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Can TikTok diagnose your anxiety?
What horoscopes and mental health TikTok have in common
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7 min read
A woman’s face fills the screen. Her skin is pale, lips full, bright, blue eyes staring blankly ahead. A pulsing, sympathetic beat starts playing.
Text appears over her forehead: “what anxiety can look like”.
Against the musical backdrop, she begins acting out various symptoms as the words appear on the screen:
Zoning out. Biting nails. Biting lips/cheeks. Shaking for no reason. Feeling hot all the time.
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The video has over 2 million views.
Next up is a young man: white t-shirt, skinny jeans, backwards hat, sneakers. This time, it’s a frantic, driving drumbeat in the background.
“Signs you may have ADHD.”
Then, to the beat, he drums into the air, jumps, and points to the camera. Cut to the signs:
You have trouble waiting. You work quicker under pressure. You listen to the same song over and over again. You zone out during conversation.
The comments—thousands of them—roll in. “I think I might have it lol” “So true” “Yea I swear I do all those things everyday” “definitely got this.”
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Welcome to mental health TikTok. Here, a diagnosis lurks behind every corner, masking itself under our everyday behaviors and idiosyncrasies.
Do you sometimes feel tired at the end of a long day, even when you got plenty of sleep the night before? Depression.
Do you often forget people’s names as soon as you meet them? ADHD.
And how to know if you’re having “silent anxiety attacks”?1 Signs include “zoning out” and “fidgeting with your hands.”
Does this sound like you? Chances are, it does. That’s because it sounds like, well, everyone.
Let’s take a trip back to 1949
In 1949, a psychologist named Bertram Forer noticed something strange about so-called personality tests. They were, it seemed, always accurate. The descriptions they provided, documenting a person’s characteristics and traits, were nearly universally accepted as true by the people they described. How could this be? Could the tests possibly be so infallible? Forer suspected not.
So, he put his theory to the test in his Introduction to Psychology class. He gave his students the Diagnostic Interest Blank (DIB), a personality assessment asking a series of questions about a person’s hobbies, characteristics, and interests.
Now, imagine you’re a student in Dr. Forer’s class. You take the DIB. A week later, you get your feedback—a typed “personality sketch” with your name on it.
Here are a few of the things it says:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself
At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decisions or done the right thing.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage
While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Well, what do you think? Did Forer peg you correctly?
His students certainly thought so. When asked to rate, on a scale of 0 to 5, the accuracy with which the feedback revealed “basic characteristics of [their] personality,” nearly 90% of the students rated a 4 or a 5.
This, despite the fact that all the students’ feedback was exactly the same.2
The Barnum Effect: It’s all about us
Forer, who labeled his findings the “fallacy of personal validation,” was onto something. Decades of research and hundreds of studies later, the so-called Forer Effect is well-established.
The effect refers to our strong tendency to believe that generic information or statements, which could apply to anyone, are specifically about us.
The phenomenon is more commonly called the Barnum Effect, after the 1800s circus founder P.T. Barnum. He is famously credited for saying “A sucker is born every minute,”3 and even more famously portrayed by Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman.
Want to see the Barnum Effect in action? Just check out your horoscope.
Here, for example, is a recent horoscope for Aries:
It's time to try a new attitude or maybe an old one that fits you really well. Start looking forward enthusiastically with your awesome pioneering spirit. Your positive energy may start a ripple effect that spreads out all around you….
Family matters could be tricky now, but that won't keep you from getting involved and possibly being able to solve something that's been ignored for far too long…
It turns out, nearly everyone has been thinking about a “new attitude” or “an old one that fits [them] very well.” Same goes for “tricky family matters.” When we read these statements, we immediately search our brains for those “new attitudes” or “tricky family matters,” and lo and behold, the predictions seem to be written just for us.
That’s the Barnum Effect.
And what does this have to do with TikTok?
On social media, the Barnum effect is the bread and butter of shareable content. How do you take a video directed simultaneously at hundreds of thousands of people, and make it feel as though it applies specifically to each of them? Universal truths, packaged as individual experiences.
We see it with parenting (Does your child sometimes get upset when playtime is over?).
With viral personality quizzes (You’re Albus Dumbledore! You’re wise, quirky and very trusting. You’re loved and respected by everyone but sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself to make everything right.)4
We even see it with personalized ads (How did they know I’m looking for a new pair of brown boots to wear with my wide-leg jeans? Oh, because I am a woman in her 30s.)
And we see it with mental health TikTok.
Of course, the benefits of TikTok mental health videos—including some of those teaching “what anxiety can look like” and “signs you may have ADHD”—are considerable. They can provide much-needed information and resources. They can reduce some of the stigma around mental health. Those whose symptoms have previously gone unnoticed may recognize themselves in the videos, follow up with their doctors, and get the help they need. Others who already have a diagnosis—that’s as many as one in five people in the U.S.—may find validation, community, and a reminder that they’re not alone.
In a mental health care system that is, so often, impenetrable, confusing, and inaccessible, mental health content on TikTok can provide a bridge. It can meet people where they are at, empowering them with information and community that, for so long, has been hidden behind long wait times and expensive treatments and uncomfortable silences.
A problem arises, though, when that content misleads us. When a purported “symptom” of anxiety is, actually, just a universal, everyday experience. When the information is flawed, or the people providing it are ill-informed. When viewers, many of whom are children and teens, don’t realize that a TikTok diagnosis cannot replace treatment by a professional.
Even when we know that those who claim to be “experts” might not be, and that the information we’re absorbing with each flick of our thumbs might not be quite right, the Barnum Effect is powerful. The desire to know ourselves, to label ourselves, is fundamental to who we are. This is especially true for young people, whose identities are still largely in flux. The allure of a “symptom” that seems to fit us so perfectly, to capture our experience so well, is strong—no matter how vague or universally true that “symptom” may be.
When mental health diagnoses are filtered through TikTok’s Barnum Effect, they seem to apply to everyone. This does a disservice to those of us who don’t actually suffer from any mental illness, and to the one in five of us who do. It turns out, when a diagnosis seems to apply to everyone, it doesn’t help anyone.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, check out some of the resources below for evidence-based information on symptoms and treatments, and consider speaking with a doctor or mental health professional.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Common signs and symptoms of mental health conditions
Mental Health America: Mental health symptom checklists and screeners
Child Mind Institute: Symptom checker for parents of children and teens
SAMHSA: National Helpline that provides referrals and information on mental and substance use disorders
Techno Sapiens: A primer on how to find a therapist
It’s worth noting that “anxiety attacks” don’t actually have a formal, medical definition, but “panic attacks” do. A panic attack is a short period (5-10 minutes) of intense physiological symptoms (shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, shaking). During a panic attack, a person will often fear they are dying, losing control, or going crazy. Afterward, the person may fear that they’ll have more attacks, and change their behavior as a result. Recurrent panic attacks typically happen in the context of an anxiety disorder called Panic Disorder, diagnosed in roughly 5% of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an extremely effective treatment for it.
Am I the only person who loves reading these classic psychological experiments? Probably, yes. Anyway, here’s an excerpt from Forer’s study, published in 1949 in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, describing his students’ responses after discovering they’d all been given the same personality feedback: “That the experience had meaning for them was indicated by the fact that at least one-third of the class asked for copies of the sketch so that they might try the trick on their friends.” Sounds like a fun night out!
Apparently, there’s no evidence that P.T. Barnum actually said “A sucker is born every minute,” despite the phrase being widely attributed to him. Another fun fact about Barnum that I came across: beginning in 1865, he served four terms in the state legislature as a representative for my hometown in Connecticut. I’m not sure how I feel about this.
Oh, you thought we were done with Buzzfeed quizzes? Think again, sapiens. Here’s Buzzfeed’s May 2021 Which Harry Potter Character Are You? quiz (they appear to publish a version of this quiz at least once per year). I got Albus Dumbledore: You’re wise, quirky and very trusting. You’re loved and respected by everyone but sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself to make everything right. No complaints.
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