Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021
Astrology and Graphology: Are They Accurate and, if not, Why do People Believe in Them?
Astrology — an ancient pseudoscience and bar-room conversation starter founded on the premise that everyone born under the same star will meet a dark stranger, receive a propitious business offer or suffer an attack of dyspepsia on the same day. (Rick Bayan)
Most people know what their ’star sign’ is. Most newspapers around the world contain the advice of an astrologer. Astrology is any of several traditions or systems in which knowledge of the apparent positions of celestial bodies is held to be useful in understanding, interpreting and organizing knowledge about reality and human existence on earth. Most astrologers consider astrology to be a useful intuitive tool by which people may come to better understand themselves, others and the relationships between them.
Naturally, psychologists have investigated such claims. There have been many attempts to test these ideas and, with very few exceptions, they have been found wanting. That is to say, where there is good evidence it does not support the ideas of astrologers who, as it happens, often disagree among themselves.
Although the term ’graphology’ goes back to 1871, when it was first used by the French cleric Michon, the belief that personality is somehow manifest in handwriting existed even before this date. Graphology books describe both what factors to look at (e.g., size, slant, zone, pressure) and what traits (e.g., temperament, mental, social, work and moral) are ’revealed’, though there appears no consistency between them, particularly in the description of personality traits. Furthermore, there is rarely an explanation of the process or mechanism linking personality to graphology. There are various schools of graphology, each with a slightly different history, approach and ’theory’.
Graphologists argue that handwriting is brain writing, writing is individualized, and personality is unique so each must reflect each other; writing is a form of expressive movement so it should reflect our personality; the police and courts use graphology so surely it must be valid. Some hard-nosed personnel managers swear by graphologists’ usefulness in selecting employees, and graphologists must have noticed over the centuries that certain kinds of people write in certain ways. Each of these suppositions is refuted by Beyerstein (2003), who has worked extensively in the area.
Why do people believe in graphology and astrology? One possibility is that the interpretations they provide are ’true’. They are true because they consist of vague, positive, generalizations with high base-rate validity, yet are supposedly derived specifically for a named person.
For several decades, psychologists have investigated the ’Barnum effect’ (sometimes known as the Forer effect). This phenomenon occurs when people accept personality feedback about themselves because it is supposedly derived from personality assessment procedures. In other words, people fall victim to the fallacy of personal validation. People accept the generalizations that are true of nearly everybody to be specifically true of themselves.
Over 60 years ago, a psychologist called Stagner gave a group of personnel managers a personality test, but instead of scoring it and giving them the actual answers, he gave each of them bogus feedback in the form of statements derived from horoscopes, graphological analyses and so on. Each manager was then asked to read over the feedback (supposedly derived from him or herself from the ’scientific’ test) and decide how accurate the assessment was. Over half felt their profile was an accurate description of them, and almost none believed it to be wrong.
The following year a Professor called Forer gave personality tests to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student an identical evaluation. The first three items on the test were:
’You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.’
’You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.’
’You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.’
They were then asked to evaluate the description from 0 to 5, with 5 meaning the recipient felt the description was an ’excellent’ evaluation. The class average evaluation was 4.26.
Research on the Barnum effect has shown that belief in bogus feedback is influenced by a number of important factors: some to do with the receiver/client and the giver/consultant (for example, their personality, naiveté) and some to do with the nature of the test and feedback situation.
The more detailed the questions (for example, a horoscope based on the year, month and day of birth, rather than one based on the year and month of birth alone) the more likely it is a person will think it pertains to just themselves.
People tend to accept claims about themselves in proportion to their desire that the claims be true rather than in proportion to the empirical accuracy of the claims as measured by some non-subjective standard. This confirms another principle in personality assessment — the ’Polyanna principle’ — which suggests that there is a general tendency to use or accept positive words or feedback more frequently than negative words of feedback.
Studies have shown that students initially sceptical about astrology were more likely to both accept the personality description it offered them and to increase their belief in astrology as a whole, if that description were favourable. In other words, those for whom astrological theory provides a more attractive self-portrait are more likely to express belief in the validity of astrologers.
Overall, there is significant support for the general claim that Barnum profiles are perceived to be accurate by participants in the studies. There is an increased acceptance of the profile if it is labelled ’for you’. Favourable assessments are more readily accepted as accurate descriptions of subjects’ personalities than unfavourable ones. Unfavourable claims are more readily accepted when delivered by people with high perceived status than low perceived status.
Hence the popularity of astronomy and graphology: feedback is based on specific information and it is nearly always favourable. In addition, it is often the anxious who visit astrologers and the like: they are particularly sensitive to ’objective’ information about themselves and the future.
Beyerstein, B., & Beyerstein, D. (Eds) (1992). The Write Stuff: Evaluation of Graphology — The Study of Handwriting Analysis. New York: Prometheus Books.
Forer, B.R., (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118—23.
Furnham, A. and Schofield, S. (1987). Accepting personality test feedback: A review of the Barnum effect. Current Psychological Reviews and Research, 6, 162—78.