Astrology: Is it actually written in the stars?

Owen Peterson, Opinion Editor

Isn’t it just so crazy that those daily horoscopes are always so accurate? No. Not really.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Barnum Effect, the phenomenon of people believing that personality descriptions apply to them in particular, even though the description is actually designed to apply to everyone who reads it.

So while every “you have a tendency to be critical of yourself” and “while you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them” may seem to ring true on a personal level, odds are that the vast majority of people who read that statement will say it applies to them.

It’s both well-known and overstated at this point that astrology is complete pseudoscience, but it bears repeating that the only substantial difference between believing a horoscope instead of a P.F. Chang’s fortune cookie is the carbs.

By providing intentionally vague (and usually positive) statements to take advantage of the Barnum Effect, horoscopes can elicit positive reactions and ensure that their post will be liked or the reader will visit their site again. Especially in a time where content is consumed so quickly, reading a short horoscope can provide that quick hit of serotonin that this susceptible, stress-laden generation craves.

This effect isn’t just confined to astrology. Even in seemingly more scientific practices, such as the Myers-Briggs test, one of the internet’s favorite bits of pop psychology, the Barnum Effect is still in play.

While the test has its roots in legitimate personality theory, short-form versions of the test largely bastardize it for the purpose of consumability. Examples like the 16Personalities test realistically have all the scientific prowess of a Buzzfeed “What kind of Northern European cheese are you?” quiz.

The test, which provides one with a four-letter personality type, such as INFJ or ENTP, gives all kinds of vague information regarding strengths, weakness, companionship traits and career advice, making it popular for a lot of the same reasons as star signs.

This effect also pops up all the time on social media and streaming services whenever a “just for you” section appears. Of course, the message was sent to hundreds of people, but the way it’s presented once again elicits that positive response because it tricks the brain into thinking the message was specifically catered to it.

What this all comes from is the human brain’s love to make sense out of everything (e.g. heuristics), even when there isn’t any sense to be made. This neural satisfaction from having “answers” also positions the use of horoscopes or personality type quizzes as a sort of coping mechanism.

People who are experiencing stress and uncertainty often wish to find answers to whatever issues they may have, and these Barnum Effect-based methods offer those quick-and-easy explanations and closure.

This was exemplified in a study done during the pandemic, which found that the more stressed a person was, the more susceptible they were to the Barnum Effect. It makes sense, then, that such an anxious demographic would enjoy horoscopes. The results of this study also showed that people who consume astrology-related content were also more susceptible to the effect.

While it would be incorrect to assert that there is any tangible harm being done through the use of horoscopes, it’s nonetheless important to remember that, while the answers can be comforting in the moment, they don’t really mean anything and should not be relied on.

Moreover, the use of horoscopes and personality quizzes promotes an external locus of control, or, the belief that external factors have significant control over one’s life/behavior. While having an external locus isn’t viewed as objectively negative, it can help promote the feeling of helplessness and lack of control that comes with depression and/or anxiety.

Either way, it’s important to realize that the brain will always respond well to positive feedback, and these personality assessments are designed to take advantage of the Barnum Effect and do just that.