Why Do People Believe in Astrology?

Neon sign that says "Astrology Readings Open"

Ancient societies used the art of astrology to make decisions. This belief system continues to exist today as  one out of every four Americans report that they believe that the positions of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.  Astrology is a pseudoscience, lacking solid empirical evidence, and yet millions of people turn to these magical predictions in order to confidently make decisions. Belief by popular celebrities (and even Presidents) help sell the legitimacy of mystical predictions even as science continues to suggest otherwise. To fully comprehend why people strongly believe in astrology, horoscopes, and other similar devices, psychologists have researched how and why people choose to trust in unscientific systems.

The natural tendency for humans to believe in mysticisms derives from the desire to find control in the uncertainties of life. Almost every day people engage in difficult situations involving important decisions that can be accompanied by anxiety, anger, or fear.  Therefore, in order to escape the chaos of life, people will continue to check the daily horoscopes and consult fortune tellers even as they lack predictive validity.

This phenomenon, known as the Barnum Effect, explains the human tendency to apply vague, general, and favorable statements as representative of themselves or of their personal situations. People persistently believe, and in doing so, legitimize these predictions as the vague statements will generally match with any person’s personality.  For example, a horoscope may tell you to “resist the urge to spend beyond your means… and you will be tempted by an intriguing purchase early in the month.” People will read predictions like this one and unconsciously make connections to their lives, even if they must selectively interpret the prediction to fit their life circumstances or personality.  Lastly, incorporating positive descriptions in the horoscopes has been shown to elicit stronger beliefs in the predictions.  It is natural for humans to associate positive attributes to ourselves due to our innate self-selection bias. We often times believe that we take on good, general  traits like “friendly” or “outgoing, yet timid” because we tend to see ourselves in a positive light.

In my opinion, unscientific claims of astrology and other mysticisms can be harmless and fun.  It seems natural that humans seek guidance when making decisions and the small claims of magazines telling Aries to pay more attention to school appears innocent.  Once people begin to be exploited for their money and time, there can be damaging consequences.  “Tricking” people into wasting their own resources on a false prediction is simply unjust and wrong.

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Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project. **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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