Why are we hooked on horoscopes?

We all know they’re nonsense, right? But why are so many of us seduced by our star signs? By Isabelle Taubes

Whenever I read a paper or magazine, I’m drawn to the horoscopes page. I know there’s no real truth in it, but I still want to know the prediction for my star sign. It feels like a little ritual, and I enjoy it. Yes, I know millions of people were born on the same day, at the same time, but, irrationally, I think I’m going to read something unique about myself.

This temptation to read personal meaning into a general description is recognised by psychologists, who refer to it as the Barnum Effect (after American showman PT Barnum’s famous line, ‘We’ve got something for everyone’). We are all surprisingly willing, according to psychologist Bertram Forer, to attribute the vaguest personality descriptions to ourselves.

In 1948, Forer gave each of his students a personality test, telling them they were receiving a unique outline of their character and asking them to rate its accuracy. In fact, the outline was identical, but the students each rated it as an excellent description of themselves. This experiment has been repeated hundreds of times with similar results.

Some 60 years after the discovery of the Barnum Effect, horoscope writers still rely on this observable human trait.  According to one, ‘A horoscope should be well-written to be convincing. They say the same things year in, year out, and we don’t even notice, as we’re in the realm of fiction.’

My August 2009 horoscope was probably no different from this year’s, which tells me I’m about to be so creative, colleagues will want to steal my ideas, and that my finances will be looking up, so now is a great time to start a business. Hopelessly unrealistic, I know, but I find it compelling.

Philosopher Julian Baggini says, ‘A typical prediction might say, “Things have been difficult but there’s the opportunity for resolution on the horizon.” So it does that cunning trick of reflecting back to you the reality that life is quite difficult, but also offers hope of improvement.’

It is also an appealing illusion to feel you can be ‘defined’, and therefore more easily understood by others. Capricorns are said to be solitary creatures, for example, while Leos like to take centre stage, and Taureans are trustworthy and reliable.

The fact that these definitions are steeped in time increases that illusion. Ancient civilisations used horoscopes to divide time into years, months and hours — the word ‘horoscope’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to tell the time’. Priests and kings looked to the stars to tell them whether they would win in battle or enjoy a good harvest.

Horoscopes only began being aimed at ordinary people from the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1950s, they took off in the US, then over here, appealing to a new mood of individualism and narcissism, not to mention our endless quest for identity.

Nowadays, reading our horoscope is a collective self-deception, like doing the lottery. We imagine if we believe in something enough it will come true. When we were children, we believed in Father Christmas. As adults, we hope the stars will bring us what we desire: love, money and a full social life. What we can always rely on is the omission of bad news. Sad events, such as death, divorce or illness, are never there.

According to Dr Margaret Hamilton, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, 70 per cent of information in newspaper horoscopes is positive, substantially higher than any other part of a newspaper. Horoscopes offer escape from daily anxieties — grown-up fairy tales many of us consume without questioning.

Baggini explains, ‘I think they’re something you absorb in childhood, knowing from a young age what star sign you are, and people remain attached to the idea. It’s a little like the Church of England — few are hardline believers, but a lot are reluctant to give up on it altogether.’

The justification is always that it’s ‘a bit of fun’. So it can be, as long as we recognise its limitations, advises Baggini. ‘The problem is, if it incites us to ignore certain aspects of our personality, it can be a short cut that stops us thinking too much for ourselves.’

It can even encourage avid astrology followers to conform to their sign, says psychologist Susan Blackmore, who has researched the effect of horoscopes on women’s relationships.

‘The interesting discovery was when we looked at women’s personality traits in terms of how much interest they took in their star signs. The women who didn’t know much about it weren’t similar at all. Yet the women who followed them closely conformed significantly to their sign definition. So they can be influential, to the point where you could twist your personality to fit in with what they say.’

Yet horoscopes’ allure endures, as they give meaning to otherwise random events in our lives. So we can think, ‘It’s not going well because I’m a Pisces and we are destined to suffer.’ If we can blame it on Saturn or Mars, we can feel a little less responsible for our inability to keep a job or a partner. Instinctively, we don’t like the idea that events are random — so horoscopes offer us the comfort of predictability.

‘For good evolutionary reasons we are obsessive pattern-seekers,’ says Baggini. ‘Centuries ago, in terms of survival, it was safer to see patterns in everything, as a means of protection.’

Widespread interest in the rational and logic hasn’t, it seems, dented our hunger for any of the generalisations that horoscopes rely upon. ‘There is something in each one of us that is superstitious, that can’t be convinced by reason,’ explains psychoanalyst Gérard Miller. ‘This part of us means we are able to dream, to access our imagination. The problem is it makes us vulnerable to astrology, clairvoyants or any type of guru who claims to know something about our essential being, our needs, our desires — our future.’