What’s Your Sign?
My sign is that of Capricorn and universetoday.com informs me that my sign is represented by the Mountain Sea-Goat. This sign is based the Sumerian god of wisdom and water who has the upper body of a mountain goat, and the tail of a fish. Capricorns are associated with the element Earth. Do you know your sign? Many likely do, and upon delving deeper we can uncover the basis for astrology, our zodiac signs, and why this ancient practice still holds influence over people from many different walks-of-life. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary astrology is defined as: “the divination of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on human affairs and terrestrial events by their positions and aspects.” What this means is that the alignment of certain constellations, stars, and planets during the time of your birth will forever influence your personality and your life events. This is where zodiac signs are derived from, universetoday.com tells us that it is 12 constellations in particular, that correspond to the 12 different months. The concept of the zodiac originated in Babylon in the 2nd millennium B.C., where the 12 zodiac symbols were associated with the four elements (Earth, Wind, Water and Fire). Astrology asserts that the signs represent certain characteristics of human behavior and personality traits within the people born under them.
One piece of evidence used in support of the legitimacy of astrology can be found in a video of Dr. Michael Shermer and astrologer Jeffery Armstrong,. Dr. Shermer is a science historian and founder of Skeptic magazine. Jeffery Armstrong is the founder of his online curriculum Vedic Academy of Science and Arts which according to his website “offers a large curriculum of ancient wisdom for modern times.” According to a blog post by Donald Kraig, a member of the magik and astrology community, the video of Dr. Shermer’s experiment went as follows. Armstrong was instructed to give nine readings and would only be provided the dates, time, place of birth and whether the subjects were male or female. After Armstrong analyzed the charts, Dr. Shermer recorded Armstrong giving three-minute readings. Armstrong had no direct interaction with any of the subjects. Armstrong watched the videos from a separate room as his readings were played for all participants. What was ultimately revealed was that Armstrong’s success rate for seven of the nine people was only as low as 66% and as high as 89%, which the blog poster detailing this experiment felt was, “far above chance or coincidence.” However, a double-blind study conducted by physicist Shawn Carlson of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory published in Nature magazine in 1985 revealed conflicting results. Groups of volunteers were asked to fill out the California Personality Inventory, a standard psychologists’ questionnaire that uses broad, general, and descriptive terms much like that needed to cast a horoscope reading. Astrologers from the National Council for Geocosmic Research constructed horoscopes for the volunteers. Then, 28 different astrologers, each selected by the Geocosmic Council were each provided one horoscope and three personality profiles. Only one of these profiles actually belonged to the subject of the horoscope. They were charged with interpreting the horoscope and correctly selecting which of the three subject profiles it matched. The 28 astrologers originally stated that they would score higher than 50% correct however, their scores were only 34% in 116 trials.
With such conflicting results why are there still so many people who, rather than read their horoscopes for fun or look up the zodiac sign of themselves and their partner, actually pay money to have their horoscopes read, genuinely believing in the practice? What it could be is the charisma and confidence of astrologers within that community and the way they misrepresent themselves to those who seek them out. For example, Jeffery Armstrong is described on his website as an award-winning poet and best-selling author who’s “humour and humanity take audiences on an incredible journey.” His website also touts his 15 years of success in Silicon Valley as an executive with no other official job titles or education associated with his supposed expertise aside from 40 years of what appears to be a self-taught journey into relationships, philosophy, and teaching of the Vedas (ancient Indian astrology). Those who trust in the knowledge of someone like Jeffery Armstrong are likely misinterpreting him as an “expert” without critically evaluating if he has met the criteria associated with that of an expert. Aside from this the cognitive contribution associated with this belief system could be that of terror management. The appeal in astrology and relying on “experts” such as Armstrong are influenced by the fear of the uncertain and insecure future and by believing in astrology and the zodiac people may feel that they are better equipped for the unknowns that lie ahead of them.
Another prominent community from which believers in astrology come from seem to stem from those who are in fact scientific and academically motivated. When looking at the American Federation of Astrologers (AFA) website there is something of a mission statement in which they state that the AFA was established to, “encourage the study of all scientific methods of astrology,” and whose, “mission is education, research, cooperation, progress.” Additionally, “The challenges facing people today are greater than at any other time in the history of mankind…Astrologers recognize these conditions and want to participate in helping others to successfully meet the challenges of life…and our principal purpose is to serve you!” This is a group of people who wish to provide the world with knowledge to make it a better place for everyone. Now, there is some evidence that the people who are a part of the AFA have undergone cognitive dissonance. Their mission statement could be seen as an indicator of one of the first elements of cognitive dissonance, which is that of a deeply held conviction resulting in behavioral consequences. I’m not sure we can reliably state that these consequences are demonstrated on their website, but I do think that a mission statement which links astrology to combating the great challenges of modern man certainly demonstrates a belief held with deep conviction. Additionally, the members of this group meet another element of cognitive dissonance; social support. Such support propels their deeply held convictions forward as well as aiding in cognitive bias where all members of this group are saying and believing in the same things.
Astrology began in a time when myth was used to understand our place in the universe, but has since been confronted by scientific evidence which challenges the validity of such beliefs. In order to sustain belief in astrology, adherents rely on the un-scrutinized word of “experts” almost displaying a willful ignorance of their lack of credentials which points to cognitive dissonance as they are so tied to their belief that it is overriding their desire to think critically. Furthermore, believer’s drive to manage their terror or fear of the uncontrolled future causes them to make seemingly frantic and un-researched decisions as to whom and what they will place their trust so long as their feelings of dread are managed. Finally, there are also astrology believers who feel that it will provide mankind with the knowledge and tools to better navigate a difficult and troubling world who also seem to feel a sense of responsibility in harnessing and providing that knowledge to others. In summary, the belief in astrology does not appear to come from the unbiased scientific search for truth, but from internally motivated individuals seeking to either quell fear or guide others.
Carlson, S. (1983). Double-blind Test of Astrology. escholarship.org. Retrieved from: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0b40b045
History of Astrology. American Federation of Astrologers. Retrieved from: https://www.astrologers.com/about/history/
Kraig, D. (2009). An Astounding Proof of Astrology. Llewellyn.com. Retrieved from: https://www.llewellyn.com/blog/2009/10/an-astounding-proof-of-astrology/
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Astrology. Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved from:
VASA/Jeffery Armstrong. Jefferyarmstrong.com. Retrieved from: https://www.jeffreyarmstrong.com/about-jeffrey-armstrong-vasa/
Williams, M. (2015). Zodiac Signs and Their Dates. Universetoday.com. Retrieved from: https://www.universetoday.com/38076/zodiac-signs-and-their-dates/