Can the positioning of giant balls of gas during the time of our births really help explain our moods, personalities, and even our destiny?
Astrology takes up a rather surprisingly prominent role in modern human society. After President Reagan was shot in a failed assassination attempt, his wife Nancy rearranged the Oval Office and had his schedules fixed based on astrology. Horoscopes sections, due to consumer demands, are almost a requirement in nearly all mainstream newspapers and news sites. Psychics and astrologers have their own shows on local radio stations. And with the Chinese New Year fast approaching, they will soon be regular guests on TV. On a more personal note, the daily habit of scrolling down our Facebook and Twitter feeds is not really complete unless we have seen at least one friend share or repost the wisdom brought forth by their horoscopes.
Astrology according to millennials
So, what explains the lasting popularity of zodiac signs? While astrology has been around for more than 2000 years now, a new surge of interest has taken over the pseudo-science in the midst of the internet age through the form of zodiac themed listicles and astrology memes. A few years prior, astrology was only being practiced by a niche group who followed the back pages of magazines for their monthly horoscope. But with the access to in-depth information on our signs and daily horoscopes available at the swipe of a finger, the cultural phenomenon has found its way among more millennials who use it and apply it to their day to day lives.
Kristine Duyongco, a Leo, has been following astrology for several years now. At the ripe age of 13, she found herself introduced to the world of astrology by her father who had a longtime fascination to the topic. Enamored with the world of stars, planets and zodiac symbols, she found herself reading books on astrology to know more about the field. She thinks the reason she follows it so religiously is because of its way of explaining complex ideas in her life such as personality, life cycles and relationship patterns which is applicable in her life. “When I first got into astrology, I was in an experimental phase where I was questioning what I believe in, and astrology seemed to be the only psychological phenomenon that I really resonated with and still can today.” she explains.
Rebecca Shim’s fascination with astrology, on the other hand, began fairly recently in light of the sudden foothold it has grabbed among the social media public. “I would see all my friends sharing posts about star signs, ascendant signs and moon phases and how it would correlate to their lives and I guess I wanted to get a sense of what all the hype surrounding it was,” she says. Using the internet as a resource to dig deeper into this unfamiliar world, she uses astrology to learn more about her identity and relationships. “Whenever I meet someone, one of the first things I want to know is what their sign is because in the past I’ve really found that signs affect compatibility with others,” While she finds truth in her sign, she doesn’t crutch onto it and let it direct her life. “I only use astrology for aspects in my life I can’t control or explain,” she admits, “but I never use astrology as an excuse for my less than desirable actions. I use it merely as another way to gain perspective on my identity.”
The Barnum Effect
But just how do people rationalize their belief in horoscopes and astrology? And perhaps just as important of a question: If objective science and logical reasoning point against it, why do people in general and millennials in particular, still believe in astrology? Several explanations have been advanced in the attempt to answer these questions. University of Wisconsin psychologist Dr. Margaret Hamilton suggests that horoscopes are an extension of the fairy tales we learn as children. They offer a sunny though usually uncritical way to view life’s daily struggles. Meanwhile, British psychologist Susan Blackmore thinks that horoscopes give people “the comfort of predictability”. They can help give a feeling of certainty and provide meaning to otherwise random events. For example, it is easier to explain failed relationships by pointing to destined incompatibility due to zodiac signs rather than the more random causes of incompatibility such as differences in time schedules or priorities.
Perhaps the best explanation for why and how people justify their belief in astrology is through the psychological phenomenon called the Barnum Effect, also known as the Forer Effect. The phenomenon takes its monikers from P. T. Barnum, a famous circus entertainer and showman in the 19th century, and 20th century psychologist Dr. Bertram Forer. The former was known for his quote “We have something for everybody” while the latter conducted a great psychological experiment showing how general statements can be interpreted to apply to anybody and everybody. In 1948, Dr. Forer asked a number of respondents to answer a personality test. After reading their personal results from Dr. Forer’s analysis, nearly all respondents strongly agreed with his respective assessments. The catch however was that Dr. Forer’s analysis did not really come from the respondents’ test results. Instead, he already had a pre-planned set of results and analyses and he gave the exact same list to all respondents.
So how did all the respondents, who obviously had different answers to the personality test, come to agree with Dr. Forer’s uniform ‘analysis’? As it turns out, his ‘analysis’ involved statements like “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you” or “At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved”. These statements are vague and general enough to apply to almost all human beings. Respondents would then confirm these statements for themselves by recalling past experiences where the statements provided were applicable, and the phrasing of the statements he used for the experiments has plenty of similarities with the way horoscope messages are linguistically crafted.
Lessons for believers and non-believers
Astrology and horoscopes can seem to evoke contrasting sentiments. Despite the rather vague and uncertain nature of its messages, horoscopes can give people a sense of certainty and predictability. Horoscopes may give justification for failures and bad fortune but may also serve as motivation for people to take advantage of opportunities and strive for success. And zodiac signs somehow simultaneously appeal to the very human need to feel special and unique – to be a distinct individual – while at the same time bundling groups of people under uniform personality traits and fortunes simply based on the dates of their birth.
Whether you believe in horoscopes or not is a personal choice. But we believe there are important lessons and insights we can get from both the content itself and the reasons for why people believe in horoscopes. Philosopher Julian Baggini notes that horoscopes usually follow the tried and tested narrative of things not looking great today but with the optimism that they will get sorted out and be better in the future. This shows us that sometimes our minds can too easily believe in positive but unverified messages. At the same time however, this narrative may also give us hope and remind us that no matter how big our problems may seem today, experience teaches us that we almost always get through them.
Moreover, horoscopes’ messages may lead us to overestimate our uniqueness. We are all special in our own way. But probably not to the degree that horoscopes would want us to believe. However, Dr. Forer’s experiment also reminds us that horoscopes are appealing to many people for a reason. Their messages are felt or experienced by just almost anyone. This reminds us not of how special or unique we are, but actually of what we have common. Almost all human beings want to be liked, can be at times introverted and extroverted, can be critical of ourselves, can be independent thinkers, but can also be insecure and worrisome. We share a lot of the same motivations, desires and fears that the people around us do regardless of what your zodiac sign or birthday is.
We are all human. Sometimes we just need a source of hope or relief. And these beliefs or activities don’t always have to make sense to everybody else if it makes sense to us. But whatever you may believe in, we must remember that it is us human beings, more than the stars, that are ultimately responsible for making our own decisions and writing our own fates.