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Is there any truth in the link between horoscopes and personality traits?

By Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho

Horoscopes influence people’s lives more than we might think. They provide a convenient means to define a person’s personality traits and foretell one’s future.

Horoscopes and astrological signs can be traced to Babylonian astrology which was the first systematic study of how celestial objects influence the way a person behaves, as well as his or her future. Originating more than 4,000 years ago, the trend of looking to the horoscopes is still prevalent among youngsters and young adults and horoscopes unfailingly occupy sections of many newspapers, albeit somewhat obscure but still very popular.

While the curiosity to know more about oneself and one’s future is always lurking, it also gets people wondering just how much truth there is in the horoscopes. Such curiosity about whether the horoscopes actually make sense of one’s personality is the motivation behind this article.

Some statistical analysis by the author has been performed to test the point. It was a spin-off from a study conducted to correlate personality traits with academic performance. The author happened to collect the dates of birth of the study’s 180 subjects and thence had the idea to examine the correlation between the twelve astrological signs and the subjects’ personality traits.

The personality traits were based on the ‘Big Five’ attributes: ‘Openness’, ‘Conscientiousness’, ‘Extroversion’, ‘Agreeableness’ and “Emotionality’. A correlational test using the eta coefficient (a measure of how strong a correlation is) was conducted to draw the relationship between the astrological signs and personality traits.

As each astrological sign is characterised by certain predominant traits, for instance those born under the sign of Cancer are often known for their emotional and intuitive disposition, it was assumed that each sign will have a high correlation with a particular set of the ‘Big Five’ attributes.

The results turned out to be rather unsurprising but they could lead some into self-denial, especially among diehards of the signs. The results showed very weak correlation between the signs and personality traits with eta coefficients ranging from 0.148 to 0.323 on a 0 to 1 scale of increasing significance.

Among the ‘Big Five’ attributes, the greatest correlation was found between assertiveness under ‘Extroversion’ and the signs at 0.323, which is still considered low. Next was liberalism under ‘Openness’ at 0.322. At this point, one can probably envisage denying voices regarding the validity of the study and the need of more evidence.

To these dissenting voices, alas, there is indeed much proof to disprove the common belief. As early as 1979, a study by Veno and Pamment showed a lack of significant relationship between the signs and personality traits. The study involved a larger population of 692 male and female university students.  

In 1982, another study conducted in New Zealand by Saklofske, Kelly and McKerracher echoed the weak link between the signs and the personality dimensions of extraversion, emotionality and psychoticism. The rise of computer technology in the 1990s enabled more extensive and rigorous statistical tests to investigate the influence of astrological signs on personality, and again, another study revealed that the influence was insignificant.

Now, if you think that the astrological signs are entirely nonsensical, you have a point, but it is not entirely true. This simple study and many others in the past show that there is some sense in the relationship between the signs and personality traits but it is just not strong enough to conclusively say that a particular set of personality traits can be associated with a particular sign.

Horoscope enthusiasts might then say, “Does this mean that I have been dim-witted to believe in such things all this while?” The belief in astrology has in fact no relation with a person’s level of intellect. It was reported that some Europeans considered astrology as scientific because of insufficient scientific literacy in differentiating science from pseudoscience and a lack of clear understanding about astrology. In fact, 78 per cent of approximately 10,000 undergraduates in an American university actually perceived astrology to be very or somehow scientific.

So, what is the big deal about believing or not believing in the signs anyway? Though not much sense has been found in the effect of the signs on personality traits, the knowledge of astrology may affect one’s self-perception. For instance, having been described as self-confident yet inflexible by astrologists, a Leo may associate his or her behaviours with such traits, thinking that it is natural for Leos to behave in such a manner. This may further encourage a Leo to behave accordingly.

While there is no harm in reading about the signs, which many people do, you should not let them define who you are. This is akin to attributing one’s success merely to personality traits. In doing so, we are losing sight of more crucial and definitive factors of success such as commitment and focus.

Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho is an environmental engineering lecturer in the Department of Civil and Construction Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Science. He is a member of the Energy Institute (EI) UK and is registered as a Chartered Energy Engineer with the EI. He is an EIA consultant registered with both the State and Federal environmental agencies and has accumulated vast experience in managing environmental projects, particularly environmental impact assessment and management plans. He is currently active in consultancy as well as research related to health, safety, environment and sustainability. He is also passionate about educational research and has won awards for teaching excellence.