What’s your sign?

Hi, my name is Ana and I’m a Gemini. Gemini on the Taurus-Gemini cusp, to be exact, which means I’m born during the transition between two signs, which means that I’m both dependable, practical and tactile (Taurus) and indecisive, curious, with an unending need to express myself (Gemini). Depending on the day, I can be deeply grounded or extremely shallow. And surprise! You never know which.

Now, either I just outed myself as someone you want to roll your eyes at because I am now in a category of people akin to crystal healers and tarot readers, or perhaps you feel like you know me better already just because I told you my sign and I’m now in a category of people akin to crystal healers and tarot readers.

I’ve recently become fascinated with the whole idea of astrology, particularly its mainstream iteration—the horoscope—because of how strange a phenomenon it is to bear witness to something so obviously nonsensical (why would stars affect personality? how can you account for twins who are born at the same time?) that statements like “Myers-Briggs is astrology for smart people” can be made and practically universally agreed upon in certain circles made up of, of course, smart people. (If you’re not familiar with Myers-Briggs, it’s a personality test that similarly, is mostly agreed to have no scientific basis, but is widely practiced in corporate environments as a way to improve team culture by drawing insights about how people think and act based on 16 personality types.)

There’s two layers of insults here: one that astrology is for dumb people and the other that astrology is completely invented and arbitrary, and so to believe in it is to believe in something like, say, religion or money or Lady Gaga, all of which are invented and arbitrary.

And yet, not only do horoscopes persist since their invention less than one hundred years ago—astrology itself has been around for much longer, and was in fact, the same thing as astronomy until its separation in the 17th century during the Age of Reason—but they’re practically everywhere, and not just in “dumb people” literature, whatever that is.

The phrase that’s known as a cheesy retro pickup line doesn’t seem entirely lost in the world of modern dating either. When I met Ed, we got to know each other’s astrological sign on our very first date. I can’t remember who asked who (if memory serves me correct, he asked me, which doesn’t really match up to what I know about him now four years later). I was relieved to discover that he was a Capricorn. I think I get along with Capricorns. I mean, they’re hardworking, considerate, organized and goal-oriented, kind of a perfect partner against bull-headed Tauruses and flaky Geminis.

I grew up on horoscopes, my first exposure to them in serious newspapers and not-so-serious magazines. I was obsessed with reading things, anything. This was the era of dial-up, the kind where you could only connect to the internet through the landline, and I was a cereal box reader—it’s what kids who liked to read at the breakfast table did back before smartphones were invented. Off the dining table, horoscopes were everywhere in the places I wanted to read. Not only that, but there was something new and different every day, every issue, and I didn’t know it then, but it provided me a sense of self and identity, a page from the novel of me designed to fuel addiction, the perfect precursor to the era of the smartphone.

You’re divided into one of twelve signs from Aries to Pisces. That made me special, no longer just one half of the population or a teenager who had no sense of direction at all, but sharing a common identity with just approximately 8.33% of the world around me. Along with that identity came a set of characteristics, affinities and predisposed destinies that explained me and who I was to become.

But that’s not the only zodiac I’m talking about. The Chinese zodiac and its East Asian and Southeast Asian variations also contain twelve signs, based on year rather than cycling through every 30 or so days. So, in a class of students, everyone would be one of two signs, born either at the tail end of one sign or the year of the next (the lunar calendar starts a little bit later than the Gregorian calendar in use for most of the world today).

Amidst the surface similarities, you can already see how culture is reflected in the zodiac through assigned personality traits. In Chinese culture, for example, the concept of fate still plays a big role (if not predictively then at least spiritually), and you can see how that plays out in zodiac characteristics which seem to focus a bit more on external “qualities” (ie dragon is the “lucky” sign—and as far as I know, luck is not a personality trait). Whoever invented the lunar astrology system sure had some fun with it: you have a mythical animal, the dragon, some strong contenders like the tiger and ox, and then, all the way at the end, you have the pig, the dog and the rooster (why is the chicken gendered? probably a similar reason as to why Taurus is the male bull but is considered a “feminine” sign). Some suggest that this is why some years experience higher birth rates than others.

The reason why common farm animals are all at the end kind of makes sense: because it was a race. And it wasn’t the big bad dragon, the ox or the tiger who won, by the way. It was the cunning rat who hitched a ride on the ox, then jumped off at the end to declare itself number one.

I was the third in line of first-born female dragons, following my grandma and then my mom. Since I was a kid, I’ve been grouped in that cluster, with things I did or even things I didn’t, explained through my sign. “Oh, you never finish things because dragons don’t finish things. They have big heads but small tails,” my mom would say. When my brother and I fought (he was born two days after me, two years before), she’d say it was overwhelming because we were both Geminis so it was like dealing with four kids, on top of her four actual ones.

It was never explained or addressed why my brother then was the methodical and “slow and steady” one when I’m the one with the tempered nature of Taurus (he narrowly missed the cusp), or why instead of the energetic leader dragons are meant to be, I turned out to be a placid and reserved kid. Perhaps nurture got in the way of cosmic destiny, as rumour is I used to be quite the firecracker until my mom channeled her inner Kelly Cutrone and told me that if I have to cry to go inside.

Then, a few years ago, I learned that there’s much more to astrology than your sun sign, the sign you think is yours because it corresponds to popular horoscopes and the easy to comprehend birth date selection process.

Ah! So that explains it!

You have a rising sign (the sign that appears on the eastern horizon at the time you were born), a moon sign and a whole bunch of others. In fact, you have an entire natal chart mapping the stars at the exact time you were born. This is what professional astrologers use when conducting readings; they say this hold much more information than a one-dimensional sun sign ever could. A sun sign is actually only one very small aspect of your personality, representing identity.

So when I found out through a free rising sign calculator on the internet that I was a Scorpio rising, I felt validated, like a small piece of myself that was missing had finally come to light. If you’re into astrology, then you know all about Scorpios: intense, independent, thoughtful. Discovering this was the beginning of me trying to fill the rest of the gaps in, and after abandoning horoscopes for most of my adult life coinciding with when I stopped reading physical newspapers and magazines, I became curious again.

Horoscopes, as it turns out, are more popular and divisive than ever. Astrologers write horoscopes in all forms and platforms. Astrostyle twins Ophira and Tali have a popular site with ebooks on “How to get along with anyone”, conducting readings and holding workshops and retreats while writing columns for major media publications and brands, all as part of their astrological media empire. Some astrologers, like Susan Miller, write pages and pages for each sign every month to the tune of several thousand words each (she’s nearly always late but I don’t blame her). Chani Nicholas is a Webby award-winning astrologer with a New York Times bestselling book and a Netflix deal under her belt. She runs her self-named media company, Chani, a “queer feminist-led budding empire focused on using astrology for mindfulness, healing and self-discovery”. Nadia Jane is a former graphic designer turned professional astrologer who uses Instagram and typography as her horoscope delivery vehicle. And of course, we have next gen astrologers crossing over into multimedia with YouTubers making astrology even more accessible for those of us who don’t like to read and TikTokers like Maren Altman (“The Most Serious Astrologer on Tiktok”) providing quick-hitting horoscopes in bite size. There’s an entire growing landscape of media companies and influencers harnessing the power and pull of astrology, all with different personalities, audiences and channels. What they have in common are perceptive minds, ultra-empathy and amazing communication skills, skills that have traditionally been associated with women, which these examples all happen to be.

All kinds of stats show a sharp increase in horoscopes and astrology, from Instagram meme accounts to pop culture quizzes. See: Why Are Millennials So Into Astrology? and The anxieties and apps fuelling the astrology boom. In 2020, just like viral dance challenges and Zoom meetings, astrology took off, this time welcoming a whole new swath of self-made astrologers: younger, more diverse, less polished. Some of them used astrology to help people make sense of the political climate, others aimed to help people with cryptocurrency predictions.

Any existing associations with gender and frivolity are now at an all-time high, the elephant in the room being that many practitioners and followers of astrology are women and more recently, queer people.

Although I’m sure they exist, I’ve never met a straight man who reads his horoscope (although I have forced a few straight men, starting with my dad, to listen to me as I read theirs.). In fact, men can often be found all over the internet hating on astrology and the women who believe in them. They’ve, in turn, been dragged:

Astrology, like so many other things women tend towards, is seen as frivolous at best, dangerous at worst. Admitting you read your horoscope to a man is akin to admitting you don’t believe in science. But I’m not sure where I’d place astrology. It’s not a science, if we’re using the definition I like from Neil deGrasse Tyson. But the fact that it’s often referred to as a pseudoscience further affirms the idea that it’s “less than”.

In fact, the person who brought horoscopes to modern media was a man (as is the case for most professions when historically men have been pioneers, a notable exception ironically is the case of computer programming, which was invented and first practiced by women). A British astrologer by the name of R. H. Naylor was asked to write a horoscope to celebrate the birth of Princess Margaret in 1930. He was actually filling in for his boss William John Warner aka Cheiro, an Irish astrologer. It had become relatively common up to this point for newspapers to feature birth horoscopes for famous people, as well as to foretell war and political events. When Naylor’s predictions proved accurate (but more importantly, interesting), people started to pay attention and the Sunday Express asked him to write a column. He changed the format to the modern sun sign-based system we’re familiar with today because his publisher pressured him to make the column more widely appealing and applicable to sell more newspapers.

The whole “what’s your sign” thing is, after all, a modern invention designed to sell newspapers, even though astrology has been practiced for thousands of years across the world from early Mesopotamia, China, Egypt and Greece.

But where do these astrologers come from? Are they…psychic, or pretending to be? How does one even learn how to “read the stars”?

Well, here’s an example of birth chart. It’s a map of where all the planets were from earth, at the exact time that you’re born. Different planets have different associations. For example, Mercury is all about travel, communication and technology (ever heard of Mercury retrograde?). These associations, along with the 12 zodiac signs, are the product of thousands of years of astrologers studying the planets and their movements and then recording the patterns. Astrologers believe that the locations of planets can predict personality traits as well as events.

So no, they’re not psychic. They’re interpreting data based on the knowledge of a long run of people throughout history, many of them revered in the scientific communities of their time. Read a few different horoscopes from different astrologers and you’ll see the same themes. It’s like applying interpretation to a series of data points.

But data isn’t science. It’s just information that can be interpreted. And the evidence against horoscopes is pretty damning.

There’s a study in which faculty members of various universities were given one of two identical resumes, the only difference being gender, then were asked to rate the applicant as well as to explain the reasons for their ratings. The results are interesting but perhaps not surprising: the man was always chosen as the person they’d more likely hire. When a reason was given, participants confidently provided a reason that matched their decision. For example, let’s take resume A and resume B. The first set of participants said that they would hire resume A, which belonged to a man. When the genders were swapped, and resume A now belonged to a woman, resume B got the job. And each time, reasons changed to match the decision. In a form of twisted irony, recent research shows that women make better leaders, or at least score higher on leadership capabilities. How that translates into real life when you’re in a room full of bias and people making decisions not based on objective truth but on how bias impacts their feelings is another matter.

This matches up with repeated study after study that shows that professional astrologers are unsuccessful in guessing people’s signs and that there is no correlation to personality traits of people born at the same time.

And yet people believe that horoscopes are real. Why? Not because of any objective data that has ever proven it, but because of a psychological phenomenon called the Barnum effect, which has been proven to be a very real thing.

People believe things for reasons that have nothing to do with truth or fact, and all to do with perception.

So if there’s no “proof”, who are these horoscopes catering to, an alarming rise of science naysayers and woo-woo practitioners? Women, in a covert attempt to waste the minds and time of half the population? In Why Straight Men Hate Astrology So Much, Bob from Kent ventures to say it’s for “lonely people”. Although clearly a dig, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that were true: loneliness is on the rise, so is astrology.

So perhaps horoscopes are simply coping tools. In a 1982 study by psychologist Graham Tyson to uncover patterns in people who consult astrologers (what kind of people are they, really?), it was indeed found that people did so during times of stress, and also that they were more likely to be female and relatively well-educated. That’s a lot of people, if we consider that we’re more educated than ever, that women make up more than half the population and that people are mostly stressed. If astrology is basically a psychological stress-ball, then what’s so wrong about believing in something that encourages self-inquiry?

Maybe it’s not science. Maybe it’s not trying to be. Maybe it’s something else altogether. What would you call a tool for self-inquiry? A cheap therapist?

But, are you sure that there’s no scientific basis to astrology? Are you absolutely sure? I think, like many of us, I have these two different and sometimes opposing sides (aha! Gemini in effect): on the one hand, I am content to find value in meaning alone, and on the other, I need to find the truth. Is it out there, Mulder?

So here’s the thing: astrology is not void of proof altogether. There are a few studies that do show a correlation between birth month and lifespan and season of birth and psychiatric illness. That’s a start, but it’s not exactly total and absolute proof. There is, however, a man by the name of Alexander Boxer, a data scientist with a PhD in physics. He wrote the book, A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data, in which he defends astrology as a practice of pattern-finding parallel to the work data scientists do today. He aims to demonstrate that there are algorithms to ancient astrology. Still not proof though, because if we were to accept everything old as factual, as data driven as it was then, we’d still be blaming demons for mental health afflictions.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

Like everything else with capitalist applications, horoscopes have gone high-tech, which typically means being stripped of jargon and polarizing language for the sake of accessibility and mass appeal. Call it the 21st century version of selling more newspapers.

Last year, I discovered an app called The Pattern. It’s just one of many attempts at modernizing astrology for the internet generation. Known for being “scarily accurate”, they do this by removing astrology jargon, no mention of planets or retrogrades or even zodiac signs at all. Take a look at their site and it’s not really all that clear what they do.

I’ve been using the app since. Is it “scarily accurate”? Yes, uncannily so. Channing Tatum thought so too. I watched them predict that I was going to get promoted, that I was going to make more money, then when I was going to leave my job, and now, as I’m trying to build a new life, the themes that I’m experiencing right now which include not being able to rely on the successes and persona of my previous self.

Perhaps the whole reason why horoscopes haven’t been proven is because they were simply designed to be generic enough to sell. Their 20th century origins are rooted in the plight of modern media to keep people addicted—what better way to do so than to give them just enough?—not in any pursuit of accuracy. Now, data and technology is changing that script entirely. We may not be that far at all from proving or disproving astrology once and for all, once the human variables and complexity of astrology can be accounted for using modern computing.

But proving that something works doesn’t tell us what many want to know: if it does work, why and how? I suspect that the answer to this is tied to larger questions about the universe, god, religion. To prove that it works is something, but science asks us to question and find a reason, find the why and the how. Without that, even something that works can be denigrated to coincidence, psychological affliction or magic (I’m of the camp that believes that magic is just yet-to-be explained science).

Some have suggested that it has something to do with the very real science of energy and gravity rather than the idea of personality and fate being “written in the stars”.

After all this, I question accuracy as the determinant of success when it comes to horoscopes. Cue the Barnum effect: I have a feeling that if I were to provide a fake birthday and read the horoscope that’s given to me, that maybe I’d take that as scarily accurate too—not because the statements are so generic they could apply to anyone but because of almost the opposite: they are so deep and universal and our lives so multifaceted and complex that of course we find an inkling of belonging in the experiences that tie us together.

Why else with something with very little (although not nonexistent) scientific basis be so popular? While a strong number of people in the minority believe in astrology (1 in 4 Americans), more than half read their horoscope, with anywhere from 12-23% reading them every single day.

The magic of the modern horoscope lives when we suspend the pursuit of fact-finding and venture into the pursuit of human inquiry. Just like Myers-Briggs, I don’t actually think its true value is in helping you define characteristics and predict futures at all but in:

a) cultivating empathy for yourself and others (how easy it always is to forget that when someone doesn’t act the way you expect and desire, that not everyone thinks and acts like you. It’s much harder to forget when you understand innately and immediately that people are different and that everyone has qualities you admire and qualities you don’t)

and b) stepping outside out of the zone of personal experience to more objectively understand how to deal with a situation, in a way where your emotions and feelings matter (there is often a separation between objectivity and feelings, but I think the combination of the two is exactly the reason horoscopes resonate so much with people).

All the stuff about who you are and what’s going to happen is just a trojan horse delivering the slow-acting (now viral) antidote to almost any human condition: personal inquiry, empathy and self-awareness, all made possible because we’ve always had an innate curiosity for finding our place in the world and our futures in it.

It’s quite something to witness how something so general can feel so personal and so valuable. If anything, it’s a great lesson on the human experience, writing, empathy and marketing. Marketers should take note, because so many of them are doing the opposite: making something that can be incredibly personal and turning it into something extremely bland and generic. Astrology, with hardly any data to back anything up at all, has more devout followers and engaged fans than all the companies and brands who are wading in data as their secret super-weapon.

Did I change anything because of the Pattern and its predictions? No, not really. I mentioned Pattern’s “predictions” coming true but the truth is, the less shiny part of it is the part that really mattered. None of the “predictions” changed my behaviors but what it said about those predictions and themes helped me cope and understand how to feel, how to act. (Although, it’d be hard to confirm this fact for sure, because my response itself may be biased to disprove the notion that I’m silly because what a sin that would be to be perceived as silly!) In any case, I felt validated.

The real skill of modern astrologers isn’t the work of decoding what the meaning of Aries entering Mercury is. After all, these are associations and meanings that people have assigned and invented, not some all-knowing god. (We may have to prepare ourselves when one day we perhaps find out that the data we collected long ago may no longer be accurate and that we have been prone to cosmic misinterpretation.)

The real skill astrologers who write horoscopes have is understanding people, what we all go through, and how to help people help themselves work through relationship, career, life challenges.

In a wild twist, my mom’s dragon lineage was broken when, in her 60s, she discovered that she wasn’t a dragon after all, but the succeeding sign: the snake. To believe for your entire life that you’re the coveted, lucky dragon and then to find out that you’re a much smaller, skinnier dragon without wings that can’t fly and has to slither on the ground? (And who, in Christian mythology, basically coerced the entire human race into sin.)

As for “What’s your sign?” Looking back, it’s a fun easy question that no one takes too seriously. When you ask it, you’re asking it in a sly way, making sure to communicate through body and verbal language that you don’t take it, or yourself, too seriously. As per the rules of dating, you never ask serious questions lest you scare your potential mate off. The answer you get, if you listen a little bit closer and pause to let the other person speak, may tell you a lot more about them than you think a silly question ever could, and they (and you) don’t even have to believe in it for it to work.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” —Albus Dumbledore