The science of superstition: Why do people believe in horoscopes?

The science of superstition: Why do people believe in horoscopes?

Whether they like to admit it or not, most people have some kind of superstitious quirk. Even major airlines omit row 13 from their planes because it is considered bad luck. My personal weakness is wishing on 11.11; I don’t know what started it and to be honest, I don’t even know why it’s considered lucky, but if I look down and it’s 11.12, it’s like all of my dreams are crushed for the day. Until completing quick poll of the office I thought I was alone in being this neurotic, but even the most massively stacked man admitted to being slightly scared of seeing a lone magpie and the most cynical person I could find revealed he always wishes before blowing out a candle.

But why are humans so powerless in the face of a little superstition? Well, it’s more complex than you might think. Different from rituals or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), superstitious actions are intended to produce a specific outcome, rather than simply being forces of habit or some kind of acknowledged irrational thinking. According to Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, fear and a desire for control apparently has a lot to do with our likelihood to give in to superstition: "Superstitions provide people with the sense that they've done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for."

Two magpies playing in the grass

Star signs and horoscopes are among the most pervasive of these superstitions, with almost 60 per cent of 18 to 24-year-old Americans saying that they believe in horoscopes. In line with this, research also shows that scepticism towards them is falling, despite the decline in more traditional types of “magical” thinking, such as organised religion. Using astronomical charts for inspiration, they usually contain a mixture of generalised positive re-affirmation, guidance and vague predictions, ready to be interpreted by the reader, and increasingly exist in tailored forms, including not only daily or monthly predictions, but also career or romance forecasts. 

Although science has proven that our birth months do have some impact on our health, with spring and summer babies less likely to experience diseases, that doesn’t stop astronomical personality traits becoming conflicted; apparently, as a Pisces, I’m supposed to have a big heart and willingness to look after people, but that I also apparently to prefer being alone, which kind of defeats the object really. So why is are we so ready to jump into making use of these predictions nonetheless? Well, it has a lot to do with the cause-and-effect pattern of thinking that our brains thrive on, the “if I do X, then Y will happen” syndrome. To come back to the idea of control, the vague nature of horoscopes indulges us with the power to decide what X actually is. As Natalie, 30 and a copywriter, explained: “I don’t really think they predict the future, but I can interpret them and use them to reassure for what I’m already hoping will happen in my life.”

A photo of the horoscopes page of the newsletter, focusing on Capricorn and Aquarius Credit: Getty

A 2015 poll showed that women tend to be more drawn to checking their horoscopes, with 28 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men saying that they regularly check theirs. So can gender our also influence our belief in superstition? Psychologist Dr Phil Zuckerman, of Pitzer College, certainly thinks so. He suggests that this is down to an imbalance in autonomy: “Since men tend to globally dominate roles associated with power and privilege, women [look for] psychological comfort and institutional support.”

So is there any hope for those of us who still believe in superstition despite our better judgement? Well, the signs aren't good. According to Associate Professor Jane Risen, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the manner in which the human brain processes decision making also has a lot to do with why we are so useless at resisting this kind of fanciful thinking, positing that the parts of your brain that detect error and that correct error are two separate processes: “Even when the conditions are all perfect for detecting an error—when people have the ability and motivation to be rational and when the context draws attention to the error—the magical intuition may still prevail.”

A fence with six different horseshoes on Credit: Getty

So no matter how infuriating it may be to not be properly in control of your brain - you're an educated, logical person, after all - rest assured, that you are not alone. Really, it’s the mental equivalent of not being able to control the fact that you can't sleep just by using your brain. Still, there are benefits to all this superstition malarkey - statistically, there are fewer accidents and injuries on Friday 13th, because people take extra care, and flights are cheaper because no one wants to fly, and if you're like me and always on edge for 11:11 then at least you never miss tea and crumpet time!