5 Scientific Reasons People Still Believe In Astrology
If you've noticed a whole lot of " That's what you get for dating a Scorpio!" memes on social media lately, there's a reason for that. Astrology is suddenly everywhere. It's now as popular among my fellow millennials as succulents, high-waisted jeans, and crippling depression. The question is: Why? Actually, if you answer that question, you'll understand a lot about how humans work in general. You see ...
Cognitive Biases Are Good, Actually
The goal here isn't to single out astrology. Irrational beliefs aren't exactly rare (Americans spend something like $2 billion a year on psychics), and you don't hear a lot about hate crimes committed in the name of astrology (the Zodiac killer named himself after a watch brand). But if you're looking for a demonstration of why intelligent people still latch onto beliefs without evidence to support them, astrology has it all.
Let's start with the "Your personality is defined by your birth date" element. There are a couple of cognitive biases at play here. For one, we have the Barnum Effect. We're more inclined to believe in something if we are told it offers specific insight into us as individuals. If I said the average person has masturbated to some weird stuff, you'd blow it off. How would I know, right? But if you got an email that said "I know what you masturbated to last night," you're much more likely to start scouring your folder marked "JUST TAXES (DO NOT OPEN)" and erasing all the Minions JOI porn you were blasting rope to, even though that's actually not weird at all. It's hard to ignore somebody who claims to know our deep, true selves.
That's why if your Zodiac sign insists you're an honest, loyal person, you're prone to believe it, regardless of whether your everyday life backs that up or not. ("I mean, it's been months since I cheated on my spouse!") But broad statements like that always work better if the description is vaguely positive, regardless of whether it makes logical sense. ("You're from Florida? Ah, I knew it. You have the savvy courage of a Floridian!") Even Zodiac sign descriptions that that include character flaws tend to spin them as a positive:
Scorpios, like their namesake, the scorpion, put up an outer shell and may seem prickly. But once people get beyond the shell, they find a loyal, loving person whose passion knows no bounds.
You read that and say, "Hey, that's true! Everyone says I'm an asshole, but that's surely only because they don't know the real me!"
And then there's apophenia, the brain's tendency to infer a nonexistent pattern from statistical noise. That's a result of humans being so great at pattern recognition that sometimes we can't turn it off. Caveman Gug noticed that some of the leaves in the bushes outside his cave were disturbed, but went hunting anyway and was promptly eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Caveman Oog, Gug's cave mate, saw that, and now he never goes hunting if the leaves outside his cave were disturbed. Sure, it's probably not a saber-toothed tiger every time, but evolutionarily speaking, it's better to be superstitious than supper for a smilodon.
If you combine the need to make sense of a chaotic universe with our desperate need to understand ourselves, you have a perfect recipe for "The patterns in the sky tell me you are a generous lover."
Rituals Protect Us From Rationality
So there's an advantage in having cognitive biases. That's why they persist in the species. Astrology is a type of ritual, and rituals are one way that cognitive biases manifest themselves. We've all got our rituals. There are small cultural things, like wearing the correct colors on game day to help our team win, or personal rituals, like putting a ring of human teeth around your bed to distract the Tooth Goblins if they come for you at night.
The advantage is that rituals allowed us to pass down information while bypassing the need for a written instructions. For example, some ancient Amazonian people ate a plant called manioc, and it's still a major food source in the developing world. Now, the thing about manioc is that if you don't prepare it just right, you'll get cyanide poisoning and die. But at some point, through a long process of trial and error, somebody figured out how to process it to get rid of the pesky cyanide. That process got turned into a sacred ritual, which was passed down through the generations.We didn't have the scientific method or even written language to explain why this worked. All people knew were the stories of those who broke tradition and poisoned the whole tribe (since the effects of cyanide might not be apparent for years). Meanwhile, the people who adhered to tradition lived.
That means that today, we have a natural bias for separating rituals from logic. No, they can't begin to explain why the alignment of the stars affects your fate; it just does. You don't have to know why to get the benefit, the same as how you know to roll dead batteries around inside your remote to make them start working again, even if that goes against everything you know about batteries. Hey, if it works, it works. Figuring out the "Why" just slows you down.
By the way, that plant I've been talking about that contains cyanide? It's better known in the U.S. as tapioca. Enjoy your bubble tea!
Fortune Telling Is Pretty Useful ... But Not For Telling The Future
OK, you say, but why would a ritual persist even after it's proven not to work? Those tribes saw people die when they didn't prepare the plant in a certain way, but surely nobody suffered for failing to listen to the stars before making a decision.
Well, one theory is that rituals for divination can be really useful ways to introduce chaos into a system to beat predictive models. I paid a lot of money to go to college to say that sentence in that way, but I basically mean that if you're playing a game in which both players are trying to guess the other's strategy, the best way to make sure your opponent doesn't guess yours is to sometimes play irrationally.
For example, the ancient Naskapi people of Canada primarily hunted caribou for food, because poutine hadn't been invented yet. Now, the thing about caribou is that they have a weird aversion to being butchered and eaten, so they tended to avoid areas where hunters had killed them before. To hunt more effectively, the Naskapi would thus burn a caribou bonein a ritual fire, and read the burn marks like a map to determine where to hunt next. They didn't know it, but what they were doing was avoiding their own decision-making biases. Caribou can't predict randomness, so everybody gets to enjoy some delicious caribou ... pie? I'm not sure how you eat caribou.
And maybe just as importantly, it eliminates indecision. Humans have a terrible tendency to freeze when they come to a fork in the road. When we don't have enough information to make an informed choice (and in a chaotic universe, you never really know the outcome of any particular choice in advance), we sometimes just do nothing out of fear.If, however, you can call upon the Universe to make the decision for you, then you can take one road or the other with confidence. Was it the right decision? Who knows! But it was almost certainly better than making no decision at all.
It's Cheap And Readily Accessible
So if humans all around the world have been practicing various forms of divination since basically forever, why is astrology specifically so popular? Why does it live on while the I-Ching, casting of bones, augury, and butchering the horned she-goat to foretell whether the autumn's harvest shall be sufficient to feed thy mewling tots have been condemned to the garbage disposal of history? Why does almost everyone in America know their sign, but almost no one makes Super Bowl bets based on what a piece of cheese tells them?
It looks like there are a few factors at play here. We millennials are the least religious generation since the next one. There are lots of reasons for that, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with having easy access to information and seeing religious extremists fly planes into buildings on TV when we were in elementary school.
But we also consider ourselves spiritual, possibly because we're the most stressed about our future. This makes sense, because my personal retirement plan is to die of exhaustion on the work floor of an Amazon Anti-Climate Disaster Dome and Water Extraction Facility. We don't buy into religion and all its baggage, but we still need something to give us answers. And, well, astrology doesn't exactly ask for a lot in return.
It doesn't require much in the way of time, materials, or codes of conduct. You don't have to find a caribou and burn its skeleton; just get a free horoscope app for your phone. There was a time when making a ritual costly helped convince people of its value. You wanted to believe in a fortune that required the sacrifice of a perfectly good goat, for the same reason you want to believe your $1,000 iPhone is better than the rest. But in an era in which information is usually free and always one click or tap away, why use a divination method with a bunch of extra steps?
Ultimately, It's About Validation
In the age of extreme customization and ads tailored to you based on your taste in music and deepest sexual nightmares, it makes sense that this part of astrology appeals to people. It plays to one of the central human paradoxes: the need to be both a unique individual and part of a group. It's like how we're obsessed with our Hogwarts houses or those unspeakably awful shirts based on your birth month.
In fact, the validation aspect is probably the most important one. It describes us to ourselves, and also gives us permission to accept it. "It's not my fault I constantly say horrible things! I was born in July!" In this way,astrology offers a comforting certainty in a world that increasingly feels outside of our control. Even if it's total bullshit, which it absolutely is.
For more, check out Why The Salem Witch Trials Were Nothing Like You Think - Hilarious Helmet History:
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