Astrology is one of the world’s oldest natural sciences. From the dawn of time, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered about the future. Cities have been built and wars fought from starry information handed out by cryptic astrologers. But are we naïve to believe in the alignment of the stars to predict our future? Is this really a science?

Perhaps we should take more responsibility for our actions rather than believing it was all in the stars. Are we simply too afraid of the future to put behind these ancient practices? Are astrology, crystal-balls, and tarot cards simply explanations for what appears random and scary? Let’s find out, in this episode of the Infographics show – The Barnum Effect – Why do people believe in horoscopes?

The Barnum Effect, coined in 1956 by psychologist Paul Meehl, is an everyday psychological phenomenon whereby people believe that advice based on supernatural or quasi-scientific knowledge is specific to them, when in actual fact, it is generic information that could apply to anyone. We, as humble human beings, are generally predisposed to believe vague yet positive descriptions of our personality, especially if the descriptions foreshadow desirable future events. The Barnum Effect explains why millions of people subscribe to astrology, fortune telling, tarot cards, and online personality tests each and every day.   

The term Barnum Effect comes from the “a sucker is born every minute” phrase widely attributed to the American showman PT Barnum. Barnum, born on July 5th, 1891, is fondly remembered for promoting outlandish hoaxes and for founding the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He travelled the world collecting human oddities, or freaks, to be exhibited for a fee. He introduced the world to General Tom Thumb,

The Four-Legged Girl, Pinhead, The Siamese Twins, The Living Torso, and, let’s not forget The Wild Men of Borneo. Barnum, who was also an author, publisher and philanthropist, may not have been responsible for the “sucker born every minute” phrase at all. In fact, it is unlikely that a businessman as successful as Barnum would actually mutter such words.

Why would he publically insult his client base? It is more plausible that the actual “sucker” quote came from rival businessman, David Hannum, who had been one-upped by Barnum in exhibiting a fake giant in New York. Hannum was in possession of a model of a fake giant that Barnum wanted to buy from him to exhibit. Hannum wouldn’t sell the fake giant, and Barnum went on to build his own fake that he exhibited with great success. He was probably referring to Barnum’s business model of aggressively promoting and displaying hoaxes, including the fake giant scam, when he uttered the sentence “a sucker is born every minute.”

Since living in caves, humans have come to believe in astrology. We all seek some kind of order or sense for the random events that happen in our lives. Since the beginning of time, we have been scared of the future and have felt vulnerable to the chaotic disorder of everyday life. We need to travel back 4,000 years to look at the first organized system of astrology that arose during the Babylonian age during the 2nd millennium.

The Babylonians were the first to describe the 12 zodiac signs. The Egyptians refined this system, before the Greeks took ahold of it and shaped it into its modern form. During Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia, the Greeks were introduced to the cryptic cosmological systems of Syria, Babylon, and Persia, and made them their own. In the modern world, astrology is just as popular with almost all magazines and newspapers having astrological sections.

Thousands of websites are devoted to telling our fortunes, and according to a study, 58 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 believe astrology is scientific. In fact, the same study suggested that skepticism of astrology is on the decrease. Why is this? Well, astrology may excuse us for our less positive traits or actions. We can blame being late for a meeting on the Full Moon in Aquarius, or justify splitting with an unsuitable romantic partner because our star signs unfortunately clashed.

Horoscopes are convenient everyday distractions that make us feel good about the world around us. Let’s take a look at personality descriptions of one of the star signs at random, say, Capricorn. “Capricorn women have a cool, standoffish charm. Elegant and glacial, they may seem unapproachable.

Actually, this is a mask to hide their vulnerability.” Here the first group of adjectives, “standoffish”, “elegant”, “unapproachable”, and “glacial,” are the types of words one might use to describe a movie-star or model – and who doesn’t want to be described as a movie star? The description goes on to explain, “Actually, this is a mask to hide their vulnerability.” So what is happening here?

It does a complete 180, and discredits what it has already told us, leaving us confused in the mix and in a position to cherry-pick those attributes we would rather have. The description moves on to “Capricorns are afraid of losing face.” Well who really isn’t afraid of losing face? They “fear criticism.” Again who out there actually enjoys being criticized? And concludes with the totally generic – “she expects the best from her children.” Moms of the world, please raise your hands, those of you who expect the worst from your children. No hands raised? Right.

While most of us realize that reading and believing your horoscope is a little, let’s say, naïve, can astrology and astronomy actually be dangerous? Well if you happened to have been a child born in pre-Columbian Maya culture right up to the Spanish conquest in the 17th century, your fate could well have been determined by the stars. The Mayan religion blended several aspects of nature, astronomy, and rituals.

They developed calendars around the stars and the planets, and built astronomical buildings where they practiced human sacrifice rituals. They used a number of methods including heart extraction, shooting with arrows, and the placing of the sacrificial live body into a ball for a ritual reenactment of the Mesoamerican ballgame, followed swiftly by mandatory disembowelment. Nope. You won’t see that in your Marie Claire horoscope.

Statistics show that over 90% of Americans know their star sign and as many as 50% read their horoscopes, but it is not really clear how many actually believe what they read. Perhaps horoscopes are consumed more as entertainment nowadays, with a group of hard-core fixed believers in the minority.

So, what do you think? Do you believe in your horoscope? Can we really tell our future from the stars? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called What if The Whole World Suddenly Went Blind? Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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