Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

3 psychological tips showing Astrology and Zodiac signs don’t work

“Pisces are very friendly, so they often find themselves in a company of very different people. Pisces are selfless, they are always willing to help others, without hoping to get anything back.
Pisces is a Water sign and as such this zodiac sign is characterized by empathy and expressed emotional capacity.”[1]

 “This may be one of those days when you feel completely alone even if there are hundreds of people around, Leo. No one seems to understand your perspective. Your incredible sensitivity and emotionalism is putting you in a category all your own. Try not to ostracize yourself from the group. Reach out instead of pull away. You have more in common with other people than you think. ”[2]

These are taken from daily horoscope websites, you probably have seen similar things in newspapers, magazines, and social media. The popularity of Zodiac sign and astrology can be shown by doing a simple research on Google Trend. The search popularity of keyword “astrology” is more than half as popular as, say, “psychology”. Though the popularity of “zodiac sign” searches is only a quarter of “psychology”, however, it has risen steadily for 40% in the past 2 years.

In the field of science, a few research has already demonstrated there are hardly any personality similarities between people under certain Zodiac signs. [3][4] Otherwise, relatively small amount of research has done with regards to astrology and to test the validity of the Zodiac sign personality theories, as scientists have assumed such theories are pseudo-scientific and non-sense. [3][5]
Maybe you are a Zodiac sign believer and you find these so-called scientific research findings hardly convincing. Therefore, I would like to show some simple psychological phenomena explaining how you may have come to believe in the zodiac signs, perhaps you can decide whether you really believe in such theories after you have read this article.

Exposure effect

Astrology has long been a popular culture in the Western world. As early as in the 1980s, 69% of daily newspapers in the US contain an astrology column. 98% of the population in the US knew what their zodiac signs are. I have found that, out of the top 5 most read newspapers in 2016[6], 4 of them contain a daily horoscope section. [7][8][9][10] These evidences suggest that astrology and Zodiac signs are very close to our lives, and many of us are exposed to them on a daily basis.

Numerous research has suggested if we are more exposed to something, we then think more positive of them. Zajonc (1968) did a classic study to demonstrate this effect. [11] In his experiment, participants are shown with various nonsense Chinese characters, some of which appeared more frequently than others. Later, participants were asked to rate how positively they think the characters mean, the high-frequency characters are consistently rated as more positive.

Therefore, consider why you believe in Zodiac sign personality theories. Is it simply because it is the only explanation of personality you know? Or, you may come to believe in them because they feel accurate, which leads to the next psychological trick.

Forer effect

Have a look at the following paragraph, and consider if these statements describe you:

“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.” [12]

Feels quite accurate, right? So as most people would feel. In 1949, researcher Forer administered personality tests to his 39 students. After which, he gave the exact same statements to each of the students, claiming they are the unique feedback for each individual. The mean rating of accuracy for this paragraph by the students was 4.26 out of 5, showing most people believe the paragraph as accurate for themselves. [12]

Now with knowledge about the Forer effect, have a look at the example horoscopes given in the beginning of this article, and you will see exactly how this trick has been implemented. This tells us even though the horoscopes are accurate, maybe we shouldn’t take them too seriously. Because when you think the descriptions suit you, they probably suit for most people, despite what their Zodiac signs are.

Confirmation bias

Suppose you are under the Leo sign and you just read the second example of daily horoscope at the beginning of this article. What are you going to feel if you had instances today when someone did not understand something you try to explain, in comparison to having no instances of people not understanding you? If the former situation happens, it would probably remind you what you read, and confirm the accuracy of the horoscope; for the latter situation, you would probably forget about you’ve ever read the horoscope. Research has found previous opinions and knowledge can make people favour the confirming evidence, and disregard the conflicting evidence. In an experiment, participants who agree or disagree with capital punishment were given balanced arguments to read. The researcher later tested if reading the counter-arguments would create a neutralising effect to their opinions. However, the opinions become more polarised, as the participants were far more sceptical towards the opposite evidence than to the confirming evidence . However, the opinions become more polarised, as the participants were far more skeptical towards the opposite evidence than to the confirming evidence. [13]

In conclusion, it may be difficult to understand our personalities and we hold uncertainty towards our future. However, bear in mind, it doesn’t take specialists much effort (including the professional astrologists and psychics) to convince you that they know exactly what kind of person you are – they don’t really. So just be yourself, and don’t worry too much about what other people suggest you personality is, or what you should do.

[1],, retrieved on 5th Dec, 2016.
[2],, retreived on 5th Dec, 2016.
[3] Fichten, C. S., & Sunerton, B. (1983). Popular horoscopes and the “Barnum effect”. The Journal of Psychology, 114(1), 123-134.
[4] Saklofske, D. H., Kelly, I. W., & McKerracher, D. W. (1982). An empirical study of personality and astrological factors. The Journal of Psychology, 110(2), 275-280.
[5] Thagard, P. R. (1998). Why astrology is a pseudoscience. Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science, 49.
[6] Pressgazette,, retreived on 6th Dec, 2016.
[7] The daily mail,, retreived on 6th Dec, 2016.
[8] The daily mirror,, retreived on 6th Dec, 2016.
[9] The daily standard,, retreived on 6th Dec, 2016
[10] The sun,, retreived on 6th Dec, 2016.
[11] Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.
[12] Forer, B. R. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: a classroom demonstration of gullibility. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44(1), 118.
[13] Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 37(11), 2098.

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