When I was at my previous job, I used to pick up a morning paper every day while commuting. It was free (the adverts dominated in square centimeters), and had all sorts of rubbish within its pages. I didn’t do this out of a lack of reading material, I took it because the women in my office asked me to: the last page was dedicated to the daily horoscope.
Sure, it made for a laugh while on morning coffee break, hearing what the stars had in store for us for that particular day, but I couldn’t help but think of the activity as beneath us.
This, in turn, lead me to see the insistence of certain individuals for my bringing the newspaper as a sign of little intellect. We hear all the time that horoscope popularity and beliefs related to astrology are to do with scientific illiteracy. So what of it? Are people that show interest in their horoscope less smart?
Western astrology originated somewhere in Sumer (modern day Iraq) because ancient Babylonians were perplexed by the world around them, and started seeking means to predict events. Such desires coincide with the reasons why we now study things using scientific methodology – and truth be told, in its infancy, astronomy was an observational activity which tried to make use of notions such as correlation to see how the worldly can be explained by appeal to the celestial. But this was still a far cry from the horoscopes at the backside of morning newspapers.
It wasn’t until the Ancient Greeks came along that we started using something akin to astrology to see how the stars might influence the mundane. In Medieval Europe astrology spread and flourished, acting as a catalyst for many celestial discoveries. Now-famous astronomers, Kepler and Galileo were known to have cast horoscopes for leaders of their time, all the while coming up with discoveries that shaped the way humanity saw the heavens.
Astrology has grown in popularity probably due to people misunderstanding what science and pseudoscience are.
But in modern times, in the wake of an ever increasing incompatibility between astronomy and astrology, the latter has grown in popularity probably due to people misunderstanding what science and pseudoscience are.
Statistical studies frame astrology as a belief in planets and stars causing effects. A quick look at the results of a Harris poll from 2009 shows that at least 26% of Americans believe in astrology in one way or another.
But if you live in the US, there are better odds of you not knowing your astrological sign than being an Aries. Or Aquarius, Pisces, Gemini, Scorpio, Sagittarius and Capricorn. At least that’s what the result of a YouGov poll from 2015 show. The most common star sign for guys is Leo (around 11%) and the most common one for girls is Virgo (about 12%). Now, considering that 9% of all men have no idea what star sign they are, that slim majority of Leos looks a little shaky.
Looking at things from a spatial perspective, people in the Western part of the US seem to be the most knowledgeable about their zodiac signs, whereas Northeastern folk the most oblivious.
Not to say that correlation implies causation, but when juggling numbers which pertain to big populations we can get pretty insightful bits of information. So when looking at a breakdown by IQ, what we see is that the Northeast also has the highest average intelligence – and the greatest average state-production – and the highest per capita production. Comparatively, the Western US has the least per capita income, and lower IQ averages. That’s quite the correlation.
Looking a bit deeper into this gave some further insight: over half the population doesn’t think that horoscopes can inform well, but one-third (roughly) still do. That means that in excess of 100 million people in the arguably most powerful nation today hold beliefs that go against the better part of human knowledge.
The Midwest and West are most convinced by the horoscope’s ability to inform, whilst the most skeptical geographic division in the United States remains the South. But what really struck me when looking at my datasheet was this: age-wise, the younger the population, the higher the chances of a bigger share of people thinking that horoscopes can give reliable information. That means that younger folk – the people that should have more access to means of informing themselves and a greater ability to discern garbage from fact – are the most vulnerable to pseudo-scientific means of understanding reality.
If you live in the US, there are better odds of you not knowing your astrological sign than being an Aries.
A paper published more than a decade ago in the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Mercury Magazine found that even more educated members of society hold beliefs in astrology. It turns out that simply exposing people to facts of scientific value (think young people with facile access to information) doesn’t ‘dissuade them, because they feel intimidated by science’. That’s because school and brains don’t go hand in hand, as the authors from Mercury put it. Formal education can continue for years without crossing tracks with pseudo-scientific or mystical beliefs, so it might be harder for the average individual to discern each one’s value.
What’s more, when these beliefs are harmless, they might best even formal education that shows how little truth there is in them. After all, if holding a personal belief won’t cause anyone pain, ‘why expend mental energy in renouncing a view’?
YouGov’s stats on this also show that the lower the income, the greater the confidence in horoscopes as sources of insight about the self and others. And truth be told, my previous job wasn’t that brain racking – and neither was the pay as good.
When these beliefs are harmless, they might best even formal education.
Overall, women are pretty confident in trusting the horoscope (about 39% do) with men trailing behind (21% by YouGov’s count). But all too many consider astrology as belief, something akin to religion. The truth is that where religion has no empirical framework, astrology presents itself as being a framework of proven facts – something it evidently is not.
With respect to this fallacy I mention that the Pew Research Center found 77% of American women declaring their belief in God with absolute certainty, compared to only 66% of American men. Women also pray more (66% compared to 49% of men) and attend religious service more often (44% compared to 34% of men). So there is some sort of rough correlation between believing in star sign and God, but it’s fuzzy.
When it comes to predicting the future, people in the US are much less likely to believe that horoscopes can do this. One in ten men thinks that future insight can be gained via horoscopes, as compared to nearly two in ten women. Paradoxically, the Northeast is most prone to believing in horoscope prediction. So maybe the correlations about intelligence and appeal to star signs merit more reserve.
All too many consider astrology as belief, something akin to religion.
And when looking at this demographically, it turns out that the older and more well-off you are with respect to income, the less likely you are to believe that astrology can predict anything.
When it comes to perceptions on destiny, the scales shift: a clear majority (of 52%) of people in the US believe in the concept of ‘fate’. In part, this high average comes down to the Northeast’s exceptionally high belief in fate. And whilst this might not be a direct link to the concepts of the zodiac, horoscope or star sign, the contextual barrier between the two sides are not that clear. Almost six women and five men out of ten adhere to believing in fate – and the older one is, the greater the chances of that person believing in destiny in one way or another.
What does all this tell us? Nothing clear from the get-go. As Carson Mencken of Baylor University put it – all paranormalists have a spiritual orientation to the world. Strangely enough, humans discern the different types of spiritual beliefs: a study published in Discover Magazine in 2008 found that there is only ever a mild correlation between lack of belief in divinity lack of trust in astrology.
But maybe that’s because being an atheist doesn’t equate to understanding how the world works. Religion, as a means of guiding a person through the moral and sometimes intellectual hurdles of life, tends nowadays to steer clear of astrology. And while this doesn’t mean that religious folk are less prone to being avid zodiac readers, it would imply that non-practicing or atheist people are – at least on a community level – more spiritually independent and thus free to pursue mystical beliefs or interact with other paranormal-friendly individuals.
America also facilitates mixed-religious experiences, blending Christianity with other beliefs (such as Eastern mysticism or New Age ideas of astrology and spirituality).
It’s so natural for us to believe, the act of dispossessing our collective mirages becomes something very hard to do. As Brian Cronk of Missouri Western State University put it, the human brain is always trying to determine why things happen – and when the reasons are not clear, it tends to make up explanations that might be right (proven scientific hypotheses) or bizarre (pseudosciences and misconceptions) on later reflection.
Being an atheist doesn’t equate to understanding how the world works.
The ability to predict the future might be what made our species so cerebral, but this mechanism also gave us the ability to create superstitions and develop paranormal beliefs.
So why do women believe in this stuff more than men do? Modern astrology relies deeply on the Barnum Effect: receiving general information or descriptions that can mold and apply to anyone. And much like the Babylonians or the Greeks before us, we all want to find patterns that make us feel like the world around us is in some way predictable. This might all boil down to how people define how much they are in control of their own lives.
An easy way of looking at this is the concept of ‘locus (Latin for “place” or “location”) of control’: the extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them.
Having an external locus of control means believing that one can’t control what happens to oneself, whereas an internal locus of control means that one thinks that it’s up to him or her to control how life progresses. Studies expanding on this concept seem to show that women nowadays are predominantly in the first batch, making them more prone to just taking things as they are – hence their wanting to see patterns and regularities in the world that might explain things related to their own lives.
In the end, what I got from all this can be summed up in the following: the more you age, the more you realize that your horoscope is bunk; even though as age goes up, so does the probability of increasing one’s spirituality. Certain psychological attributes considered, women are more prone than men to read horoscopes. That doesn’t mean that men don’t do this as well, they just do it for different reasons.
Can we explain this by appealing to lack of intelligence? It’s hard to tell, but the numbers tend to point to the fact that definitive and stubborn beliefs in things like the zodiac or star signs are dead ringers for lower scientific literacy.
All the information I’ve used is free to access, but it takes some time to sort the data and crunch the numbers. So if you’re interested in looking into this further, I’d be happy to share my dataset with you. Just tweet me at alexgabriel_i
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 83 (3): 693–710. (1 January 2002). “Are measures of self-esteem, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy indicators of a common core construct?”
- U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Economic Activity. Retrieved 14 December 2015. “Gross domestic product (GDP) by state (millions of current dollars)”
- Per capita Real GDP in chained (2009) U.S. dollars © Statista 2016
- YouGov – United States Poll 2015
- Virginia Commonwealth University “Estimating state IQ: Measurement challenges and preliminary correlates” Michael A. McDaniel Virginia
- Astronomical Society of the Pacific The Roots of Astrology – Mercury Magazine Vol. 23 No. 5 September/October 1994
- Discover Magazine – “Who believes in astrology?” Razib Khan – August 2008
- NBC News – “Supernatural science: Why we want to believe” – Robert Roy Britt – 2008
- Gallup – “Paranormal Beliefs Come (Super)Naturally to Some” – Linda Lyons (US, Canada, Great Britain poll)
- Pew Research Center “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths” – 2009
- Harris Poll (US) – 2009, 2005
- Poll conducted in connection with the relaunch of iVillage’s Astrology.com, 2011
- James H. Holden – A History of Horoscopic Astrology
- Cambridge University Press – “The culture of Babylonia: Babylonian mathematics, astrology, and astronomy.” (1991)