Do you think a bunch of fiery balls of gas, millions of lightyears away from you, can influence whether the boy you have a crush on will be receptive to your advances? Do those same balls of burning gasses, depending on the Earth’s position in the solar system during your time and day of birth, determine if you are going to be a morning person or night person, or if you will have an analytical mind that’s good at figuring algebraic formulas versus a creative mind that can conjure up a catchy money-making pop song?
If you do, I have a rickety bridge in the swamps of Florida I would love to sell to you because, like 25 percent of Americans, you believe in astrology. I take solace in the fact that 75 percent don’t embrace the hokum.
Over 2,300 years ago, the Babylonians came up with the idea that the gods lived among the stars and other celestial objects and could impose their will on humanity by controlling the destinies of individuals and nations alike. They divided the sky into 12 “slices,” which we now know as the signs of the zodiac … Taurus, Pisces, etc. There are many variations of astrology, but they are all founded upon the idea that celestial objects can influence a person’s personality and destiny.
An acquaintance of mine, a true believer in astrology but with not enough money to buy my bridge, recently remarked that those who don’t drink from the glass of astrological Kool-Aid are “morons.” Yup. He believes that 75 percent of all Americans are morons, which includes every single scientist, engineer, doctor and well-educated denizen of the planet. In his eyes—all morons.
But we humans have long embraced charlatans and their suitcases full of snake oils since we stumbled from the primordial ooze many millennia ago because, as a sentient species, we always look for easy answers to hard questions and for that elusive panacea that will make us feel better about our doleful existence.
The idea of astrology was disproven in 1948 by psychologist Bertram R. Foyer when he showed that its perceived accuracies were driven by a concept known as “subjective validation.” Subjective validation occurs when two unrelated events are thought to be related because a belief (or hypothesis) demands that there is a relationship between them. Thus, people tend to find a connection between the perception of their personality and the contents of their horoscope.
Forer gave a personality test to each of his students. Afterward, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test results, and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves.
The analysis presented to the students was, in part, as follows:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You tend to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
The trick? In reality, each student received the exact same analysis. On average, the rating was 4.26/5 (that is, the students found their “personal” analysis to be 85 percent accurate). It was only after the ratings were turned in was it revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes.
As can be seen from the profile analysis, there are a number of statements that are vague and could apply equally to anyone. These statements later became known as “Barnum statements,” after P.T. Barnum, who used them in his performances, allegedly stating “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
It’s all about the vagaries. Anyone remember John Edward? Back in the ’90s, he had a show called “Crossing Over” where he would talk to the “dead relatives” of audience members. Not shockingly, it eventually came to light he couldn’t really do it! He employed many of the same techniques that astrologers use: give vague broad statements that could apply to just about anyone and are then quickly embraced by those with a predisposition to believe in something that will make them feel better.
Edward did what is known in the psychic swindle industry as “cold readings.” He, like all other psychic mediums, did not do the reading—his subjects did. He asked them questions and they gave him answers. “I’m getting a P name. Who is this please?” “He’s showing me something red. What is this please?” And so on.
That’s a cold reading. You literally “read” someone “cold,” knowing nothing about them. You ask lots of questions and make numerous statements, some general and some specific, and see what sticks. Most of the time Edward was wrong. If the subjects had time, they visibly nodded their heads “no.” But Edward was so fast that they usually only had the time to acknowledge the correct hits. And Edward only needed an occasional strike to convince his clientele he was genuine.
How about the Psychic Friends Network? Remember those late-night infomercials where Dionne Warwick would try and entice you to a call a 900 number (just $3.99 per minute!) and talk to a real live psychic who would tell you not just your future, but the winning lottery numbers as well! (Well, not the exact numbers—they would encourage you to select numbers that have special meaning for you! For example, I might choose 6—as in six-pack—as one of my numbers.)
However, Warwick’s faith in the business of getting poor and desolate people to shell out copious amounts of cash they really shouldn’t be spending for worthless advice was ultimately not rewarded. Unable or unwilling to change its business model, in 1998, the network’s parent company, Inphomation Communications Inc., filed for bankruptcy claiming that it had $26 million in liabilities and only $1.2 million in assets. In 2013, Warrick herself filed for Chapter 11, saying she owed $7 million to the IRS. You would have thought that one of those psychics would have seen all that coming and spoke up sooner saving everyone a lot of heartache.
I’m sorry, but if I seem a bit cynical about all this, I can’t help it. It’s in my nature. I’m a Cancer.