It’s fascinating to understand why people believe in astrology. The answer is not so obvious, but it is quite simple. There are many ways to approach astrology: as an alternative world-view, as a relic of the pre-scientific era, as a social reality, as a psychological reality, etc. This post will adopt the 3rd and 4th approach – a psychosocial reality for people.
According to a survey done in 2014, 38% of American teens don’t believe in astrology and 36% believe in it. An older survey (2011) says that about 42% of Americans believe that planetary alignments influence day-to-day events and about 78% believe astrology is at least sort of scientific. A more recent but unstructured poll estimates that 23% of people are skeptical but find it fun and 17% firmly believe in it.
What exactly does it mean to believe in astrology?
Believing in astrology means believing that a planet’s position, the time of the year, and the relationship between various planets affects human lives at a psychological level. Some people only identify with horoscope names like Gemini and Taurus. Some regularly read horoscopes for entertainment or superficial guidance. A few enthusiasts invest time in studying it. And a desperate few pay big money to know their future through a customized analysis of their sun-sign and moon-sign.
Metaphors about personality, thoughts, life-events are used to glue psychology and planets. And they are often conflated with each other. For example, Jupiter’s presence in some section of a grid diagram based on time can represent something significant. In this case, Jupiter’s size and ‘something big’ correspond with each other, which may be metaphors for each other. Another metaphor is associating the proximity of Mars and a person’s rage. These type of associations stem from the ability to make abstract connections between two unrelated things.
People use astrological explanations as a way to not be accountable and responsible for an event by saying things like “planets control you,” “this had to happen,” and “the universe will adjust itself.” This issue is broader than what I’m talking about. If something terrible happens, it’s emotionally easier to hold something supernatural accountable than something real. Accountability and responsibility are sources of stress. Even when it’s someone else’s responsibility – finding who is accountable, what causes something terrible, and what must be done is hard. It’s harder when doing the work involves ethics, skills, lots of learning, and a failure to find answers.
Now, with this in mind, what do we know through research?
Why do people believe in Astrology?
There is a relationship between uncertainty, self-concept, and why people believe in astrology.
Those who believe in astrology have many reasons to do so. They range from creating and validating self-concept and self-description (how people define themselves) to seeking explanations which minimize emotional distress.
One popular reason why people believe in horoscopes is to find a way to validate and understand oneself. Especially when life-events, behaviors, attitudes, thoughts, and emotions are uncertain. The astrological framework, regardless, of accuracy, removes the uncertainty and pins down parts of one’s life in a predictable and descriptive way.
For example, people who are socially anxious can use astrology to say, “This is how I am because I am a Cancerian.” This approach changes social anxiety into a description rather than a problem which can be worked on with some conscious effort. The idea of changing social anxiety into social competency means changing a person’s self-description and self-concept. Doing so is a source of conflict because changing something fundamental about yourself (as per your own belief) threatens the current you. It creates the opportunity to lose/deconstruct one’s identity. This belief also encourages a person to defend their own identity by reinforcing the same behavior and justifying it using astrology. Horoscopes are used to verify self-concept.
Another primary reason people rely on astrological insights is to explain personal crisis. Astrology (or other supernatural forces) can create the opportunity to explain adverse life events like break-ups, financial crisis, poor sales, etc. While other predictable explanations exist, those warrant work and exploring uncertain situations.
Some people have an intolerance for ambiguity and the lack of information. This ambiguity can be cleared up using scientific methods and explanations. It can also reduce the lack of knowledge. However, more often than not, a scientific approach does not guarantee complete information and leads to more questions. Astrology offers another way to remove this ambiguity and lack of information – by explaining things supernaturally.
The world appears to be uncontrollable, unpredictable, and meaningless to a significant amount of people. That is a source of anxiety, and belief in paranormal/supernatural forces gives them some hope & perceived control over it. Researchers call this the Psychodynamic Functions Theory and it is one of the more accepted explanations for why people believe in astrology.
These reasons have a few things in common – stress, discomfort due to uncertainty, negative emotions, negative life-events, the burden of accountability, and responsibility. There also is an aversion to taking more laborious steps to find answers which may or may not leave the person satisfied. Astrology gives the easiest solution to these stressful situations.
Evidence points toward the idea that believers are motivated to believe because of the uncertainties and anxieties associated with modern life. And, it is more attractive to people with an intermediate understanding of science.
The astrological/zodiac framework creates a unique opportunity to adopt templates of values, approaches, and advice. People can read their horoscope and then adopt the narrative of a zodiac sign. This has one important advantage with respect to self-concept – it’s a ready definition and it can be expressed. Gen-X, Millennials, and Gen-Z members are already big on self-expression and instant gratification, so the surface-level descriptions and attitudes contained in zodiac signs are well aligned with their needs.
People want answers to questions, especially the hard-to-answer questions such as “Who controls my life?” and “Do I have a destiny?” Horoscopes, belief in past-lives, spirits, etc. give psychological comfort and reduce uncertainty. Some people turn to science, some establish faith, and some go on a spiritual journey of self-discovery to seek answers. Some people find existential answers in astrology.
Seeking answers and astrological advice for comfort may not require any proof of accuracy. That is probably why people engage with the astrological belief system even when they think that astrology does not work.
The casual use of sentences like “Dude, that’s the most Leo thing you’ve ever done” does not necessarily represent a belief in astrology. Instead, the Zodiac category of Leo can append a context to the behavior of said dude. It also conveys a notion of typical behaviors. If two or more people know about “Leo characteristics,” the sentence conveys additional meaning without too many words. Just like this paragraph.
In a way, people believe that the celestial affects the terrestrial even when the link is only cranial.
Let us now explore what type of descriptions people like or believe about themselves.
The Barnum-Forer Effect
People tend to be believe customized evaluation about themselves even when the customized evaluation such as horoscopes and palm-readings are vague and applicable to many people in general. People also think such evaluations are more accurate if they are customized. This is the essence of the Barnum-Forer Effect.
In a classic experiment by Ross Stagner in 1947, people took a personality evaluation test and expected feedback from Ross. Instead of giving an evaluation based on the participant’s answers, he gave them vague and generalized feedback based on horoscopes. All participants received feedback which was unrelated to their personality test but they rated this feedback as accurate feedback.
Statements which appear to be customized or personally relevant but are general and applicable to almost everyone are called Barnum Statements. These are often used by mind-readers, astrologers, fortune-tellers, palm readers, etc. Because humans consider Barnum statements accurate, they believe the methods used by astrologers give accurate predictions. Belief in these statements is partly explained by subjective validation – people believe personally profound and relatable statements even if they are coming from a bogus evaluation with no personal relevance. This allows the emergence of coincidence and serendipity – if things are personally meaningful, people will consider two unrelated events such as a planet’s position and a Barnum statement based on it as related.
Here are a few Barnum statements:
- You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
- At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
Do you believe they accurately apply to you?
There is an interesting personal bias which interacts with the Barnum-Forer effect – The Self-serving bias. It is the bias which makes us attribute more positive traits to ourselves and ignore negative ones. People might do this to protect their self-esteem and defend a pre-defined self-concept. The self-serving bias manifests in many ways – People take more credit in a group project than give credit. It is why people reject negative feedback and accept positive feedback. It is also why people consider good things happen to them because of their actions and bad things happen to them because of someone else’s actions. The self-serving bias can be nicely summed up as “taking credit for success and blaming others for failures.”
This applies to horoscope readings. Positive and mixed personality evaluations/predictions are rated as more accurate than purely negative ones. And, the self-serving bias might counteract the Barnum effect since a pronounced & selectively positive self-perception buffers against gullibility.
Throw in a mixture of positive and negative Barnum statements which appear to be customized and people will believe them. The need to defend a positive self-concept and the tendency to experience subjective validation is a recipe for believable astrological readings.
In conclusion, 2 factors feed each other and create a global tendency to believe in astrology –
- Characteristically meaningful and profound Barnum statements
- Coping with stress & anxiety associated with a lack of information, a rigid need for unfalsifiable explanations, challenges to self-esteem and self-concept, validation of self-identity, and difficulty in finding satisfying answers to find negative life-events.
These factors come together and promote the belief in astrology, especially when such beliefs help to cope with psychological stress.
In it’s purest form, astrology functions as a coping mechanism for stressful situations. People seeking astrological answers want to be soothed by those answers; much like a friend pacifying a friend during a crisis by saying, “Everything is going to be alright.”
… And then there are the con-men who use fear to extort money from the gullible. That’s another story.
P.S. Using sky charts, calculating planetary positions, creating complex grids and classifications, etc. to explain the effect of planets on psychology can create an illusion of using scientific methods. Describing scientific properties does not explain mechanisms or prove the existence of a connection. For example, calling water H2O may sound scientific, but it is irrelevant and inconsequential while explaining how and why water affects the growth of cacti.