4 Effects Named for Famous People

By Maeve Maddox

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Among the meanings of the noun effect is this:

Any of various distinct phenomena (originally in physical science, in later use also in other technical fields and in general contexts), frequently named after the discoverer or describer, or after something or someone providing an analogy or model.

This kind of effect is always prefaced by another noun. For example, the butterfly effect: the phenomenon whereby a small change in some complex systems can have a large effect at a later time; (also) a specific instance of this phenomenon.

NOTE: The OED states that “the butterfly effect was first described in relation to meteorology.” My first encounter with the term and concept was the Ray Bradbury short story, “The Sound of Thunder” (1952), in which a time-traveler steps off a path and crushes a butterfly with his boot. When he and his companions return to their own time, subtle changes have occurred in the fabric of their world.

Here are some effects named for well-known people.

The Barnum Effect
The phenomenon that causes people to give high accuracy ratings to extremely general descriptions that are so vague they could apply to anyone, but which they feel apply especially to themselves. The Barnum Effect underlies the belief many people have in the validity of astrology, fortune-telling and personality tests. The name derives from the statement attributed to P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) that “a sucker is born every minute.”

The Ben Franklin Effect
This effect describes the apparent fact that a person who performs a favor or kindness for someone is more likely to do another favor for the recipient of the first favor than if the other person did a favor for them. The act of performing a kindness for someone causes the doer to believe they like the person for whom they have done it.

The name derives from an anecdote told by Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography. One of his rivals in the Pennsylvania legislature, a man who never even deigned to speak to Franklin, had a hard-to-get book that Franklin wanted to read. He wrote the man a note, requesting the favor of lending him the book. The man sent it right over. Franklin returned the book the following week with a thank-you note. From then on, the former rival was cordial and cooperative. He and Franklin forged a friendship that endured for the rest of their lives.

The Coolidge Effect
This phenomenon has to do with animal biology. Male animals that have lost interest in available females show renewed sexual interest whenever a new female is introduced. The term was coined by behavioral endocrinologist Frank A. Beach (1911-1988). He based the term on a joke about President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) and his wife Grace (1879-1957).

The joke:

President and Mrs. Coolidge toured an experimental government farm separately. Shown a chicken yard, Mrs. Coolidge observed a rooster mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often the rooster did this. “Dozens of times each day,” he told her. “Tell that to the President when he comes by,” she said.

When her husband visited the chicken yard, the attendant delivered the message.

“Same hen every time?” Coolidge asked.

“Oh no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.”

“Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

The Diderot Effect
This sociological effect is a two-parter:

1. Consumers buy products that align with their sense of identity. Subsequent purchases will complement products already owned.

2. Introducing a new product that deviates from those already owned can result in spiraling consumption.

The term was coined by anthropologist Grant McCracken (b. 1951), inspired by an essay by French philosopher and scholar Denis Diderot (1713-1784).

In “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” Diderot describes how the gift of a luxurious new dressing gown plunged him into debt. The beautiful scarlet robe made his other possessions look tawdry. He replaced his straw chair with a leather one. He replaced his desk with something more expensive. He even replaced prints on the wall that had previously pleased him with a set of more costly ones. He concludes with a warning: “Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain.”

Martha Mitchell Effect
This one refers to the process by which a medical professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health clinician) labels a patient’s perception of real events as delusional.

Martha Mitchell (1918-1976) was the wife of John Mitchell (1913-1988), US Attorney General during the Nixon administration. When she alleged that White House officials were engaged in illegal activities, she was portrayed as mentally unstable. Events later vindicated her allegations. Harvard psychology professor Brendan Maher (1924-2009) coined the term.

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