A reading about readings: How the hell are horoscopes still relevant?

Most people are generally aware of what their zodiac sign says about them in a horoscope. You may have the reliable, practical, ambitious traits that come from being born a Taurus or the strong-willed, mysterious, charming characteristics of a Scorpio, but have you ever wondered how the hell these ancient constellations know us oh so well?

Well, I hope it has came across your mind at least once. Horoscopes come from a concoction of religion and science that we know today as astrology. Astrology goes back quite some time, starting with the ancient Babylonians. They used the same shapes and patterns we observe today to determine future agricultural seasons, wars and even predict the lives of humans.

Your sign is developed from the Zodiac, an imaginary band in the heavens centered on the ecliptic (the path of the Sun) that encompasses the apparent paths of all the planets and is divided into the 12 constellations, the signs we identify with today. This is known as natal astrology and is what we see in newspapers and Facebook feeds. These signs can be categorized by elements: Water (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), Fire (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius), Earth (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn) and Air (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius). Each group has their own distinct characteristics.

In natal astrology, your reading is based on your date of birth and what sign the planets were aligned with at that time, with the sun sign being the main determinant. Each planet has its own characteristics. For example, the Sun generally represents power and leadership while Saturn represents patience and discipline. The combinations of their positions determine your reading. The possible number of combinations from these factors is almost endless, because overall they are arbitrary predictions. In day-to-day horoscopes these predictions are incredibly general, which opens the gateway to confirmation bias. The more good information your horoscope tells you, the more likely you’ll believe and accept it.

As an article in Psychologies Magazine explains, this temptation to read personal meaning into a general description is recognized by psychologists, who refer to it as the Barnum Effect (after American Showman P.T. Barnum’s famous line, “We’ve got something for everyone”). According to psychologist Bertram Forer, humans are surprisingly willing to attribute the vaguest personality descriptions to ourselves.

In 1948, Forer gave each of his students a personality test, telling them they were each going to receive unique profiles of their character and asked them to rate the accuracy of them. The profiles were actually identical, but the students each rated it as an excellent description of themselves. This experiment has been repeated hundreds of times with similar results.

I am perplexed as to how horoscope readings are still relevant, and I don’t understand why horoscopes are still printed in newspapers like The Seattle Times and websites such as Yahoo. Why do we still look into and interpret such arbitrary, unsubstantiated readings?

After the discussions I’ve had on this topic over the past couple of days, the  conclusion I come to is to simply enjoy every day you have on this beautiful planet. If anything, a horoscope might be somebody’s pick-me-up for the day. Just don’t read into a horoscope more than you would into one of the many phrases lodged in fortune cookies (which are American…sorry, guys). I hope that one day these newspapers and websites will write about things that contain more empirical evidence, but for now I suggest grabbing some quality brew and venturing outside to find some meaning in those beautiful celestial bodies yourself.