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