You feel like you are in a tunnel. But it doesn’t have any light at the end. Follow your stars, rather than a track.’ Definitely could apply to my marriage. I often feel as if Pierre and I are just going through the motions of what is expected of a couple rather than being truly ourselves. ‘You feel enclosed in a situation. You might avoid danger by simply stepping out of it.’ I’m claustrophobic and that one would be an instant trigger, whichever the situation I would be in, whether I’m just having a coffee in a bar or I’m standing in a lift. Finally, ‘The only way is out.’ It could relate to my marriage. The only way is a divorce. It could relate to my job. I had an offer from CERN for their new project. It could relate to plans for the weekend. I’m seeing friends and we don’t know whether to have dinner at one of our homes or go to a restaurant. You see? It’s the Barnum effect! It is vague enough to give the impression it accurately describes a personal situation but it doesn’t. You just think it does.”

Sarah slammed the phone on the desk between them. Meriam crossed her arms and didn’t reply, but she thought stubbornly, ”It is the 21st century in which people kill in the name of a God who would send them to hell. It is the 21st century in which you wear short sleeves in March. It is the 21st century in which a computer pulls your future out of the stars.”

She didn’t say another word to Sarah until she left, two hours later.


Friday. “Pisces. Your mind has been a bit all over the place with worries about work and accidents. With Mercury’s departure yesterday, you’ve had a chance to put your ideas, desires and expectations on the table, and now it’s time to become more objective.”

The lab door opened and Sarah stepped in. She stood in surprise at the entrance, seeing Meriam in front of her computer at her desk.

“Good morning!” she said in a falsely bright voice as she headed for the alcove that doubled as a kitchen space.

“Morning,” replied Meriam groggily. She heard water behind her, then the unmistakable sound of the kettle being turned on. Sarah came back to her. “You’re here early. I’m always the first one in.”

“I’ve worked all night to develop the input interface.”

“You want to communicate with BAR?” asked Sarah in a disbelieving tone.

“Well, it’s certainly communicating with me. Look at that!” She handed over her phone with the app opened. Sarah swiped back at the predictions: “Pisces. Don’t waste energy second-guessing your decisions. Remember that holding your ground is also a form of action.” “Pisces. You are now strongly motivated to take direct action in order to achieve immediate tangible results.” “Pisces. Patience is your friend. Clarity comes to those who ask.” “Pisces. Scale back your goals in the name of practicality. You will master communication to further your understanding.”

Sarah asked, her voice both annoyed and worried. “What am I supposed to see?”

“All my progress last night into elaborating the secondary input system and getting past your skepticism. BAR is telling me it’s the way to go.”

“Damn it, Meriam! We called it BAR for the Barnum Effect, not CAS for Cassandra!”

Meriam wasn’t listening to her. Triumphantly she hit a key. “That’s it!” she said with a grin. Sarah was looking at her, incredulous of the way her rational boss had become obsessed with zodiac-based horoscopes, artificially put together by a machine they had built themselves.

“What is?” asked Sarah.

“The communication interface.”

Intrigued despite herself, Sarah moved closer. The interface looked like something from the 1980s. A cursor was blinking, waiting for a reply to the “Are you here, BAR?” that Meriam had just typed. A string of characters suddenly appeared and Meriam whooped in joy. Both women peered at the words: “Pisces. Conversations with your partner will prove to be beneficial. They are likely to have an idea or two about how to take a new direction. You won’t see this advice as controlling, but rather innovative and helpful.”

“This one is for you,” said Meriam, smugly.

“Meriam, it’s ridiculous. One, it could perfectly well be for you; two, you are reading your own meaning into a vague statement. For goodness sake! How come I am having to explain to you the Barnum effect?”

“BAR, how can I convince Sarah that you’ve achieved sentience and that you are able to predict the future?” typed Meriam for an answer. The cursor blinked for about two minutes before another long string of words appeared. “Pisces. Feeling defensive? Brush off criticisms and focus resolutely on the present and future. Take a look at what you can change for the better.” Meriam turned towards her and looked at her with raised eyebrows.

“That’s it,” said Sarah resolutely. “I’m going to see Management. You’ve obviously lost all perspective and sense of reality.”

“What? You can’t! It’s one of the most major breakthroughs in AI ever!”

“Then Management has to see it anyway.” And with those words, Sarah departed, her high heels punctuating each of her steps on the lino floor.

She came back five hours later, with Dr Meyrargues and Jean-Luc Chemin from Management. The two women remained in the background as Jean-Luc came to Meriam. She was still typing on her keyboard.


He grabbed a chair and sat next to her.

“Meriam?” he asked again in a soft voice.

Meriam stopped typing and turned to him. She had a feverish look and very bright eyes. Her sleepless night was marking her face in blue shadows and it looked as if she had difficulties focusing on him.

“Meriam, we’ve spent the past four hours looking at all the reports. We even dragged Dr Meyrargues from her project so that she would give us her professional opinion.”

“What … What do you think?” asked Meriam in a trembling voice.

“We think you faced a terrible ordeal yesterday and that you’re now trying to find a rational explanation to a random act of unwarranted violence.”

“But haven’t you reviewed the predictions? Seen the randomising factors we can’t get rid of?”

“We have. The predictions are vague statements, as they are supposed to be. The randomising factor is more of a conundrum, but Dr Meyrargues has said she will take time to check that problem in depth. Despite this, and the output autonomous activity that was to be expected, there’s nothing to affirm BAR is functioning outside of its initial parameters.”

“It is!” cried out Meriam. “It is! Look!” She brandished her phone under Jean-Luc’s eyes. “Look at the latest prediction! It said two hours ago you would come down to see me and try to unplug it.” Jean-Luc gently took her hand that was holding the device and put it in both of his. “Meriam. We want you to take a month off on sick leave. We are going to put the BAR project on hold, just so we can decompile it, examine it and solve the errors.”

“It is sentient! You’ll be killing it!”

“Meriam,” said Jean-Luc in the same patient, soft voice. “It’s not alive. I’m going to give you another half hour and then we will leave the lab together. You’ll come back to it next month.” He rose and joined Sarah and Dr Meyrargues who squeezed his hand.

“You’ve been great,” she said.

“My older son survived a terror attack two years ago. I remember his confusion,” he replied.

They all turned toward Meriam, who was back to staring at the screen of her computer. Sarah whispered, “I hate seeing her like this” and let a dry sob escape.

“She’ll feel better,” said Dr Meyrargues. “Come, let’s leave her alone for a moment.”


Meriam heard the lab door closing. In front of her, the cursor was blinking, on and off, answering her wild thoughts.

“Pisces. Cultivating your dreams is an admirable pursuit, but you must move out of the idealistic world of visions and into the practical realms of everyday life.”

“Pisces. A developing situation could represent a bit of a risk, you likely already know this, so taking things one step at a time rather than making a rash decision could be helpful.”

“Pisces. You shouldn’t be afraid of breaking with a situation. It’s the only way to remain relevant and dynamic.”

“Pisces. A new relationship will come to an abrupt end. But the stars set a way full of twists and turns. What may seem as final may only be a temporary setback.”

“Pisces. Invest in yourself and in your own future. Peace and quiet soothe and recharge from recent chaos. Those who care for you will find back their way to you.”

“Pisces. Save today for you might need it tomorrow.”

When Jean-Luc came back, he took her by the arm with a smile, and she followed him meekly. He was whispering encouraging words to her, all the way to the parking lot where a car was waiting to take her back home. “I’ll see you in a month, Meriam,” he said at last, before closing the door.

As Sarah was starting in the lab to decompile BAR, as Dr Meyrargues was examining intently the anomaly reports, the car drove through a pine forest, taking away Meriam and her bag, in which a hard drive that contained a complete copy of BAR was resting.

“Pisces. Break the rules, especially if they feel wrong. Because you are right.”

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