Chapter 8 of my trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature is titled “Marketing Hope by Selling Lies.” In it, I discuss how numerous merchants of hope (religious authorities, self-help gurus, medical quacks) target our Darwinian-based insecurities (e.g., mortality) by promising us “solutions” to important life challenges. Readers might be interested in some of my Psychology Today articles on this matter including my critiques of Therapeutic Touch, the proclaimed therapeutic effects of the Q-ray bracelet, and the supposed predictive power of tasseography (reading your future via the coffee stains in your cup).
Today, I turn my attention to astrology, as another form of alluring nonsense (on a related note, see my recent article on the BS inherent to wine and coffee descriptors). One of the ways by which astrology tricks human brains is via the Barnum effect, which is the process by which individuals take general and vague statements that could apply to anyone and anywhere, and find personal meaning in them. To demonstrate how the effect works, below I reproduce today’s twelve horoscope readings from The Globe and Mail, as provided by Sally Brompton. In each case, I personalize the reading to my own life, at times using the actual words of the reading to make the point. Oh, the wonder!
ARIES (March 21 - April 20)
“You may have lots of big ideas in your mind, but are you ever going to get around to turning them into something useful, something that makes a difference both to yourself and to others? Talk is cheap – actions count.”
Applicability to me: I have countless papers in my “to do” queue that I’ve yet to publish. I need to find a way to wrap them up soon and submit them to the appropriate scientific journals. Talk is cheap. I need to take action. This is amazingly accurate!
TAURUS (April 21 - May 21)
“You may resent having to pay for something you think you should get for free, but if you make a scene, you may end up paying even more. Don’t be a miser. It’s only money, after all.”
Applicability to me: I am thinking of purchasing an iPhone (finally!). I am angry that the company that provides the plan that I am interested in might not offer me the phone for free. I am about to make a scene. You know what, it’s only money. No need to get all worked up. This is amazingly accurate!
GEMINI (May 22 - June 21)
“Partnerships of all kinds have been under the spotlight of late, and will remain so until the sun moves out of your opposite sign this weekend, though you can still put your No.1 relationship on a firmer footing.”
Applicability to me: I’ve been very busy with work lately and accordingly I’ve not spent as much time as I would have liked with my family. I need to put my No. 1 relationships on firmer footing. This is amazingly accurate!
CANCER (June 22 - July 23)
“It may seem as if someone is trying to undermine your position, but there is no need to worry about it. In a matter of days, something will happen that removes them from the scene, while making you more visible.”
Applicability to me: I know of colleagues that repeatedly fail to cite my works that otherwise precedes theirs by seven to ten years (in order to make their work appear more original). A growing number of journal editors are becoming aware of this unsavory reality and so I expect that things will change for the better (i.e., my work will become more visible to this community of academics). This is amazingly accurate!
LEO (July 24 - Aug. 23)
“You have been in impressive form of late, but all good things must come to an end and life may not be quite so easy when the sun changes signs on Saturday. If there is anything of a creative nature that needs doing, then do it now.”
Applicability to me: I’ve been on a sabbatical leave for the past year and as such I’ve been in impressive form (very productive). However, my sabbatical will soon end and I’ll be consumed with teaching and administrative responsibilities. As such, I need to wrap up several important papers that require creativity soon. This is amazingly accurate!
VIRGO (Aug. 24 - Sept. 23)
“If you feel the need to kiss and make up with a partner or relative, now is the time. If you leave it much longer, you may find that it isn’t so easy or, worse, that they have found the love they need with someone else.”
Applicability to me: I am estranged from some family members. Perhaps it is time to resolve our conflicts lest we might each direct our respective affections to other family members. This is amazingly accurate!
LIBRA (Sept. 24 - Oct. 23)
“What happens over the next few days will help you to understand that your priorities are wrong, that you are worrying about the things you cannot change while neglecting the things you can. It’s time to get your head back together.”
Applicability to me: I gave up the opportunity to go on a family vacation over the holidays so that I might wrap up countless professional duties that I am facing. I am worrying about the wrong things (work) and I should focus on the right priorities (family). This is amazingly accurate but that’s to be accepted since I am a Libra!
SCORPIO (Oct. 24 - Nov. 22)
“Slow things right down and take stock of how far you have come, because only then will you be in a position to decide how far you still have to go. Despite what some might say, you’ve done well and deserve a pat on the back.”
Applicability to me: Being an ardent workaholic, I did not stop and take a breather after my second and third books were published in 2011. I should have slowed down and taken stock of how far I had come after having completed my Darwinian book trilogy. Instead, I’ve continued to work at a frenzied pace. I should step back and relish in my accomplishments. I deserve a pat on the back. This is amazingly accurate!
SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 23 - Dec. 21)
“The sun remains in your sign only until Saturday, so get busy and get as much done as you can between now and then. That does not mean you won’t be able to get things done after that, but it may not be so easy as it is now.”
Applicability to me: I’ll simply repeat my “Leo” response (see above), as it seems à propos to do so (two zodiac signs map onto the same personal reality!). I’ve been on a sabbatical leave for the past year and as such I’ve been in impressive form (very productive). However, my sabbatical will soon end and I’ll be consumed with teaching and administrative responsibilities. As such, I need to wrap up several important papers soon. This is amazingly accurate!
CAPRICORN (Dec. 22 - Jan. 20)
“When the sun moves into your sign this weekend, a new solar year begins. Make it your objective, today and tomorrow, to look back over the past 12 months and learn what you can from your mistakes. After that, it’s full speed ahead.”
Applicability to me: I’ve been thinking recently that I have not stayed true to my exercise and diet regiment over the past twelve months. I need to learn from my mistakes to ensure that next year I will stick to my New Year’s health-related resolutions. This is amazingly accurate!
AQUARIUS (Jan. 21 - Feb. 19)
“Spend as much time as you can with your friends today, because you may not get so many opportunities to be sociable in the days and weeks to follow. Don’t expect anything of them, or of yourself – just go out and have fun together.”
Applicability to me: I have been trying to get together with several friends over the past few months to no avail. Once the holiday season comes around, we’ll each be busy with our respective families. We need to get together in the next day or two. No expectations, just fun. This is amazingly accurate!
PISCES (Feb. 20 - Mar. 20)
“You need to convince those in positions of power that you deserve to be given more responsibility and the rewards that go with it. Timing is everything and the right time is now – so get a move on and move up in the world.”
Applicability to me: Quebec academic salaries lag far behind market realities. In my case, my salary is hardly commensurate with my idiosyncratic market value. I need to make sure that the appropriate senior administrators take the necessary steps to correct this incongruity so that my bank account might “move up in the world.” This is amazingly accurate!
Voilà, the Barnum effect!
Source for Image: