Are Horoscopes Healthy?

Psychologists talk to WebMD about the mental health implications of reading horoscopes.

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Your WebMD Horoscope

Birthdays Jan. 1 to Dec. 31)
Strengthen your relationships, learn how to manage stress, and stop wasting time reading horoscopes, advises clinical psychologist and author Terence Sandbek, PhD. "One of the hallmarks of mental and emotional maturity is being able to run your own life and make your own decisions," he tells WebMD. He suggests time spent on horoscopes could be better spent on tools with a real record of helping people improve their lives.

For some people, horoscopes are a source of harmless fun. "I read it, but I don't follow it," says Michelle Lucas of Miami. "It's just for entertainment. It doesn't make or break my day."

Horoscope Habit

For others, it's a matter of habit. Every morning, Ann Edwards of Lenoir, N.C., reads the local newspaper. The horoscope is always there, right next to some of her favorite features. Edwards tells WebMD she doesn't think much of astrology, but she plays along. "I'll tell my kids, 'Today is a nine for you' just for fun. I don't tell them if it's a five."

But for many people, horoscopes have a deeper meaning. First-year teacher Janice Holmes says she consults her horoscope "to answer questions, like how my day will be."

"Horoscopes tend to have a bias toward positive things," says Stuart Vyse, PhD, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. "There isn't a lot of negative material in them. That might be comforting to people."

Sense of Comfort

Vyse, who is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, tells WebMD that horoscopes are "a one-size-fits-everybody enterprise" - they're written for everyone who shares your birthday, plus or minus a couple of weeks. But he says horoscopes can still provide a "sense of comfort" because people tend to focus on the parts that are relevant to their own lives.

Adriana Freitas, a marketing manager in Miami, says she enjoys the "hit-or-miss" nature of reading her horoscope. "Sometimes I get lucky and what is written turns out to be true," she tells WebMD. "Sometimes it matches my day and sometimes not. When it [matches] it's funny and I might cut it out."

Psychologists call this "confirmation bias." People will latch onto sections of a horoscope that confirm or support their beliefs and ignore the rest. Vyse says this practice may have a psychological benefit. "To the extent that reading your horoscope gives a sense of order or meaning to your life, that would be a positive thing. The problem is there's no scientific basis to the horoscope, so I think acting on it is not a good thing."

Continued

Illusion of Control

Sandbek says he's concerned that people who regularly consult their horoscopes are looking for guidance, not comfort. "Most people who read horoscopes or go to psychics do so because they want information about themselves or what they should do," he tells WebMD.

Holmes says she pays special attention to her horoscope "when I'm curious about something or when something is changing. It helps explain what's going on."

Sandbek says people may be more likely to read their horoscope during times of change or personal trauma "because it seems like life is spun out of control. People need a sense of being in control."

Vyse agrees. "When they don't have a sense of control, people will engage in activities that give them even a false sense of control. We call this the 'illusion of control.'" Horoscopes create this illusion by hinting - even vaguely - at what a person should do or expect in the near future.

Vyse says this is one reason some women turn to their horoscope for clues about their love life. "Women are the more passive participants in the establishment of a relationship. I hope this is changing, but men are usually the ones who ask the women out. There's a sense that women don't feel they're in charge or have much control over finding a mate."

Horoscopes and Decision Making

Whether you're looking for love or managing your budget, Vyse says horoscopes become problematic if they have a significant influence on your behavior.

Holmes tells WebMD she sometimes makes financial decisions based on her horoscope. "If my horoscope recommends I slow down my spending for a couple of weeks, I do."

Other followers rely on astrology when making difficult decisions about their health. A New York woman who asked not to be named says she consults her astrologer before scheduling surgery. "I absolutely believe in it."

Vyse says this is taking the illusion of control too far. He says it may be fun to base "unimportant decisions" on your horoscope, but that's where to draw the line. "It's never a good idea to make an important decision based on your horoscope. You might as well flip a coin."

"It can be downright damaging," Sandbek says, "because the information people get from a horoscope is random at best." He adds that depending on astrology during challenging times can inhibit personal growth by interfering with your ability to make wise decisions.

Continued

A Matter of Confidence

Although Vyse doesn't recommend acting on your horoscope, he says doing so may yield positive results by boosting your confidence. "There is a benefit to being confident; you can perform better." But he and Sandbek agree there are more reliable ways to build self-esteem.

"If a person has to take random information to make themselves feel good, it's not a healthy way to feel good about themselves," Sandbek says. "We have a lot of technology and resources to make people's lives better. One way is to strengthen a person's support system, strengthen their relationships with others" and weed out bad relationships.

Other useful tools are stress management techniques and cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can help people feel more in control of their lives. Sandbek also recommends looking for self-help books "that walk you through the steps to making wise decisions and feeling more confident."

Vyse says the key to building confidence is the same whether you are a student or an executive. Instead of reading horoscopes, "people should spend their time preparing, studying, and rehearsing for whatever it is they're doing. There's nothing that prepares you better than practice."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sources

SOURCES: Terence Sandbek, PhD, clinical psychologist. Michelle Lucas, Miami. Ann Edwards, Lenoir, N.C. Janice Holmes, teacher, Miami. Stuart Vyse, PhD, professor of psychology, Connecticut College; author, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Adriana Freitas, marketing manager, Miami.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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