Astrology has not been proven to work – so why do so many people believe that it really does?
There are many psychological factors that play a role in explaining such belief. These include our desire to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, our urge to gain a sense of control in an unpredictable world, and our tendency to take note of evidence that apparently supports our beliefs – but to ignore any evidence that contradicts them.
I can’t help thinking of my favourite Punch cartoon: a man is staring at the TV while the newscaster makes the following announcement: ‘The practice of astrology took a major step toward achieving credibility today when, as predicted, everyone born under the sign of Scorpio was run over by an egg truck.’
The joke works because everyone knows that horoscopes in newspapers and magazines never predict anything very specific. Instead, they rely upon vague generalisations that stand a pretty good chance of coming true in some way or other in most people’s varied days: ‘You will receive an unexpected piece of good news.’
This is one example of what psychologists call the Barnum effect, which refers to people’s propensity to find personal meaning in general statements.
People often accept vague, general and ambiguous statements as applying uniquely to them even though, in fact, they apply to most of the population.
If you read that, ‘You have a lot of unused potential that you have not used to your advantage’, do try to bear in mind that everyone feels that this is true for them.
I am sure that many believers in astrology will now have steam coming out of their ears as they angrily proclaim that, ‘of course sun sign astrology is nonsense! You need to have a full horoscope cast and then a one-to-one with a professional astrologer to fully appreciate the power of astrology!’
I know from experience that even the professional astrologers who write the sun sign columns (and happily accept payment for doing so) hold such views.
Sadly, the truth is that horoscopes cast on the basis of specific birth details, taking into account the position of all the planets, the sun and the moon, have exactly the same validity as sun sign horoscopes: that is, none at all.
Sometimes the reason for consulting astrology is simply a matter of being given permission to take a chance on a new direction in life – to end a problematic relationship or pack in a hated job.
A theme in many readings is that, ‘Life will be tricky for a few months after taking that step but in six months’ time you will be a lot happier.’
As might be expected, astrologers are most often consulted at times of uncertainty, whether at personal or societal level.
The political and economic uncertainty caused by divisive world leaders, not to mention Brexit, is almost certainly good news for astrologers. And maybe we should not be too hard on them given that absolutely no one seems to have a clue about what the future holds at the moment.
Anything that appears to provide a glimpse of what is waiting around the next corner may give someone a better sense of control, even if that sense of control is illusory. So why do so many people believe what they are told by astrologers?
One reason is simply that it generally does make sense to believe what we are told by authority figures and experts (despite what Michael Gove may think). As children, it made sense for us to heed our parents when they said, ‘Don’t touch that, it will burn you!’ or ‘Take care when crossing roads.’ Those who believe in astrology consider their astrologer to be an expert whose pronouncements should be taken seriously.
As human beings, we are all susceptible to what psychologists refer to as ‘subjective validation’; that is, if we expect to see correspondences and connections between two complex stimuli or events we are often able to find them, even if they are not really there.
Anything that appears to provide a glimpse of what is waiting around the next corner may give someone a better sense of control, even if that sense of control is illusory.
A full horoscope chart is very complex and open to many interpretations. It is not surprising that the believer can find apparent correspondences between it and the rich tapestry of their own lives.
It appears that there is currently an increase in popularity among women in the 18-35 age bracket. Magazines and websites aimed at this demographic are embracing astrology in a way that they have not done before. Women have always been more likely to believe in astrology than men – a 2005 Gallup poll revealed 28 per cent of women believed compared to 23 per cent of men.
Women are generally encouraged to be more in tune with their intuitions and emotions than men even in the 21st century. In an era when young women are also expected to be more independent than ever before, it is perhaps not surprising that some will turn to astrology in an attempt to cope with the challenges that entails.
Astrology is a prime example of a pseudoscience but it does share one important property with genuine sciences: it often makes clear predictions that can be empirically tested. Those predictions have been thoroughly tested time and time again.
Astrologers cannot predict future events, or predict personality based on the time and place of birth, or whether couples have ‘compatible’ star signs.
So what do believers in astrology gain from their unfounded belief? Quite a lot as it happens.
They feel that they have a deep spiritual connection to the cosmos and that astrology can provide them with profound insights into their own lives and the lives of others.
If that provides them with a framework to make sense of their lives and helps them to deal with the existential angst that is inherent in the human condition, it can’t be all bad.
Yet when it comes to dealing with the really important challenges in life, whether at the personal or societal level, I’d recommend putting the horoscope charts in a cupboard and relying on reason and evidence.
A beginner’s guide to astrology
Astrology: the study of how the stars, planets and other cosmic objects move, the relationship between them and how these influence human live and the world around us.
Horoscope: an astrological chart or diagram depicting the positon of sun, moon and planets at a particular place and time.
Houses: the term used to describe the 12 divided segments of the zodiac. Each house is ruled by a different zodiac sign.
Moon sign: this represents your emotions and is the next most important influence in the Zodiac after your sun sign
Natal chart: also known as a birth chart, this is a map of your life and shows who you are and who you will become, according to the universe.
Retrograde: the term used to describe when a planet looks as though it is ‘moving backwards’ in relation to the earth (from an astrological, not scientific, point of view)
Rising sign: also known as your ‘ascendent’ it is the sign that was ‘rising’ up over the horizon in the east at the time of your birth
Sun sign: also known as your star sign or your sign of the Zodiac
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