“That Explains A Lot”: Astrology and the ‘Science’ of Personality
Quacks, personality tests, and a general lack of accountability.
Just as there are “certified” Tarot readers, I have also encountered “certified” astrologers. The difference between these two methods seems to be that Tarot card readings clarify the present so that you can make better judgements about your next steps forward, and astrological charts assess your past in order to explain the forces affecting your present. Tarot readings guide us towards the future but astrology illuminates our past. Unlike Tarot card readings that change every time, there’s nothing you can do to change your astrological chart: the date and time you were born determines the qualities you have as a person. Any obsessive astrologer can claim to know a stranger’s personality without ever meeting them, having only the details of their birth date.
In “Sun Signs”, Linda Goodman gives an interesting analogy. We make generalizations about a person’s sign the same way we make generalizations about where that person came from — we might say that a person from a big city tends to rush, while a person from a rural town tends to take things slow. Filipinos also have these generalizations depending on which school a person graduated from, or what course they took. By using astrology, we are able to make the same generalizations.
The simplicity and clear distinction between astrological types gives people the reassurance that, for example, past relationships failed not because of personal problems but because of some cosmic incompatibility. Confronted with examples of people who do not fit clearly within the description of a particular sign, astrologers would talk about ascendants and houses that add to the complexity of one’s type. Borrowing again from Goodman’s analogy, it’s like finding out that our man from the city is also a doctor, or that he is a member of a political family. Additional details don’t disprove astrological readings: they help make it more accurate. Even if one follows the Eastern version of astrology, they would know that a person born in the year of the dog is not just a dog — they are a wood dog or water dog or some other elemental combination. Astrologers can weasel their way out of any tricky contradiction, because it is easier to blame faraway celestial objects for one’s fortune rather than accept the whole responsibility.
About this, I confronted a friend of mine who practiced astrology and asked her about the Mercury Retrograde. This is a time when Mercury is observed to be moving in reverse, and since Mercury is the messenger god, one might notice that people have problems related to communication. This is, as usual, extremely vague: “communication” can mean anything from interpersonal relationships (as in, love quarrels, hurtful rumors, or the inability to express one’s feelings) to telecommunication (as in, your remotes or phones might stop working). In any case, when an unusual amount of bad luck is observed in one’s life, people usually blame the Mercury Retrograde. My friend told me that she understood how people used astrology casually, as a way to evade accountability. But she also said, “I believe that the movements of planets and stars correspond to movements here on earth. Change in their behavior can affect our own experience, just as the moon can move ocean tides or the sun promotes plant life. When we observe the heavens, we are observing ourselves too.”
Astrology, taken at face value, seems ridiculous. But what’s interesting is how often believers resonate with their particular sign. My own astrological chart claims that I am impulsive, analytical with my emotions, and warm but sensitive to criticism. Of course it sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but on most days, I feel like it’s pretty accurate. It’s so accurate that it’s scary. This could be attributed to something called the Barnum-Forer Effect, which states that people tend to agree with personality descriptions that are general and vague because they want it to be true. But then again… if it’s true, then it’s true, isn’t it?
This is not the only way people have tried to categorize personality; a huge part of psychological study is the attempt to quantify personality types in order to improve our understanding of human behavior. One might think of the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which categorizes people into a combination of four qualities. What’s interesting about that is how people think that it’s an objective, reliable statistical instrument. First of all, it is a self-report questionnaire, which means you are assessing your own behaviors and personality — this does not show you how other people view you. If you have a distorted self-image, then you may be misplaced in a wrong MBTI category. One might also think of the Enneagram of Personality which categorizes people into nine types. This, again, is self-reported.
Despite its questionable empirical value, the “science” of personality is just big fun. People like hearing about themselves because it’s familiar, and they like learning about the future (no matter how vague) because its comforting. But having strict guidelines on defining personality may be a little too ambitious. I think a person can express a personality type associated with a sign that isn’t their birth sign, or shift between two MBTI categories in a span of a month. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that these systems are exactly alike — only that underneath their attempts to classify behavior into types, they seem to be working with the same assumptions. I suppose, whether we are accessing the human psyche or “higher cosmic reality”, there are different ways to get to the same place.
Goodman, L. (1968). Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. New York: Bantam Books.