Astrology, the oldest and most popular theory of human personality, doesn’t work. I played a small role in proving astrology doesn’t work when a student, who was an astrology enthusiast, came to me and said she wanted to conduct a test of astrology for her honors thesis research. To her credit, she was willing to let the chips fall where they may. With a little guidance, she designed a double-blind test in which college students were presented with their actual horoscope, based on a natal chart produced by a highly-rated commercial astrology software program, and a bogus horoscope randomly selected from those produced for the other students in the study. Each participant had a 50/50 chance of picking their own horoscope, and that’s about as well as they did. In fact, the students only scored a 46 percent correct rate, indicating that there was a slight—though not statistically significant—tendency for the students to pick the bogus astrology horoscope instead of their own.
To eliminate the possibility that the college students were just clueless about their personalities, my student also had each participant fill out a well-research paper-and-pencil personality test. Presented with a similar choice: their own personality scale profile matched with some other random person’s profile, the students did much better. This time, there was a 79 percent correct identification rate, which was far above what would be expected by chance. So, astrology didn’t work but a widely used personality test did. My student’s honors thesis results were consistent with a long line of similar tests showing that astrology does not provide an accurate description of personality, and she went on to publish the study in the Journal of General Psychology (Wyman and Vyse 2008).
Although my student accepted the accuracy of her results, I am fairly certain she did not give up her belief in astrology, and she is not alone. Despite overwhelming evidence that astrology is based on a pseudoscientific theory and is not a reliable measure of personality—much less a crystal ball into the future—this ancient form of divination has not diminished in popularity. Indeed Julie Beck (2018) writing in the Atlantic suggests that we are experiencing a boom in astrology among Millennials driven by diminished stigma and marketing on the internet. Astrology is particularly popular in India where, according to one projection, the online industry will hit $3 billion by 2020 (Magon 2017). But there may be other explanations for why astrology would be particularly popular at this moment.
Carving of the Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan. (Source: Wikimedia)
Astrology is a system of belief that implicates the location of the stars and planets at the time of a person’s birth in the determination of their personality, and its proponents claim it is possible to write an astrological natal chart that reveals your basic nature. Furthermore, throughout your life, the positions of the stars continue to influence your life, making it useful to consult your daily horoscope to find out what is going to happen and how you should approach the day. Astrology is used in a variety of ways and comes in many forms. One scholar writes that, “It may be considered, depending on the definitions of all these words, to be magic, divination, a psychological tool, a religion, an art or a science” (Campion 2016, 1). Astrology is thought to have emerged in Babylon in the second millennium BCE, as a simpler form of omen astrology tied to the calendar and the constellations. Evidence from surviving cuneiform tablets suggests that a natal astrology closer to today’s horoscopes emerged sometime between the seventh and fourth centuries BCE (Holden 2006). Given its ancient origins, astrology has been remarkably successful. Gallup polls suggest that approximately 25 percent of adults in the United States, the U.K., and France believe in astrology (cited in Campion 2016). Furthermore, astrology is a kind of universal language, and the material of horrible pick-up lines. By some estimates fully 90 percent of adults know their astrological sun sign (Campion 2017).
The Demographics of Belief
One of the most noteworthy aspects of belief in astrology is that it is more often embraced by liberals. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that people who described themselves as liberal were almost twice as likely to say they believe in astrology than self-described conservatives: 30 percent of liberals compared to 16 percent of conservatives (Liu 2009). Similarly, a 2015 study using data from the General Social Survey data of the National Opinion Research Survey at the University of Chicago found that conservatives were more likely to endorse the statement, “we trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith,” and liberals were more likely to have consulted their daily horoscope or astrological profile (DellaPosta, Shi, and Macy 2015, 1482–1483).
According to the Pew study, belief is also more likely to be a youthful phenomenon, with the youngest age group, 18-to-29-year-olds, having a 30 percent belief rate and belief decreasing with each increasing age bracket. Only 18 percent of 65-year-olds and older endorsed astrology. Education was also systematically associated with lower levels of belief, with 18 percent of college graduates endorsing astrology, as compared to 30 percent of those in the high school or less education group. Finally, for both Protestants and Catholics, more frequent church attendance was related to lower levels of belief in astrology (Liu 2009).
The Psychology of Belief
Perhaps because astrology is so remarkably resilient, research on the psychology of belief has a long and continuing history. An early research contribution identified one of the reasons people tend to see themselves in their horoscopes—no matter what the horoscope says. The psychologist Paul Meehl named this the “Barnum Effect,” a reference to the famous showman P. T. Barnum’s motto, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But the most famous early demonstration of the Barnum effect was done by Bertram Forer (Forer 1949; Meehl 1958). Forer gave a class of psychology students a personality questionnaire to fill out, and then later handed out what the students assumed were unique personality sketches. In fact, all of the sketches were the same, and they were drawn from a newspaper stand astrology book. When asked to rate the accuracy of the sketches the overwhelming majority found them to be to be remarkably accurate. Magician James “The Amazing” Randi led a classroom demonstration of the Barnum effect in a PBS NOVA broadcast (Carlson 2000), a clip of which is presented below. It should be noted that horoscopes are particularly susceptible to the Barnum effect, because they tend to be written in ambiguous, non-specific terms that can be interpreted in many ways, but psychological tests are also prone to the Barnum effect (Wyman and Vyse 2008). An additional factor that has been implicated in the acceptance of horoscopes is whether the description is positive or negative. In a test using horoscopes that varied in their positive or negative valence, Hamilton (2001) found that—as you might expect—people were more willing to say their horoscope was valid if the description was generally positive, however, using a different method of testing with a German sample Wunder (2004) found no effect of the favorableness of sun signs.
James Randi demonstrates the Barnum effect on NOVA.
For some time following Forer’s study, most scientific investigations of astrology were tests of its validity (Tyson 1984; Carlson 1985; Hartmann, Reuter, and Nyborg 2006). A group of studies tried to determine whether the person is recognizable in the description offered in the horoscope—similar to my student’s honors thesis. In some cases, rather than having the individual pick out their own horoscope from a selection of horoscopes, the identification was made by a friend or relative who knew the target individual well (Tyson 1984), but this technique did not produce any better results. Another approach, used by Hartmann and colleagues (2006), was to administer a validated psychological test of personality to a large group of people and attempt to find any personality trait that was associated with the participants’ astrological signs. This method also came up short. Thus, the overwhelming result of many studies is that horoscopes are not valid descriptions of personality.
One of the major explanations for belief in superstition, is the desire for control over uncontrollable events (Vyse 2014), and a number of studies suggest that the desire for control is also an important factor in belief in astrology. For example, in a Finnish study, Outi Lillqvist and Marjaana Lindeman (1998) gave questionnaires to people who had signed up for adult education classes in either introduction to astrology, psychology, or German. Compared to students in the other classes, astrology students reported having recently experienced more life crises (e.g., divorce, infidelity, or a child leaving home). Interestingly, even among the control groups who took either psychology or German classes, those who reported greater belief in astrology also reported having experienced more life crises. So, it appears that when people lose their footing and are shaken by the world, astrology provides a sense of order and control. In a laboratory study, American research participants were asked to judge how accurate a horoscope was, but before they made the judgment they were primed to have a sense of control or the lack of control. Half the participants were asked to recall a time when something happened to them and they were in control of the situation, and the other half were asked to remember a time when something happened but they were not in control. When later asked to judge the horoscopes, the “out of control” group reported that their horoscope was more accurate. Taken together, these studies point to astrology being used as a form of “compensatory control” to stabilize believers when they feel shaky (Landua, Kay, and Whitson 2015).
The Ingredients for an Astrology Boom
The foregoing summary provides a few hints as to why astrology might be surging at the moment. First, it is a youthful movement, and another recent Pew Research Study shows that Millennials are less religious than older generations but not less spiritual. In answer to the question, “Religion is very important,” only 41 percent of Millennials said yes, in comparison to 59 percent of Baby Boomers. At the same time Millennials were very similar to other generations on questions about having a sense of wonder in the universe, feelings of gratitude, and a concern for meaning and purpose (Alper 2015). So, for some younger people for whom traditional religion does not appeal, astrology may provide a spiritual outlet.
Second, two factors are very likely combining to make astrology more appealing at the moment—liberalism and a need for control. Astrology has a stronger appeal for liberals than conservatives, and in the United States, since November of 2016, the liberal world has been rocked. If ever there was a time when liberals might be looking for a compensatory sense of control, now is it. Conservatives are feeling better, but even if the tables were turned, the Pew survey data suggests they would be more likely to take refuge in religion rather than astrology or other forms of spirituality. If the history of this moment has promoted belief in the paranormal, it would not be the first time. Earlier studies have shown an increased interest in astrology and other occult beliefs during periods of economic and political stress, such as in Germany during the 1930s (Padgett and Jorgenson 1982). Similarly, the “Secrets of the Psychics” NOVA program, in which James Randi demonstrated the Barnum Effect, was produced in response to a surge in interest in the paranormal in Russia following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Finally, we cannot overlook an obvious additional factor—the internet. There are fewer television commercials for telephone psychics these days, but the internet has exploded as a new vehicle for psychics and astrologers. Millennials are very adept at computers and smartphones, and the internet provides the opportunity to read a horoscope or consult an astrologer without fear of stigmatization or ridicule.
If, as I suspect, my student did not abandon astrology after uncovering evidence that it is a baseless pseudoscience (as further evidence for this hypothesis, I will point out that she gave me an astrology book when she graduated), there must be a very large audience for sun signs and natal charts. In addition, the rise of a generation that is not as traditionally religious as previous ones but still seeking a kind of spiritual satisfaction, combined with the vanquishing of liberal politics in the United States and abroad, has created a fertile environment for this form of superstition and unreason. The current pseudoscientific storm may pass, but my student’s story suggests that evidence alone may not be enough to turn believers into rationalists.
- Alper, Becka A. 2015. “Millennials Are Less Religious than Older Americans, but Just as Spiritual.” Pew Research Center. November 23. Accessed May 11, 2018. Available online at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/23/millennials-are-less-religious-than-older-americans-but-just-as-spiritual/.
- Beck, Julie. 2018. “The New Age of Astrology.” The Atlantic. January 16. Accessed May 06, 2018. Available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/01/the-new-age-of-astrology/550034/.
- Campion, Nicholas. 2016. Astrology and popular religion in the modern west: Prophecy, cosmology and the new age movement. Routledge.
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- Charlson, Carl. 2000. “Secrets of the psychics,” PBS NOVA, March 28.
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- Holden, James H. 2006. A history of horoscopic astrology. American Federation of Astrologers.
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- Magon, Vaibhav. 2017. “The Viability of Astrology as a Business Idea.” Entrepreneur. March 06. Accessed May 04, 2018. Available online at https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/290133.
- Meehl, Paul E. 1956. “Wanted—a good cook-book.” American Psychologist 11, no. 6: 263.
- Padgett, Vernon R., and Dale O. Jorgenson. 1982. “Superstition and economic threat: Germany, 1918-1940.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 8, no. 4: 736–741.
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- Vyse, Stuart. 2014. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition—Updated Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
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- Wunder, Edgar. 2003. “Self-attribution, sun-sign traits, and the alleged role of favourableness as a moderator variable: long-term effect or artefact?.” Personality and Individual Differences35, no. 8: 1783–1789.