So – the skeptics think astrology and the Barnum Effect have a close relationship with each other?!
First, I would like to thank Gary Nunn for an open-minded skepticism that has allowed him to explore the terrain of psychics with an attempt to understand and possibly find something positive in it.
Many ‘outsiders’ to a field pour scorn on things they don’t understand, and walk right past the wealth of life experience that may be contained there. Apply that statement – especially to fields to which you have had a strong negative reaction – and you may find some hidden treasure.
The reflections here are prompted by a recent article on the ABC website about Gary Nunn’s book The Psychic Tests: An Adventure in the World of Believers and Sceptics. (See link below)
While the title of Gary’s book is clearly about Psychics, he mentions the Barnum Effect as a partial explanation of why consulting someone – and I’ll expand on his description here – who might be able to explain us to ourselves – might have an appeal to an intelligent individual. The people in this group includes psychics, astrologers and even those who conduct professional personality tests [i.e. workplace or career tests, I assume].
I find it interesting that an exploration beginning with psychics should ultimately include astrologers. Personally, I don’t see a massive connection between the two.
(From an astrological perspective, Psychics operate in the domain of Neptune, whereas astrologers are traditionally Uranian – a vast difference if you understand it.)
Astrology and the Barnum Effect – ‘reading’ a person
Where I do see a connection it is due to the observant person’s ability to recognise personality types based on a catalogue of past experiences. I believe this is not as unusual as some people may think. For example, the Chinese have a catalogue of facial significators to classify different health and personality traits. We, in turn, often respond to people based on who they may remind us of. I do believe we can read ‘energetic patterns’ better than we often give ourselves credit for. It is why we immediately feel attracted to some people and not to others.
Perhaps, rather than astrology and the Barnum Effect having much to do with each other, what is at work here is the intelligent observer’s attempt to find words that adequately convey what they ‘see’ or ‘feel’ in front of them.
However, what is missing from this explanation is the fact that many astrologers – as distinct from psychics – do their preparation for a consultation before meeting their client in person. So that visual in-person ‘reading’ of the live person is not available before they have formed most of their ideas about the personality structure and current issues of the client. OK, if they have spoken to them on the phone beforehand, they may have picked up some clues. But frequently people present quite differently for a consultation than they do in their phone enquiry when they are perhaps uncertain about making an appointment.
From an insider’s perspective, what I see from a serious qualified psychologically-oriented astrologer is that the statements made to a client are far from “cleverly worded, vague and ambiguous statements”. Instead, they are carefully crafted attempts to interpret the symbolism in a horoscope and translate it into what is possible or likely in a person’s lived experience. This is the great challenge and the art in astrology. Not everyone can do this.
The Science behind Astrology
The interesting thing about astrology is that there is a strict science behind it, in that the position of the planets in relation to the Tropical zodiac (as used by Western astrologers) is very precise. We know that Mercury was at a certain degree of Leo at a certain time on a certain day. We also know that it formed a particular angular relationship to another planet at that time. We understand [from theory and experience] that this relationship colours the nature of both planets. So there are ‘statements’ in a horoscope that are beyond question.
The trick, and the skill, for the astrologer lies in interpreting that horoscope ‘statement’ and seeing how the client connects with your interpretation. Ultimately, it is about the client coming to a deeper understanding – an Aha! moment – about the patterns in their own psychology. The underlying principle is this: You are empowered when you understand, clearly and unambiguously, how you function, think and operate. When you understand what motivates you, you can know more consciously whether a given situation is working for you or not. And how to respond.
Another level of astrological interpretation
Another level of the astrologer’s skill is deciding which of the most significant 10 or 20 horoscope ‘statements’ to highlight in a consultation. And beyond that, coming to a synthesis of what all the various parts of the horoscope ‘add up to’. That is, what is the overall direction and emphasis of this personality likely to be?
This forms the thesis of the astrologer going into the consultation. This thesis is still a theory at this point in time. The astrologer must be flexible enough to appreciate that the real person in front of them may differ quite significantly from what they have imagined from their initial interpretation of the horoscope. Every part of the horoscope is a ultimately a symbol, a pattern that informs or drives the person to operate around a certain focus. We know that their life will link up with that pattern. But we don’t know how.
Let me expand on that idea.
It is like the ‘Concept Fan’ technique of Edward de Bono. This thinking technique asks us to switch between a specific example and the concept behind it.
Let me give an example. This is an idea-generation technique, by the way. So let’s say the question is: What could we do if we visit the nearest city? Answer 1: Go to the movies. Now we ask: what is the concept behind ‘movies’? Concept: sit and be entertained. Question: is there another way to sit and be entertained? Answer 2: We could sit at a cafe and watch the passers-by. This process could go on endlessly and within 5 minutes you would have 30 ideas for what you could do in the city. The point here is: Answers 1 and 2 are both answers, interpretations that are true to the same Concept of “sit and be entertained”.
A Concept in this technique is like the concept or pattern or archetype behind each horoscope symbol.
The concept behind Leo might be, for example, that they like being the centre of attention. [There is much more to this, of course.] Some ‘answers’ to how this might work in practice are: 1/ Make a nuisance of yourself to get attention, 2/ Do something noteworthy, or 3/ Go visit a psychic or astrologer, and they will be more than happy to talk about you and your life. Book a session at a day spa and get yourself pampered. Treat yourself to some luxury. But: – How will the client’s life express itself if there is a strong Leo emphasis? We need to ask them to find out. Simple. Even if other horoscope factors give us some additional clues.
Does the Barnum Effect explain anything about Astrology?
So, in summary – does astrology and the Barnum Effect have much relevance to whether someone believes in astrology, or has a positive experience with it? You would need to interview a lot of people and ask intelligently to really try to ascertain this. But my feeling is that the astrologers I have known are seriously trying to help people understand themselves.
Speaking for us, we try to interpret as clearly and helpfully as we can, what we see in a horoscope. If we have a bias, it is to this belief: that we are driven by archetypal patterns and that these do show up in the horoscope. And we believe it is worth the effort to try to uncover and to understand these patterns.
Then we can consciously work to develop our strengths, and avoid or improve our weaknesses. In short, we can live more fulfilling lives. That has to be what it is all about, ultimately. And in that, there may be healing of the past as well, some process of becoming more ‘whole’, more healed, more energised. And discovering a richer purpose for the future.