A few years ago, a distinguished personality psychologist was invited to give a keynote speech abroad. When a journalist asked him a question about astrological signs, he gently mentioned that they don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. The positions of celestial objects have no bearing on our personalities. The local newspaper called him a heretic, and his hosts asked him to leave the country and never return.
Astrology is surging in popularity—perhaps in part as a Millennial substitute for religion, a source of order in chaos, and a basis of self-esteem. You might be thinking: Who cares? It’s all in good fun. I agree… if you do it as a hobby. I used to think taking it seriously was harmless too. But new evidence has made me rethink that.
If you’re an astrology fan, what I’m about to share might be a tough pill to swallow. I’m not here to attack your beliefs or judge your character. I’m just inviting you to reconsider the accuracy and unintended consequences of your views.
In a series of rigorous studies, a team of psychologists led by Jackson Lu discovered that in China, people discriminate against Virgos—they’re less interested in dating them and in hiring them for jobs. Why?
It turns out that Virgos get stereotyped as disagreeable, because the common Chinese character for Virgo conjures up an image of an old spinster. You probably don’t want to work with someone who’s critical and fussy… let alone marry them.
But in reality, Virgos aren’t any more disagreeable than the rest of us. In an analysis of data from over 173,000 people, Lu and colleagues found that astrological signs are uncorrelated with the major traits of personality. On a 7-point scale, the average scores for agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion, and openness are statistically identical for each of the astrological signs:
The results were the same for believers and non-believers. This isn’t surprising to psychologists. Behavior genetic studies show that personality traits are typically 50% heritable (+/- 10%) and neuroscientists have traced their biological bases to different brain regions. Even passionate astrology fans don’t have plausible explanations for how the positions of the sun, moon, and stars on the day when you happened to be born would influence your neocortex and your adult personality.
When I shared this evidence with some astrology fans, the first response was, “That’s such a Capricorn thing to say!”
I’m a Leo (not that it matters). And I worry that astrology isn’t just a pathway to discrimination—it could also be a gateway drug to disbelieving in science.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen the harm done by the denial of science. From claiming COVID was a hoax to refusing to wear masks to spreading conspiracy theories about vaccines, the rejection of scientific methods and results has cost lives.
Research suggests that people who believe in astrology are also more likely to dismiss science and cling to conspiracy theories. Of course, we don’t know whether a belief in astrology is causing these reactions. The correlation could be due to reverse causality—or to common causes of both beliefs. For example, it may be that people are drawn to astrology and conspiracy theories due to a lack of scientific literacy. Whether or not the correlation is causal, it’s still a cause for concern.
As people become embedded in communities that believe in false information, their beliefs become more extreme and more entrenched. Psychologists call this group polarization. Over time, group polarization suggests that as people join communities of astrology believers, they may become susceptible to other false beliefs.
I understand that ancient astrologers made valuable contributions to astronomy. That doesn’t mean we should continue clinging to their debunked theories. Astronomers can celebrate Clyde Tombaugh for discovering Pluto without hanging onto the belief that it’s a planet. Therapists can appreciate Freud for introducing some useful ideas without tracing a client’s anxiety to a sublimated desire to kill their father and marry their mother.
As knowledge evolves, our beliefs should evolve with it. A sign of intelligence is the ability to change your mind in the face of new facts.