Fake psychics, astrology, and a unifying sexual truth.
The thing with astrology, of course, is that from a scientific perspective, it simply isn’t real. Genetics and upbringing have vastly more to do with how someone turns out than the position of the Earth the month they were born.
That said, there can be psychological upsides to it, to some extent — feeling some sense of order and self-awareness can be extremely helpful, and most of the ‘guidance’ offered tends towards the positive. The way most people use it, it’s a small occasional cue to take a look at ones life, hardly the worst. It’s when people look to astrology in the place of professional help, or essentially use it to justify poor decisions or increase divisions between people, that it becomes less useful.
However, one particular attempt to discredit both psychics and astrology, while totally successful, also inadvertently involved more insight into the human condition — including sexuality — than centuries of stargazing.
A psychologist named Bertram Forer came up with an experiment back in the 1940s designed to expose astrologists, psychics and clairvoyants as peddlers of nonsense. He got his students to answer a questionnaire and told them they were each going to be presented with a unique, individual assessment based on their answers. In fact, he gave each of the 39 students the same set of 13 statements that he had lifted from a book of horoscopes. Forer’s thinking was that the statements were vague while sounding specific, enough so that everyone who read them could apply them to themselves. “At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved,” applies to essentially everyone you’ve ever met, but if presented as an insightful assessment of you and only you, feels very specific and individual.
Despite all unknowingly receiving the same assessment, the students rated what they were given as being incredibly accurate — asked to rate it out of five, the average rating was 4.3. The test has been repeated hundreds of times over eight subsequent decades, and almost always comes out around there, an astonishingly high rate of accuracy for something done with zero accuracy at all.
This eventually became known as the Forer effect, or the Barnum effect, although Forer himself (who, trivia fans, was the brother of June Foray, the original voice of Rocky the Squirrel) deemed it “the fallacy of personal validation”. Statements like “You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage” simultaneously flatter the subject and make them feel critiqued: nobody was actually being looked at, yet everyone felt seen.
One of the 13 statements, interestingly, was, “Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.” For there to be any statement regarding sexuality that a whole group would universally agree with seems pretty notable, given that sexuality is such a personal thing, and so emotionally loaded that everyone’s own experience feels so individual and unique. Finding totally common ground that everyone feels they have in common, even given a relatively small pool (and psychology students in the 1940s likely came from a fairly limited socioeconomic spectrum), could easily seem like an impossible task.
There’s potentially something enormously positive to be taken from all of this. However complex and all-encompassing our problems might feel, and however magnified they might be by concerning an area that can be so rife with anxieties and insecurities, everyone’s going through the same things, to some extent. While there is an enormous spectrum of what “presented problems” means — that openness to interpretation is the whole point of what Forer was doing — there is perhaps some solace for those facing tougher challenges in knowing, however easy some people’s lives may look, nobody is entirely free from difficulty.
A feeling of solidarity isn’t what Forer was aiming for when he designed his experiment, but as byproducts go, it’s not too shabby.