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Your Horoscope for Today: You may download or delete a horoscope app on your phone

Real footage of exhausted, Gen Z college kids acting flabbergast at zodiacs predicting their lives

Link to meme:https://images.app.goo.gl/Y4Kmu1R9xujSdmeP9

Maybe you have read somewhere that those who take astrology seriously are suckers(the meme world has verified this information as you can see in the image next to the this post) and are prone to a variety of biases. Maybe you yourself have made fun of that one friend in the group who seems to take the “star sign thing” way too seriously and who is ready to choose a life partner by their chart compatibility. And maybe despite that, like me and countless other people, when you come across a “reading” or a horoscope prediction, you read every word intently to see if it matches you. And maybe you have done this a few times: sucked your teeth when you read the horoscope for a day that has just ended but see that not a single thing on it lines up with the day you have just had. And maybe after that, you swore never to read the damn things again. But if I checked right now, it has probably just been a few days since you opened the notifications from an astrology app like Costar or ran a google search for character traits of others like you who were born within the month-long interval that determines your shared “sun sign. Life right now is so unpredictable so we hold on to sources of predictions because SOME idea of what is going to happen would be nice. But astrology’s hold is not due to that reason alone. Humans are susceptible to many biases in our thinking and in this blog post, I’ll break down our shared mental weak links that have even science majors picking out partners and friends according to their sun sign compatibility.

Firstly, to counter the claims, we must know the truth. Most of us know vaguely that astrology is not a reliable source of information but do not know exactly why. Here is some evidence to back up your next argument with that one friend who takes astrology a bit too seriously. If you have ever filled out an online form for a birth chart (a more detailed astrology report than a horoscope), you know that all you need to do apart from filling out your birth date is to provide information about your birth time. After doing this, the site then gives you a “birth chart” that breaks down of what type of person you are, what types of jobs you are likely to do, the roles you typically play in relationships, and a myriad more predictions about how your life will turn out. Scientists interested in proving astrology’s accuracy decided to test it using birth charts. They reached out to hospitals across the US and matched people who had the same birth times. They did a deep dive into the lives of these birth chart twins and checked to see how much their personalities, interests and general life outcomes like finances overlapped, and aligned with the birth charts (Komath, 2009). There was no strong evidence supporting the predictions about interests, general life trajectory or personality characteristics that multiple astrologers made about these subjects with their respective birth charts. The astrologers argued but didn’t give any worthy rebuttals to disprove the science. There you have it, cold hard facts -1, astrology- 0.

So, despite it having been debunked many times and this strongly, why do many people still take astrology seriously? Certain other phenomena must be in place that let us fall prey to the readings given by astrological publications. Our likelihood to believe in astrological claims has been attributed to the “Barnum effect” named after the T.P. Barnum of circus fame who is quoted as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute” (Barnum, ca. 1879, as cited in Glick et al., 1989). The Barnum effect refers to the tendency for people to give high accuracy ratings to personality descriptions that, although they think are unique, can apply to the general population (Glick et al., 1989). So, for this blog post, I thought I would go explain to you, reader what I have learnt about the underlying mechanisms to the Barnum effect, so we can both stop being suckers and not wait for Vogue’s latest horoscopes to tell us how to show up this month.

One such phenomenon that contributes to the Barnum effect is the self- (link to Kate’s thing) bias that humans are prone to. Self-serving bias is defined as people’s tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors (Boyes, 2013). For example, have you ever gotten a grade that was worse than what you expected on a test and then told yourself the teacher was just harsh at grading? But you knew deep down you could have studied a bit more for it? If you had done better than expected you would be unlikely to think of the teacher’s leniency in grading as the reason for your performance and would probably pat yourself on the back for being smart enough to do well despite lacking thorough prep. Because many horoscopes spout generalized and typically positively skewed characteristics about their readers, the self-serving bias causes a lot of people to fall for them regularly as they want to see themselves in the best light. This effect is so strong that even though firm skeptics of astrology show initial disdain for the credibility of astrological readings, our susceptibility to bias seems to win over logic. In an experiment that checked how skeptics versus believers react to seemingly personalized, positive astrological analyses of themselves, the skeptics chose to cling to their beliefs in the strength of their positive traits. They actually lowered their initial ratings of the level of their disbelief in astrology when they are reading these generalized “readings” (Glick & Jolton, 1989). Sound familiar? I was that person as well: downloading Costar’s horoscope app seconds after I read Capricorns were ambitious, sensitive yet misunderstood; even though I had just roasted my friends who for having the astrology app on their phones.

Okay so Mr. Barnum’s judgement of us was accurate but it was just due to us wanting to think the best of ourselves, right? Now that we know to stop acting like we are the world revolves around us, we should be good, right? Not so fast. You might have heard about yet another contemporarily famous human bias:  – being primed with biased information causes one to look at a situation hoping to find information that aligns with the viewpoint one already has about said situation. This bias might seem inevitable, especially since anything said by humans is inherently biased. But science comes to the rescue again. If we are told to look specifically for information that will disconfirm what we already have in our information banks, then we are more likely to take the route of questioning the prior information we have (Snyder & White, 1981). For example, you read a Twitter horoscope account’s post that tells you that Leos are likely to be extroverted and attention seeking. If you go about your day with that information, even as someone who might identify as a skeptic, your interactions with people you know are Leos will be skewed. Instead of seeing things neutrally, we are more likely to rate our social interactions with Leos against the ideas about them from the horoscope, as a verification process of sorts. If you think about the information you get from astrology as something to be disproved, then we are more likely to seek out information that does not confirm what we initially were told about someone. So, taking astrological predictions as information to be disproved rather than verified would improve our ability to discount it as false information (Snyder & White, 1981).

The best way to deal with our biases is to be a lot more aware of our vulnerability to these biases and work at monitoring our cognitive processes (Snyder & White, 1981). The last weak link I’ll talk about in this post is our memory and this susceptibility is a bit harder to deal with than the others. Human memory is biased when remembering the past accuracy of predictions. We have stronger memories (they come to mind faster) of standout incidents because they are likely to make a longer lasting impression(McBride and Cutting, 2018), so we focus on them as opposed to the multitude of times horoscopes or prophecies have been incorrect. Another reason for our predisposition to take astrological predictions accurately is the fact that human memory reconstructs memories- we store memories in parts and some parts might be available to us when recalling while others are not. (McBride and Cutting, 2018). We do not recall perfect recordings of the past that we can pull up on our phones screens and watch (there was a Black Mirror episode on Netflix about this that I would not recommend as it is terrifying). So, when we remember events and compare them against the predictive statements, we do not exactly have a perfect recording of our pasts that we rewind and pause and compare to the horoscope(like Leonardo DiCaprio meme shown below)

We don’t always get a chance to pause our lives and point when we recognize something familiar from our horoscope (like Leonardo DiCaprio does in this meme-worthy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

Link to meme: https://images.app.goo.gl/YM8zjuN4uH8C6N7E9

We have to rely on memory cues that are available to us at that given instance and they determine how we remember what we remember. A cue is something in our immediate environment or something that comes to mind that is linked to a memory. Questions about something you have a memory of can serve as a cue. If someone asks leading questions (questions that are intentionally biased in a certain direction) about a memory, then your retrieval of this memory is distorted in the direction the question is being asked which could change how you recall. Imagine you are leaving Walmart, having paid for everything you just purchased and then a staff member stops to ask if you have paid for everything. In that moment you might become unsure because this question might seem to be assuming you made an error, or you shoplifted. This uncertainty is even intensified if you didn’t pay that much attention to your scanning and so your memory of it isn’t that strong (McBride & Cutting, 2018). If they had just asked how your shopping went or asked for a receipt, you would not necessarily doubt if you had checked out everything. Reading horoscopes or weighing astrological readings against past events introduces a similar bias during recall and this means cues formerly attached to an originally accurate (as accurate as memories can be) memory could now cause you to remember a revised memory (McBride & Cutting, 2018). On learning that a horoscope predicted a situation for a certain day, we go back to our memory with this as new knowledge that causes us to look at things differently from how we might have judged them in the moment, or even take a second look at things we did not initially pay much attention to.

So far, we’ve seen that every time we read a horoscope and try not to take it seriously, we aren’t just cognitively working to not believe in it. We are also working to reduce the effect of other underlying processes that make people susceptible to a host of other things out in the world (any scam you can think of). Humans are susceptible to having our memory of life events changed by newer incidents like declarations of what should have happened for you so far. One might interpret life events to be neutral or of no great impact when they happen, but upon reading a horoscope, we are likely to change our judgement of those events to be skewed positively or negatively based on the language of the horoscope and how it affects the recall of those events. We are also likely to misread generalized statements as particular to us because we tend to look for patterns that help explain our behavior and that of those around us. All these pieces come together to show why horoscopes or sun sign personality descriptions appeal to so many people. Well, now you know better. You can still read them for fun though, just don’t stake your career path on who your birth chart told you you’d grow up to be.

References:

Boyes, A.(2013)The Self-Serving Bias: Definition, Research, and Antidotes. Retrieved October 30, 2020 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-practice/201301/the-self-serving-bias-definition-research-and-antidotes

 

Glick, P., Gottesman, D., & Jolton, J. (1989). The Fault is not in the Stars: Susceptibility of Skeptics and Believers in Astrology to the Barnum Effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15(4), 572–583. Retrieved October 30, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167289154010

 

Komath, M. (2009). Testing astrology. Current Science, 96(12), 1568-1572. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24104881

 

McBride, D. M., & Cutting, J. C. (2018). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. SAGE Publications, Los Angeles, Calif.

 

Snyder M., & White P.(1981).Testing Hypotheses about other people: Strategies of Verification and Falsification. Retrieved November 18, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1177/014616728171007

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