Menus Subscribe Search
astrology

(PHOTO: NOMAD_SOUL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

I Kind of, Sort of Might, But Not Really, Believe in Astrology

• September 19, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: NOMAD_SOUL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

With little to no scientific evidence backing them, why do so many people still look at their horoscopes?

Earlier this month I requested the input of an astrologer via Twitter. I had moved to New York City a week earlier and, in that span of time, had suffered a series of small but aggravating mishaps, including but not limited to: carrying my suitcase six flights up the apartment building next to mine; subsequently trying, for 20 minutes, to enter the wrong apartment; purchasing the wrong kitchen cart at IKEA and having to get in the return aisle immediately afterward; taking an under-prepared cab driver on an unnecessary loop around my Lower East Side neighborhood in an attempt to direct him to Brooklyn; breaking two of my new roommate’s ceramic dishes and one of her Champagne flutes; losing my favorite bracelet; and riding the subway in the wrong direction for eight stops.

This is likely more or less what anyone (and especially anyone with below-average grace) moving into a tiny apartment in a big, unfamiliar city should expect, but it seemed like a lot to go wrong in a week even still, even for me. I felt notably, cosmically unlucky, and I wanted to know when exactly I could expect it to stop. So I did the modern equivalent of visiting a soothsayer, and I tweeted at Miller of Astrology Zone in hopes she would tweet back to tell me I could expect the rest of the month to be blessed and error-free.

Although she’s known for responding fairly frequently to astrological inquiries via Twitter, she didn’t respond to mine. She may well have been too busy that day, but I suspect she knew my string of screw-ups was far from over and didn’t have the heart to tell me.

I felt notably, cosmically unlucky, and I wanted to know when exactly I could expect it to stop.

As with most other supernatural/paranormal/pseudoscientific phenomena, astrology captures my interest for reasons I can’t really explain. If pressed to state my level of belief in it, the strongest support I could give it would be to say, “I don’t know … not really?” But here I am anyway, reading my horoscope every morning before work. Two of them, actually, from apps I’ve downloaded onto my iPhone—the aforementioned Astrology Zone, which provides an incredibly detailed and frequently (if inadvertently) funny monthly outlook, and another called The Daily Horoscope. I keep my “lucky” days and “most romantic” days in mind, vaguely, and though I don’t think they have ever been accurate, I will always give the next month’s a chance.

When a stranger who follows me on Twitter emailed me to ask why so many “seemingly otherwise smart” people believed in astrology, that’s probably the kind of cognitive dissonance he was talking about. Despite near-total scientific dismissal and a penchant for getting even the haziest predictions wrong much of the time, astrologers are still compelling to many of us. Various polls typically put the figure for true belief among Americans, Canadians, and the British at roughly 25 percent—a figure that would likely be much higher if only it incorporated those who kind of, sort of believe, as well as those who claim not to believe at all, but still read their horoscopes sometimes anyway, just to check, as a joke.

THAT SUCH A SUBSTANTIAL number of us could believe in something with so little to support it has plagued various scientists and thinkers since the 17th century, when developments in astronomy and physics undermined most (if not all) of astrology’s legitimacy. It’s been, at various times, illegal; fortune telling was outlawed in New York City in 1967. The law, which is still on the books, is little enforced, but it speaks to the particular disdain reserved for people who take that kind of thing seriously. (It’s also, no doubt, meant to protect people from spending their money on something stupid, but still, the government only steps in on some of those stupid things.)

The belief in astrology has also been the subject of academic study. A 1997 article entitled “Belief in Astrology: A Social-Psychological Analysis” by researchers Martin Bauer and John Durant used 1988 British survey data to test a number of hypotheses that might explain why certain people are more likely to check their star charts than others. Among the likeliest contenders: first, the level of structure and detail implicit in astrology appeals to people with “intermediate” levels of scientific knowledge (because they like the theory and the process, if not the rigor required to disprove it); second, a belief in astrology reflects “metaphysical unrest” most present in those with religious backgrounds who have since moved away from organized religion; and third, astrological belief is more prevalent among those with an, ah, “authoritarian character.” I can’t speak for everyone, but on a personal level: OK, fair enough.

Bauer and Durant found strong support for hypotheses one and two—belief in astrology coincides with scientific interest and education up to a point, but then drops off among those inclined to true scientific rigor, and it does indeed occur more frequently among those, as the authors put it, “alive to religion” but not currently involved in a religious community—but, somewhat surprisingly according to previous literature, none for three. Some believers in astrology might happen to be authoritarian, but there are a number of other traits that predict belief more significantly. Frequent horoscope readers are more likely to be women, for one, and single, and in search of a greater sense of control (none of which are factors that have ever lent much credibility to any practice whose enthusiasts are defined by them).

What may be even more notable in Bauer and Durant’s findings, though, lies in their breakdown of the survey data. Among those who answered affirmatively to having ever read an astrology report (73 percent of all respondents), 44 percent responded that they do so often or fairly often. But only six percent of those who admitted to having ever read an astrology report said they took what they read seriously or even fairly seriously. Sixty-seven percent said they took what they read “not very seriously,” and 22 percent said they didn’t take it seriously at all. Whether these figures are strictly accurate or at least partly the result of respondents’ self-consciousness, it’s hard to say. Perhaps, like me, that 67 percent and 22 percent are mostly speaking of last month’s horoscope. Next month’s could be totally spot on.

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

More From Katie Heaney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


Follow us


3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.