Astrology has been defined as the study of relationships between the stars and human affairs. The belief that the heavens can influence life on earth goes back to almost every society in history. Ancient people must have learned that observations of the stars and planets could predict the coming of the seasons, when to plant crops, when certain animals would give birth and numerous other events vital to survival. It seemed natural that the positions of the heavenly bodies could predict, or even influence, human behaviour.
Although it is not such a dominant influence in society as it once was, astrology is still popular. Typically a quarter of the population believes in it. Discussion will try to answer the question why people believe in astrology, focusing on two main reasons: because they think it works and is valid, and because of psycho/social reasons. One reason why people believe in astrology and think it works is that they think it can be used to help understand personality and give accurate personality predictions.
Most people only read their own horoscope so do not realise how vague they actually are and that the traits suggested by signs are in fact universal. Everybody behaves in each of these ways at various times, so no matter what your sign is it will agree with a trait you already possess. If astrologers can predict someone’s personality from their birth chart (and thus the position of the stars and planets at the time of birth) as suggested, then astrologers using charts should consistently outperform astrologers not using charts, i. . those just guessing.
A study by Dean (1985) tested this. From a selection of 1,198 subjects who had taken the Eysenck Personality Inventory, 60 of each of the most extroverted, introverted, stable and unstable were chosen (these characteristics were used as they are thought to be the most major and enduring personality characteristics and are considered by astrologers to be easily discernible in a birth chart). Astrologers were asked to indicate which extreme they thought each subject was and how confident they were.
The astrologers given birth charts were found to perform at chance level (in fact they performed slightly worse than those without charts) and there was lack of agreement. Judgements made with high confidence were no better than those made with low confidence. Therefore astrologers with birth charts can predict personality no better than chance. The basis of personality prediction is also a bit dubious. Modern astrologers claim their ‘science’ is not based on magical associations, but its history shows this to be false.
Astrology flourished in Ancient Greece where they deified the planets. People where meant to take on the characteristics of the god they were born under. The associations were never based on empirical research but still form the basis for modern astrological predictions. People also believe that astrology can make accurate predictions in general. After any notable event articles appear in astrology journals showing correspondence between the event and its astrological chart. However, this means nothing unless the chart can predict the event in advance.
Hunter and Derr (1978 in Dean, 1991) analysed a total of 240 earthquake predictions by 27 astrologers and found their accuracy to be worse than guessing. Culver and Ianna (1984 in Dean, 1991) surveyed 3,011 specific predictions made from 1974-1979 in U. S. astrology magazines. Only 338 (11%) were correct, and many of these could be attributed to shrewd guesses, vagueness or inside information. Reverchon (1971 in Dean, 1991) surveyed a series of predictions made by the renowned French astrologer Andre Barbault in a French astrological journal.
He concluded “what was announced did not happen, what happened was not announced. ” Studies have therefore not supported the theory that astrology can be used to accurately predict events. Astrology is also used to aid career choices. In the early 1980s Alan Smithers (in Hoggart and Hutchinson, 1995) examined the jobs and birth dates of 2. 3 million people listed in Britain’s 1971 national census. The results were reported over four days in The Guardian in March 1984. Before beginning analyses 16 expert astrologers made predictions of the correlations that would be found.
The results were marginally better than chance. However this could be partly explained by seasonal trends. A 10% sample from the same census showed that the professional and managerial classes in Britain are significantly more likely to have there babies in spring and summer, whereas the opposite applies to manual workers and the unskilled. The results may also be due to self-attribution, people choosing a particular line of work because it matches their star sign. It would only require 1 person in 60 to think this way to account for The Guardian results.
As Dean (1983 in Hoggart and Hutchinson, 1995) showed, 1 person in 3 believes in astrology enough to shift their self-image in the direction their star sign suggests. It would only need 1 in 20 of those to choose a job accordingly. Michael Gauquelin (in Hoggart and Hutchinson, 1995) claimed there was a link between sports champions and Mars. His sample of 2088 French sports champions were more likely to be born when Mars was rising in the 1st section and at its culmination in the 4th. However replications of this study had mixed results.
In a definitive test between Gauquelin and a committee of French sceptics in 1982 the results were insignificant. The committee concluded that the so-called Mars effect was probably due to Gauquelins bias in choosing his sample. Another claim made by astrology is that people should choose partners born under compatible star signs. However studies have shown that sun signs have no influence on marriage or divorce. For instance Bernard Silverman (in Hoggart and Hutchinson, 1995) found no link among the records of 2978 couples who married and478 couples who divorced in Michigan during 1967.
Astrologers also widely disagree as to which sun signs are compatible. Another use for astrology is for counselling purposes. Skafte (1969 in Dean, 1991) tested the effect of introducing popular astrology into personal and vocational counselling. She found that this provides a focal point for discussion and often stimulates clients to talk openly about themselves, and the mutual interest quickly creates closeness and rapport that would otherwise take many sessions to establish. The focus on individual qualities also meets the clients need to feel special.
Therefore astrology can be valuable and work without necessarily being true. An astrologer can provide good, practical advice with a sympathetic ear, which could cost far more if provided by a psychiatrist. Another main reason why people believe in astrology is due to psychological or social reasons, which also help to maintain the belief. One reason is that astrology is part of our culture, it traces back for more than 4000 years and goes back to almost every society in history. This therefore testifies to peoples unending fascination with the stars and attempts to predict the future.
The media also helps to promote a belief in astrology. It seems acceptable in our society as most newspapers, even ‘serious’ ones, now print horoscopes and they appear in most magazines and are even part of some shows on television. A tabloid that offers an annual horoscope can see its circulation rise by a quarter million or so. The media portrays astrology as being correct and does not provide hardly any evidence against it, so it is not surprising that so many people believe it. In western languages, serious astrology was the subject of 100 periodicals and about 1000 books in print as of 1991.
Due to astrology’s extensive history, media coverage, huge literature and impressive jargon (relating to the Dr Fox effect, blinding people with science) and even national and international conferences, astrology has a good face validity. To the unwary, if it looks right than it probably is. Another reason why people believe in astrology is that people accept vague statements as being specific for them when in fact they apply to everybody, the so called ‘Barnum effect’, named after the showman P T Barnum who recognised that we are much more alike than we imagine.
Typical barnum statements are “you tend to be critical of yourself” and “you enjoy a certain amount of change and variety”. People are also much more likely to agree with a barnum statement when they are told it is specifically about them. For example, C R Snyder (in Hoggart and Hutchinson, 1995) asked subjects to rate a personality description on a scale of 1-5, 5 being ‘a perfect fit’. The group told that it was based on their own birth chart gave a higher rating than the group told it was a universal personality sketch.
People also tend to see what they believe, if someone beliefs in astrology then it is painful to find discrepancies between the person and the horoscope, especially if it involved the persons time and money, as discrepancies make the investment seem foolish. In such a situation the person experiences cognitive dissonance and is motivated to reduce the conflict and so searches, consciously or otherwise, for attributes to match the birth chart. Dean (1991) recruited 22 subjects through a local occult bookstore and ads in an occult magazine, and so it was likely that the subjects were believers in astrology.
Each subject was asked to rate extremely concise interpretations of their astrological chart. All subjects were led to believe that the chart interpretations were authentic when in fact only half received interpretations based on their actual chart and the rest interpretations based on ‘reversed charts’, made to be as opposite to the actual chart as possible. The wrong charts were rated just as highly as right charts. This is therefore an example of where subjects saw what they wanted to believe. Self-fulfilling prophecies help to maintain people’s beliefs in astrology.
People act in ways to ensure that their beliefs are correct. Hindsight bias, or the I-knew-it-all-along effect, is when once we know the answer we find plenty of evidence to support it, so we feel we knew it all along when in fact we did not. Therefore, once a match has been found between a chart and a person it will be hard to see how it could be any other way. Self-attribution is another self-fulfilling prophecy which involves people role playing their birth chart, for example, choosing a particular line of work because it matches their star sign as mentioned earlier.
Selective memory also helps to maintain people’s beliefs. Believers in astrology tend to remember the hits rather than misses. Russel and Jones (1980 in Dean, in1991) observed belief in ESP among 50 college students. About 90 percent of sceptics accurately remembered an article on ESP regardless of whether it was favourable or not, whereas 100 percent of believers accurately remembered the favourable article but less than 40 percent accurately remembered the unfavourable article, 16 percent actually remembered it as favourable.
People also tend to ask only confirming questions. This is shown in a study by Glick and Snyder (1986 in Dean, 1991). They asked 12 believers and 14 sceptics to each test the validity of a brief chart interpretation by asking the subject questions from a list of confirmatory, disconfirmatory or neutral questions. The subject was in fact a confederate who gave predetermined answers matching the slant of the question. Both believers and sceptics tended to test the interpretation with questions that were bound to confirm it.
However, for sceptics the more confirmatory questions asked, and therefore the more confirmatory information received, the more accurate they rated the chart interpretation. All believers rated the interpretation as mostly accurate regardless of the number of confirmatory questions asked, showing that their rating bore little relation to the information received. Another reason why people belief in astrology is due to illusory correlation, or believing is seeing, people tend to see correlations where none exist.
When behaviour (i. e. astrology) is rewarded (i. e. success), the behaviour is reinforced. This process is operant conditioning. Behaviour becomes very resistant to change if it is reinforced intermittently rather than all the time. Such intermittent success will occur in astrology by chance, and so we learn that astrology is correct even when it might not be. This believing is seeing effect can be seen in a study by Dean (in Hoggart and Hutchinson, 1995) he sent a large group of astrologers a birth chart which he said belonged to the singer Petula Clark. Their descriptions matched her bubbly, amiable, outgoing personality.
However, the chart was actually for the mass murderer Charles Manson. Astrologers can also use techniques during consultations to heighten people’s belief in astrology. Cold reading techniques are a very powerful way of gaining extra information (for example using ‘fishing’ questions and clues such as body language) to convince the person that you know all about them. Usually neither the reader nor the client is consciously aware of this communication process, which therefore can result in a reading that seems mysteriously perceptive. First impressions are also important.
The halo effect is where one favourable trait causes us to infer the presence of others. Therefore if astrologers present themselves well we are more likely to believe them. During counselling, the placebo effect can help convince someone of astrology’s validity; this is where anything will do us good if we think it will. Another reason why people believe in astrology and think it works is that astrology is nonfalsifiable, it cannot possibly be found to be wrong. Should astrologers give a wrong statement they always have a plausible explanation, such as the client does not know himself or another feature is responsible.
Another reason why people believe in astrology is that it can remove personal responsibility for behaviours, for example, someone that is aggressive could blame it on their star sign Aries. Social desirability effects also play a role. The nicer the statement the greater its acceptance, since a golden rule in counselling is be positive this can influence someone’s acceptance of astrology. Counselling can also offer hope, and so people might carry on believing in astrology because they like what they hear.
Although one of the main reasons people belief in astrology is that they think it works, and can be used to make valid predictions, personality assessment, career choices and for compatibility, evidence does not seem to support this. There are also a number of psychological and social reasons that can explain why people belief in astrology and why this belief is maintained. Some of the most potent of these human judgement biases are the barnum effect, or how people accept vague statements as being specific for them, how people try to avoid cognitive dissonance and the illusory correlation effect, seeing correlations where none exist.