Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Midweek Cuckoo: Astrology Part 1: The Psychology

The results are in! Firstly, thank you to all who participated. Without you, I would have had to make the results up.

Secondly, an insight into my methods. Some of you asked and were informed that you were part of a control group. What i failed to mention was that you were all in the control group. We already know that people in general rate their horoscopes as accurate, or astrology wouldn't have survived this long. So, apart from the very first paragraph, you all received exactly the same horoscope. All material however was taken from actual horoscopes.

So here are the results:

Participants: 27
Average accuracy rating: 7

On the whole, you rated the accuracy quite high, regardless of star sign. There were a few dissidents outside the bell curve at 3, but 81% of you rated the accuracy as medium or above. For an astrologer, this many hits would correspond to a very satisfied customer base.

In order to explain why you could all get the same horoscope yet rate it so accurate, let me lay out some of the basic principles of how horoscopes work:

Keep it Generic

Some of you complained that the horoscope was extremely generic and could have applied to many people. I'll mention again this was a real horoscope. They really are that generic. By making blanket statements that will apply to many people, they increase their chance of getting a hit. By making statements like 'You are sometimes X and sometimes Y' - where X and Y are polar opposites - they cover all their bases. In this way, they guarantee maximum audience satisfaction. The tendency of people to rate generic statements as highly accurate to them personally is known as the Forer Effect. Forer took his 'personality test' from a newsstand astrology column - you might recognize some of the text.

Keep it Positive

Horoscopes rely heavily on wishful thinking and subjective validation. We all have preconceived notions about ourselves, and most of them make us out to be better than we are. Making positive statements increases the likelihood that people will apply them to themselves, even when they are not exactly applicable or even true.

Even the Negatives are Positive

To not make the entire horoscope seem too congratulatory, astrologers also add in a few negative statements, things about your personality you could improve. However, these are very carefully worded so as not to be really negative. A statement like 'You spend too much time taking care of others' seems negative on the face of things, but socially this is not really seen as a flaw. Many people would like to think they are less selfish than they are. In truth, this is yet another positive statement that anyone would like to apply to themselves.

People will Remember the Hits and Forget the Misses

In astrology, just like in cold reading, the reader relies on the tendency of the customer to only pay attention to the statements that they see as comfirming their belief in astrology and in their own personality, and ignoring those that do not. This is referred to as confirmation bias. This is most obvious when we notice seeming coincidences: something happens that seems incredibly unlikely, but it only seems so because we ignore every other instance where it didn't happen as not worth noticing. The same occurs in astrology: we pay attention to the hits and dismiss the points that do not agree. Readers will often inform their audience that seeming misses are not even misses, that they will be revealed at a later stage, or that you are blocking a memory and preventing yourself from realising that they are hits. In this way, the fault of the miss is shifted from the reader to you.

For those who were already skeptical, congratulations. For those who believe that horoscopes really work, i suggest you keep some of these principles in mind when reading horoscopes in future. How many of the statements really apply to you, and how many would you just like to apply to you? How many do not apply to you at all, and how likely is it that you would dismiss them out of hand if you weren't really trying to assess things objectively? If you thought the survey horoscope was extremely accurate and were disappointed to discover it wasn't yours, bear that in mind next time you pick up a magazine to check your sign. James Randi once made a bit of cash on the side as the successful astologer Zo-Ram, and admitted that he pulled the daily horoscopes out of a hat. Yet his readers rated them as highly accurate.

Next post: Why astrology doesn't even follow its own rules.

Additional reading:

Skeptic Dictionary entry on astrology
An interesting test of agreement between astrologers
And another test


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