Horoscopes: A sign of the times

Whether you're a believer or a sceptic, the allure of horoscopes is hard to ignore. But new findings suggest there may be more to the zodiac than meets the eye. By Genevieve Roberts

Are you going to meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger? Are you going to see change at home and at work? Are you going to have a visit from Lady Luck? Or are you just reading too many horoscopes?

January passes and, with it, reams of astrologers' predictions for the year ahead: love stars, money, health, destiny, friendship, style – even hair advice influenced by the constellations (the treats loveyourhair.com has in store include skillful use of layers to help Geminis hair swing almost as much as their moods).

But why, in an age when we are unlikely to dance to encourage weather change and wouldn't dream of throwing our neighbour in a river to see if she's a witch, do we read our star signs? Does anyone really find it credible that everyone sharing the same twelfth of the zodiac is imbued with the same characteristics?

If you're reading this and feeling smug, thinking that you play no part in the silliness of horoscopes, you're either in the minority or deceiving yourself: some 75 per cent of the population read horoscopes in magazines and newspapers, while a quarter go so far as to believe them.

Last week, despite a swift and strong denial by astrologers, news the Earth's "wobble" has shifted zodiac signs raced across the web like a shooting star. Minneapolis astronomer Parke Kunkle created an identity crisis as people struggled with the notion they'd slipped a star sign; modest Virgos, intuitive Cancers and passionate Scorpios were all left wondering about their true character as he confirmed a shift in the Earth's relationship to the sun over the past 2,000 years. Those born in December had even more to contend with: they'd become Serpent Handlers, in the 13th sign of Ophiuchus. One email Kunkle received demanded: "Give me my sign back."

Dr Chris French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University, who specialises in belief in the paranormal, is entirely sceptical about horoscopes – though he'll flick to his star sign in newspapers. "I do it for the same reason that half the population do: for entertainment," he explains. "Almost 25 per cent of people believe in astrology and a smaller percentage take it seriously enough to go for one-to-one readings."

Those figures have stayed consistent for 80 years, since horoscopes were first printed in newspapers, starting with the Sunday Express printing a birth horoscope for Princess Margaret Rose on 24 August 1930. French says: "Historically, people turn to astrology at times of social upheaval." He suggests it often appeals to people in, "careers where there is an inherent degree of uncertainty: sports people, actors, and, notoriously, gamblers".

Robert Downey Jnr and Britney Spears are believers, while Nancy Reagan would seek to influence the President's actions on astrologically auspicious days. In comparison, Cherie Blair's belief in crystals seems inconsequential. French also believes there's no correlation between education and belief in astrology, and classes it as a "New Age approach, maybe an alternative to organised religion".

But horoscopes are the victory of hope over reason: neither a star sign in a newspaper or a personal astrological reading has any truth. French says: "If you look at hundreds of empirical tests of astrology, they're very, very bad news for astrologers." This doesn't stop people persisting in believing their stars, nor from astrologers being adamant in their calling. For while horoscopes can't tell your fortune, they generate one.

Jonathan Cainer writes horoscopes for the Daily Mail and has a reputation for being the best-rewarded writer on Fleet Street, in no small part because of the success of his phone lines. At least 12 million people read his horoscopes, and his worldwide businesses turn over £2m annually and employ 30 staff. He defends astrology as: "a belief system with very rigid dogma. Saturn means restriction and Jupiter expansion. It's scientific in as much as we have to have accurate planetary positions. But it's a form of divination; a glorious blending of occult and science."

Dr French argues astrology is also about reassurance: "Take someone in an unhappy relationship: they know they should leave – but hearing they've got a difficult few months but will come through gives them courage." Not only are people inclined to believe what they hear, predictions involve clever sleights of tongue. Astrologers use tricks favoured by con-artists, creating the illusion of being specific while leaving room for reinterpretation. The Barnum effect comes into play, as astrologers rely on statements that seem specific but are universally relevant, such as: "On the surface you seem quite together, but deep down you have some insecurities".

French says: "I'm not saying most astrologers are deliberate con-artists, but they are subconsciously tapping into the techniques that make many successful."

Professor Richard Dawkins goes further in his dismissal, having said that: "Astrology may be slightly damaging, but mostly it is just sad. So sad that people are ignorant of the true glories of the stars and of the stupendous distances and times that separate them, while they bother with the frivolous inventions of charlatans." But then he would say that. He's an Aries.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick