How Are Horoscopes Still a Thing?

No, there’s no science behind an astrologer’s prediction for 2016, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be accurate

Zodiac woodcut (Wikimedia Commons)
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Astrology is either an ancient and valuable system of understanding the natural world and our place in it with roots in early Mesopotamia, China, Egypt and Greece, or complete rubbish, depending on whom you ask.

But newspaper and magazine horoscopes? The ones advising you to not “fight against changes” today, or to “go with the flow”, whatever that means, or to “keep things light and breezy with that new hottie today”? They get even less respect, from both skeptics and true believers. So it’s a bit surprising, then, that they remain so popular with everyone in between.

The first real newspaper horoscope column is widely credited to R.H. Naylor, a prominent British astrologer of the first half of the 20th century. Naylor was an assistant to high-society neo-shaman, Cheiro (born William Warner, a decidedly less shamanistic name), who’d read the palms of Mark Twain, Grover Cleveland, and Winston Churchill, and who was routinely tapped to do celebrity star charts. Cheiro, however, wasn’t available in August 1930 to do the horoscope for the recently born Princess Margaret, so Britain’s Sunday Express newspaper asked Naylor.

Like most astrologers of the day, Naylor used what’s called a natal star chart. Astrology posits that the natural world and we human beings in it are affected by the movements of the sun, moon and stars through the heavens, and that who we are is shaped by the exact position of these celestial bodies at the time of our birth. A natal star chart, therefore, presents the sky on the date and exact time of birth, from which the astrologer extrapolates character traits and predictions.

On August 24, 1930, three days after the Princess’s birth, Naylor’s published report predicted that her life would be “eventful”, an accurate if not entirely inspired forecast given that she was, after all, a princess (he didn’t, it appears, foresee the Princess’s later star-crossed romances and lifelong love affair with alcohol and cigarettes). He also noted that “events of tremendous importance to the Royal Family and the nation will come about near her seventh year”, a prediction that was somewhat more precise – and seemed to ring true right around the time that her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to her father.

Celebrity natal star charts weren’t a particularly novel idea; American and British newspapers routinely trotted astrologers out to find out what the stars had in store for society pagers like Helen Gould and “Baby Astor’s Half Brother”. Even the venerable New York Times wasn’t above consulting the stars: In 1908, a headline declared that President Theodore Roosevelt, a Sagittarius, “might have been different with another birthday”, according to “expert astrologer” Mme. Humphrey.

But though it wasn’t the first of its kind, Naylor’s article was a tipping point for the popular consumption of horoscopes. Following the interest the public showed in the Princess Margaret horoscope, the paper decided to run several more forecasts from Naylor. One of his next articles included a prediction that “a British aircraft will be in danger” between October 8 and 15. When British airship R101 crashed outside Paris on October 5, killing 48 of the 54 people on board, the tragedy was taken as eerie evidence of Naylor’s predictive skill. Suddenly, a lot more people were paying attention to the star column. The then-editor of the paper offered Naylor a weekly column – on the caveat that he make it a bit less dry and bit more the kind of thing that lots of people would want to read – and “What the Stars Foretell”, the first real newspaper horoscope column, was born.

The column offered advice to people whose birthdays fell that the week, but within a few years, Naylor (or a clever editor) determined that he needed to come up with something that could apply to larger volumes of readers. By 1937, he’d hit upon the idea using “star signs”, also known as “sun signs”, the familiar zodiac signs that we see today. “Sun sign” refers to the period of the year when the sun is passing through one of 12 30-degree celestial zones as visible from earth and named after nearby constellations; for example, if you’re born in the period when the sun is passing through the constellation Capricornus (the “horned goat”, often represented as a half-fish, half-goat), roughly December 22 to January 19, then that makes your sun sign Capricorn.

“The only phenomenon in astrology allowing you make a wild generalizations about everybody born in this period to that period every year without fail is the sun sign,” explained Jonathan Cainer, prominent astrologer who writes one of Britain’s most-read horoscope columns for The Daily Mail.

“[The column] was embraced by an enthusiastic public with open arms and it spawned a thousand imitations. Before we knew it tabloid astrology was born… this vast over-simplification of a noble, ancient art,” Cainer says. Cainer pointed out that even as newspaper and magazine horoscope writing became more and more popular – which it did and quickly, on both sides of the Atlantic – the practice was largely disregarded by the “proper” astrological community. The accusation, he says, was bolstered by the fact that historically, a lot of horoscope columns weren’t written by actual astrologers, but by writers told to read a book on astrology and get cracking.

Astrologers’ consternation notwithstanding, the popularity of newspaper and magazine horoscope has never really died down; they became, along with standards like the crossword, newspaper “furniture”, as Cainer put it (and people hate it when the furniture is moved, Cainer says). Cainer also noted that there are few places in newspapers and, to some extent magazines, that address the reader directly: “It’s an unusual form of language and form of relationship and as such, it lends itself well to a kind of attachment.”

Tiffanie Darke, editor of The Sunday Times Style section, which runs astrologer Shelley von Strunckel’s column, confirmed that via email, saying, “There is a significant readership who buy the paper particularly for Shelley's column, and there is a very considerable readership who you will see on Sundays in the pub, round the kitchen table, across a table at a cafe, reading out her forecasts to each other.”

This fits with what newspapers really are and have virtually always been – not just vehicles for hard news and so-called important stories, but also distributors of entertainment gossip and sports scores, advice on love matters and how to get gravy stains out of clothing, practical information about stock prices and TV schedules, recipes and knitting patterns, comics and humor, even games and puzzles. Whether those features are the spoonful of sugar to help the hard news medicine go down or whether people just pick up the paper for the horoscope makes little difference to the bottom line.

So as to why newspapers run horoscopes, the answer is simple: Readers like them.

But the figures on how many readers actually like horoscopes aren’t entirely clear. A National Science Foundation survey from 1999 found that just 12 percent of Americans read their horoscope every day or often, while 32 percent read them occasionally. More recently, the American Federation of Astrologers put the number of Americans who read their horoscope every day as high as 70 million, about 23 percent of the population. Anecdotally, enough people read horoscopes to be angry when they’re not in their usual place in the paper – Cainer says that he has a clause in his contract allowing him to take holidays, making him a rarity in the business: “The reading public is gloriously unsympathetic to an astrologer’s need for time off.”

Other evidence indicates that significant numbers of people do read their horoscopes if not daily, then regularly: When in 2011, astronomers claimed that the Earth’s naturally occurring orbital “wobble” could change star signs, many people promptly freaked out. (Astrologers, meanwhile, were far more sanguine – your sign is still your sign, they counseled; some, Cainer included, sighed that the wobble story was just another salvo in the fiercely pitched battle between astronomers and astrologers.)

At the same time, a significant portion of the population believe in the underpinnings of newspapers horoscopes. According to a 2009 Harris poll, 26 percent of Americans believe in astrology; that’s more people than believe in witches (23 percent), but less than believe in UFOs (32 percent), Creationism (40 percent) and ghosts (42 percent). Respect for astrology itself may be on the rise: A more recent survey from the National Science Foundation, published in 2014, found that fewer Americans rejected astrology as “not scientific” in 2012 than they did in 2010 – 55 percent as compared to 62 percent. The figure hasn’t been that low since 1983.

People who read their horoscopes also pay attention to what they say. In 2009, an iVillage poll – to mark the launch of the women-focused entertainment site’s dedicated astrology site, Astrology.com – found that of female horoscope readers, 33 percent check their horoscopes before job interviews; 35 percent before starting a new relationship; and 34 percent before buying a lottery ticket. More recent research, published in the October 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, found that people who read a negative horoscope were more likely to indulge in impulsive or self-indulgent behavior soon after.

So what’s going on? Why are people willing to re-order their love lives, buy a lottery ticket, or a take a new job based on the advice of someone who knows nothing more about them than their birthdate?

One reason we can rule out is scientific validity. Of all the empirical tests that have been done on astrology, in all fields, says Dr. Chris French, a professor of psychology at London’s Goldsmith College who studies belief in the paranormal, “They are pretty uniformly bad news for astrologers.”

There’s very little scientific proof that astrology is an accurate predictor of personality traits, future destinies, love lives, or anything else that mass-market astrology claims to know. For example, in a 1985 study published in the journal Nature, Dr. Shawn Carlson of University of California, Berkeley’s Physics department found that seasoned astrologers were unable to match individual’s star chart with the results of a personality test any better than random chance; in a second test, individuals were unable to choose their own star charts, detailing their astrologically divined personality and character traits, any better than chance.

A smaller 1990 study conducted by John McGrew and Richard McFall of Indiana University’s Psychology department and designed with a group of astrologers, found that astrologers were no better at matching star charts to the corresponding comprehensive case file of a volunteer than a non-astrologer control subject or random chance, and moreover, didn’t even agree with each other. A study out in 2003, conducted by former astrologer Dr. Geoffrey Dean and psychologist Dr. Ivan Kelly, tracked the lives of 2,000 subjects who were all born within minutes of one another over several decades. The theory was that if astrological claims about star position and birthdates were true, then the individuals would have shared similar traits; they did not.

Studies that support the claims of astrology have been largely dismissed by the wider scientific community for a “self-attribution” bias – subjects had a prior knowledge of their sign’s supposed characteristics and therefore could not be reliable – or because they could not be replicated. Astrologers are, unsurprisingly, not impressed by scientific efforts to prove or disprove astrology, claiming that scientists are going about it all wrong – astrology is not empirical in the way that, say, physics is: “Experiments are set up by people who don’t have any context for this, even if they were attempting to do something constructive,” says Shelley von Strunckel, American astrologer and horoscope writer whose column appears in The Sunday Times, London Evening Standard, Chinese Vogue, Tatler and other major publications. “It’s like, ‘I’m going to cook this great French meal, I’ve got this great cook book in French – but I don’t speak French.’”

But despite a preponderance of scientific evidence to suggest that the stars do not influence our lives – and even personally demonstrable evidence such as that financial windfall your horoscope told you to expect on the eighth of the month failed to materialize – people continue to believe. (It’s important to note, however, that some astrologers balk at the notion of “belief” in astrology: “It’s not something you believe in,” says Strunckel. “It’s kind of like believing in dinner. The planets are there, the cycles of nature are there, the full moons are there, nature relates to all of that, it’s not something to believe in.”)

The “why” people continue to read and credence their horoscopes is most often explained by psychologist Bertram Forer’s classic 1948 “self-validation” study. Forer gave his students a personality test, followed by a description of their personality that was supposedly based on the results of the test. In reality, there was only ever one description, cobbled together from newspaper horoscopes, and everyone received the same one. Forer then asked them to rate, on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent), the description’s accuracy; the average score was 4.26 – pretty remarkable, unless all the students really were exactly the same. Forer’s observation was quickly dubbed the Forer effect and has often been replicated in other settings.

Part of what was happening was that the descriptions were positive enough, without being unbelievably positive:

You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

and, importantly, vague enough to be applicable to a wide audience:

At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

Even horoscope writers admit that some of their success rests in not saying too much. Says Cainer, “The art of writing a successful horoscope column probably confirms what all too many skeptics and cynics eagerly clutch to their bosoms as charlatanry. Because it’s writing ability that makes a horoscope column believable… ultimately a successful column will avoid specifics wherever possible. You develop the art of being vague.”

The other element of the Forer effect is that the individual readers did most of the work, shaping the descriptions to fit themselves – not for nothing is the Forer effect also called the Barnum effect, after the famous showman’s claim that his shows “had something for everyone”. French, the Goldsmith psychologist, notes that people who read horoscopes are often invested in making their horoscope right for them. “If you buy into the system and the belief, it’s you that’s kind of making the reading appear to be more specific than it actually is,” he explains. “Most days for most people is a mix of good things and bad things, and depending on how you buy into the system… if you’re told to expect something good that day, then anything good that happens that day is read as confirmation.”

Astrologer Cainer has another, more practical explanation for why people read horoscopes: “It’s because they’re there.” There’s very much a “can’t hurt” and “might help” perception of horoscopes; at the same time, newspaper horoscopes, he says, also allow casual horoscope readers “a glorious sense of detachment: ‘I don’t believe in this rubbish but I’ll have a look.’” This resonates with what Julian Baggini, a British philosopher and writer for The Guardian, says about why people read horoscopes: “No matter how much the evidence is staring someone in the face there’s nothing in this, there’s that ‘Well, you never know.’” (Even if you do know.) 

But “you never know” and even the Forer effect doesn’t entirely explain the longevity of a form that many critics complain has no business being in a newspaper – so maybe there’s something else going on. When French taught a course with a section on astrological beliefs, he’d sometimes ask on exams: “Does astrology work?” “Basically, the good answers would be the ones that took part the word ‘work,’” he says. On the one hand, the straightforward answer is that, according to a host of scientific studies, astrology does not work. “But you’ve then got the other question… ‘Does astrology provide any psychological benefit, does it have an psychology function?’” he said. “The answer to that is, sometimes, yes.”

Psychologists see people on a scale between those who have what’s called an external locus of control, where they feel that they are being acted upon by forces out of their influence, and people with an internal locus of control, who believe that they are the actors. “Not so surprisingly, people who believe in astrology tend to have an external locus of control,” says French. That observation tallies with what other psychologists say: Margaret Hamilton, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who found that people are more likely to believe favorable horoscopes, noted that people who are believers in astrology also tend to be more anxious or neurotic.

Newspaper horoscopes, she said, offer a bit of comfort, a sort of seeing through the veil on a casual level. French agrees: astrology and newspaper horoscopes can give people “some kind of sense of control and some kind of framework to help them understand what’s going on in their lives.” It’s telling that in times of uncertainty, whether on a global, national or personal level, he notes, astrologers, psychics, and others who claim to be able to offer guidance do a pretty brisk business; that belief in astrology is apparently on the rise in America, according to the NSF survey published in 2014, may have something to do with recent financial uncertainty. Cainer agreed that people take horoscopes more seriously when they’re in distress: “If they’re going through a time of disruption, they suddenly start to take what’s written about their sign much more seriously…. If you’re worried and somebody tells you not to worry, you take that to heart.” (On whether astrologers are taking advantage of people, French is clear: “I am not saying that astrologers are deliberate con artists, I’m pretty sure they’re not. They’ve convinced themselves that this system works.”)

Philosophically, there is something about reading horoscopes that does imply a placing of oneself. As Hamilton notes, “It allows you to see yourself as part of the world: ‘Here’s where I fit in, oh, I’m Pisces.’” Looking deeper, Baggini, the philosopher, explains, “Human beings are pattern seekers. We have a very, very strong predisposition to notice regularities in nature and the world, to the extent that we see more than there are. There are good evolutionary reasons for this, in short a false positive is less risky than failure to observe a truth.” But, more to the point, “We also tend to think things happen for a reason and we tend to leap upon whatever reasons available to us, even if they’re not entirely credible.”

Horoscopes walk a fine line, and, for many people, an appealing one. “On the one hand, people do want to feel they have some agency or control over the future, but on the other, it’s rather frightening to think they have too much,” explained Baggini. “So a rather attractive world view is that there is some sense of unfolding benign purpose in the universe, in which you weren’t fundamentally responsible for everything, but were given some kind of control… and astrology gives us a bit of both, a balance.”

Astrologers might agree. “I’m a great believer in freewill,” says Cainer. “There’s a lovely old Latin phrase that astrologers like to quote to each other: Astra inclinant non necessitant. The stars suggest, but they don’t force… I like to think that astrology is about a way of fighting planetary influences, it’s not entirely about accepting them.”

But really, at the end of the day, are horoscopes doing more harm than good, or more good than harm? It all depends on whom you ask (and, of course, on the appropriateness of the advice being given). Strunckel and Cainer, obviously, see what they do as helping people, although both acknowledge that, as Strunckel says, “Astrology isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.”

Richard Dawkins, the outspoken humanist and militant atheist, came out strongly against astrology and horoscopes in a 1995 Independent article published on New Years’ Eve, declaring, “Astrology not only demeans astronomy, shrivelling and cheapening the universe with its pre-Copernican dabblings. It is also an insult to the science of psychology and the richness of human personality.” Dawkins also took newspapers to task for even entertaining such “dabblings”. More recently, in 2011, British rockstar physicist Brian Cox came under fire from astrologers for calling astrology a “load of rubbish” on his Wonders of the Solar System program on BBC. After the BBC fielded a bunch of complaints, Cox offered a statement, which the broadcaster probably wisely chose not to release: “I apologize to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilization.”

What Dawkins and Cox may not want to acknowledge is that humans don’t tend to make decisions based on a logical, rational understanding of facts (there’s a reason why “cognitive dissonance” is a thing) – and horoscope reading might be just as good a system of action as any. “Most people don’t base their views and opinions the best empirical evidence,” French says. “There are all kinds of reasons for believing what you believe, not least of which is believing stuff because it just kind of feels good.”

At their heart, horoscopes are a way to offset the uncertainty of daily life. “If the best prediction you’ve got is still completely rubbish or baseless, it’s better than no prediction at all,” says Baggini. “If you have no way of controlling the weather, you’ll continue to do incantations and dances, because the alternative is doing nothing. And people hate doing nothing.”

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