The Placebo Effect of Astrology
There are two reasons you may have clicked on this article, and both have to do with the emotion you experienced after reading the words ‘astrology’ and ‘bullshit’ existing in the same air space. Did the Aries in you feel like shouting at me through the screen? Or did my subtitle validate your Virgo skepticism? I mean, is astrology even real? The honest answer? It doesn’t matter.
Say it with me: It. Doesn’t. Matter.
Like… at all. Because I’m here to tell you why something doesn’t have to be real, or true, or even remotely plausible, for it to have value.
First, it’s important to squeeze in some background info about how exactly our brains work. Within the wonderful field of psychology is a concept that’s known as, ‘the fundamental attribution error.’ Like most all living organisms on this planet, humans have a tendency to make errors from time to time. You see, in order for us to lead these complex lives we do — and just to function efficiently, in general — our brains like to make hundreds of mental shortcuts for us. These shortcut and connections, referred to as ‘heuristics’, are typically unconscious, meaning that we’re not aware of them until they’ve already happened. Examples of this could be anything from when we spot someone beautiful and might be inclined to automatically assume that they are also kind-hearted, to when we read the sentence, “you this read wrong,” and our brain fixes the word order without us even noticing!
The fundamental attribution error, itself, is the proclivity to attribute other people’s negative behaviors on relating to their personal disposition, rather than situational or external factors. This means that when a car in front of us cuts us off during rush hour, we immediately decide that that person must be stupid, or ugly, or a terrible driver. It might very well be the case that none of those things are true; maybe they just had a rough start to their morning, or needed to get somewhere fairly urgently. Perhaps they even had a kid in the backseat, red-faced and screaming, so loudly, that they nearly missed their exit.
The point is, it’s often easier for us to put the blame on an individual, than it is for us to consider what other outside factors might have been affecting them in that moment. That’s the attribution error in a nut shell. It can be argued that learning to navigate and/or mitigate this involuntary mental shortcut makes us better, more considerate people in our day to day lives.
So what does this have to do with star signs and the moon? Well, let’s suspend the disbelief for a moment. When we entertain the idea that maybeeee the reason our favourite aunt never texts us back in a timely fashion is because she’s got mercury (the planet of communication) in the aloof placement of Aquarius, we’re giving her the benefit of the doubt. We’re saying, I don’t really think you’re ignoring me, or meaning to be rude — it’s probably not your fault at all. Hell, we’re blaming the stars. And that time our friend spilled the beans about the surprise party we were throwing? Not her fault. She’s a Gemini, and everyone knows how sociable and forgetful they can be. See what I mean?
A placebo effect — meaning a beneficial effect that comes the belief in a subject, drug, or action, rather than the subject, drug, or action itself — is a way of harnessing the power of attribution so that we secure a positive outcome without actually changing anything tangible. By considering the placebo effects of astrology, we can better rationalize the inevitable flaws and downsides of another human being by accepting that the reasons for their disposition may lie in the complexities of the unknown. Blaming a person’s zodiac chart for their shortcomings doesn’t have to be looked at as an excuse — In fact, I’m convinced it can be a surefire tool for practicing empathy, patience, and overall greater compassion towards those we care about.
The further beauty of this mindset is that it’s not even limited exclusively to other people. The next time you’re being too hard on yourself for that dumb mistake you recently made, or that silly argument you started at midnight the other day, try and blame it on your birth time. You might find it lets you accept the imperfect parts of yourself with a little more ease, and, if you’re lucky, it’ll piss off any of your friends who have been questioning the state of your sanity ever since you started paying special attention to their birthdates.
The fundamental attribution error is just another part of our big-brain human wiring, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and do better than the automatic name-calling and people-shaming. By shifting negativity onto factors that are out of the scope of human control, we actually gain a little more control over our own peace of mind.
Here’s to placebo effects and blaming the bullshit!
Alexandra — July 2020