Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Why do we believe fortune-tellers and horoscopes?

People know well enough that columns like "your fate this year" are most often creations of newspaper editorial boards, fortune-tellers are simply good psychologists, and the zodiac signs shifted in the sky so much over thousands of years, that all ancient predictions have long needed to be adjusted. But people still believe in the mysterious and unsubstantiated.

The failed end of the world once again forced to wonder why people believe in all kinds of mysticism - predictions, palmistry, and horoscopes. In fact, the answer to this question is not as difficult as it might seem at first.

In 1948, psychologist and teacher Bertram Forer conducted an experiment on his own students. He gave them a personality test - allegedly to use its results to conduct a deep analysis of the nature of each student. However, instead of individual results he gave them the same vague text taken from a horoscope. The text read:

"You need love and admiration of other people. You are quite self-critical. You have many hidden traits that you are not using to your advantage. While you have some personal weaknesses, you are, in general, able to neutralize them. Disciplined and confident from outside, you tend to worry and feel insecure. Sometimes you experience serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision, or did the right thing.

You prefer variety, and limitations cause frustration. Also, are you proud of the fact that you think independently and do not accept statements of others at face value without sufficient evidence. You understand that being too honest with other people is not wise. Sometimes you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. Some of your aspirations are rather unrealistic. One of your main goals in life is stability."

Most of the students agreed that the text quite accurately described their character. You can try it yourself and see that many of the statements are applicable to you simply because the text is vague. Personality characteristics range from Introvert to extrovert, confident-looking to insecure, and as for the need for admiration, everyone has it deep inside.

Once students agreed with the amazing accuracy of the test, Forer revealed to them his experiment. Presumably, his students understood why they should not believe vague horoscopes.

Forer did not limit his experiment to the joke with the students. He classified the principles by which one can easily come up with an equally astute "analysis" at home. First, the subject must be satisfied that the description applies to them or to a certain group of people the subject associates with (these traits are inherent in the zodiac lions, brown-eyed, left-handed, and so on).

The vagueness of the characteristics makes it applicable to almost everyone, and this makes one think of the test as valid. "Yeah, I'm really an introvert, I'm proud of my independence of judgment and sometimes feel insecure but carefully hide it." It is advisable that the subject considers the test administrator an authoritative figure.

Modern media successfully uses this role - "it was published in a newspaper and therefore is true...". The description must have predominantly positive characteristics. With these five principles, an "astrological forecast" or "psychological portrait" can be made by a person who has no clue about astrology or psychology.

This simple truth was again illustrated in the late 1950's in the experiment of an American psychologist Ross Stagner. He gave 68 HR Managers of different firms a detailed questionnaire that would help with creating a psychological description of a person, and then made one fake description using 13 phrases from different horoscopes. Stagner then asked the subjects to read the descriptions and told them that they were developed on the basis of the psychological test.

After every sentence participants were to note whether, in their view, the description was true, and how truly it reflected their character. The assessments were graded with the following marks: amazingly true, very true, somewhere in the middle, mostly erroneous, and completely wrong. More than a third of those present felt that their psychological portraits sketched were very true, 40% - quite accurate, and almost nobody has seen them as completely erroneous. The participants were HR managers, that is, people experienced in evaluation of personal qualities.

Most participants considered accurate positive statements, for example: "You prefer variety in life, a certain degree of change, and get bored when faced with restrictions and strict rules," "While you have some personal weaknesses, you generally know how to deal with them." On the contrary, these two statements were considered the least accurate: "You have issues in your sex life," and "Your hopes are sometimes unrealistic."

Similar studies were repeated again and again, and the result was the same - people believed pleasant vague phrases. In psychology this is called the Forer effect (in honor of the author of the experiment with students) or the Barnum effect (in honor of the famous in the 19th century American entrepreneur and circus owner Phineas Barnum.) The motto of his circus program was: "We'll find something for everyone."

Barnum and Forer Effect states that people tend to associate with general, vague, banal statements, mostly positive (but not outright flattery) if they are told that they are derived from the study of some obscure factors if they are convinced that these statements describe them personally. This illusion is easy to create by selecting one feature: date of birth, hair or eye color, and so on. People are flattered by attention to their persona, especially if it comes from "experts" that make up horoscopes and personality descriptions.

There are additional factors contributing to the success of horoscopes and other "predictions of fate." First, an astrologer should hint that she has some special knowledge - for example, the mystery of fate reading runs in the family, or that she came into direct contact with shamans of a vanishing tribe, who gave her the secret.

Another trick is detailed data. People are less likely to believe an astrologer who would tell their fate just by looking at them, but would give more serious consideration to the words of the one who needs the exact date, time and place of their birth. People have an illusion that the accuracy of the data affects the accuracy of the forecast.

Over time the belief in the correctness of the forecast strengthens. Most vague statements get forgotten, but the ones that "come true" remain in the memory for a long time. Besides, "ancient prophecy" looks much more impressive than a recent one. This was clearly shown by the excitement around the 2012 end of the world, supposedly predicted by the Mayans. Interestingly, the talks about this very ancient prophecy began only after 2000, when other "ends of the world" scheduled earlier were "cancelled."

Any person who at least sometimes reads newspapers and books knows that only in the last hundred years, the death of humanity was predicted dozens of times. According to clairvoyants, prophets and "contactees" with other planets (as they call themselves), as well as historians and writers of science fiction, the world population was to disappear long time ago. Apocalypse was awaited in the 1960's, then in the 1990's, and then, of course, in 2000. When a prediction does not come true, people shift their attention to the next date. What makes us discuss the end of the world, fear and even wait for it? Psychologists believe that this seemingly global theme of the death of the world is linked to an individual's thoughts of their own life.

When expecting the end of the world in December of 2012, people spread jokes that now, finally, they could safely take loans and get mortgages as they would not have to pay the bills. According to experts, some people like to "stick" to a future event that relieves them of responsibility for their present actions. For some reason they cannot afford to live the way they want right now.

Talks about the end of the world have a communicative function. People like to be part of a group that shares their concerns, fears and beliefs. In real life it is not that simple to find close people as adults have too many differences in opinion. But concerns about a possible "end" perfectly unite teams as would any other threat, whether it be a group of friends, a group of colleagues in the office or a large family. 

When a prophecy does not come true, everyone will have to decide what to do with their life, whether they are extroverts or introverts and how to spend the next year. On the other hand, people can visit an astrologer or read forecasts for the next "end of the world." They say the next one is "scheduled" for 2021.

Yana Filimonova


Read the original in Russian