I was 13, taking in a typical sunny Sunday afternoon from the backseat of my mom’s Toyota.
I forget where we were headed.
I must have made some comment, because I remember my mom turning to me and saying with a grin, “Oh, you’re such a typical [insert zodiac sign]!”
I had no idea what that meant, so I asked.
She explained it was why I was the way I was, listing several of my common cares and points of focus to build her case.
She cited glaring similarities between me and many we knew who shared my sign.
I was curious, perhaps sensing something close to destiny.
For the rest of that ride, I pulled from my mom all she knew of astrology’s basic mechanics—how it had to do with the sun’s position to certain star constellations at the moment of one’s birth.
I wondered: Could who I was and what I was supposed to do in life really be influenced by angles of celestial bodies in time?
Would that mean 1 in 12 others were just like me?
In the months and years that followed, I got gradually fixated on birthdates like some sort of zany secret detective, keeping a running mental list of everyone born under each sign, and mapping any similarities I thought I saw between them.
One day when I was 18, I was helping my dad break down piles of gnarled boxes that jammed out our garage like Tetris pieces.
I happened upon a stack of buried cassette tapes I’d never seen before, some clearly labeled with my name.
The tapes turned out to be astrological readings recorded for me and my parents by a friend of my mom’s around when I was born.
As I listened, I’d have sworn that smooth, low voice slowly modulating through the hiss really was describing each of us in incredible detail.
From those tapes, I learned that there was so much more to astrology than just the 12 sun signs we tend to giggle at in magazine horoscopes . . . that each planet represented its own sign, having its own unique effects on specific aspects of one’s being.
From then on, I started running astrology reports online for everyone I knew and met.
Astrology became my base for understanding and interacting with others.
I gaged all people by their charts, digging in as deep as I could go.
The problem: Astrology makes no natural sense.
Why would planetary positions determine one’s person or purpose?
Was it all just a crazy filter to see life through, with no bearing on reality?
But the world as fed back to me through chart results somehow felt so uncannily recognizable as accurate.
Astrology is a form of divination.
So are numerology, tarot cards, psychics, tea leaves, I Ching cleromancy, and a host of other practices where meanings or omens are read from apparently unconnected facts.
The purpose of divination is always to gain insight or foresight.
One reason I bring up astrology and divination now in this series on identity and personality is that certain modern approaches to personality function exactly like divination systems—approaches many absolutely swear by, cite scores of evidence for, and flood YouTube with videos about.
So using divination as a clear, exaggerated example, I’d like to focus on how all personality systems and tests can be useful, but also limiting.
In Psychology, tendencies to see connections and meanings in unrelated events are called apophenia.
Apophenia believes the third blackjack table from the casino entrance is lucky every 4 plays.
Apophenia sees the sinister face of a demon trapped each night in a bedside lampshade.
Apophenia is Jim Carry’s character in the film, The Number 23, believing everything in his life somehow connects to what’s called the Law of Fives.
Apophenia always comes dressed in confirmation bias, which is seeing only whatever supports what you already believe or are seeking to prove.
But if divination is apophenia, how could it ever be useful?
3 Facts about Divination
- Divination only goes one way.
There’s a story in the Bible where a powerful ruler gathers all his astrologers, and says, “I had this weird dream. Now you have to tell me what the dream was first, and then give the interpretation, since anyone could fit something clever to the dream if I told it to you.”
Those astrologers failed in the same way modern astrologers can’t meet a person, get to know them (without learning birth details), and then guess at the person’s chart alignments.
Divination only works from data fed into its system back to what that system has to say about life, possibility, personality…
Once the data has been fed, and a reading is produced, you notice all instances where the reading connects to experience.
- Divination can serve as a helpful proxy for illumination.
Imagine you’re sitting in a lecture hall, about to hear a renowned spiritual leader give a talk on life.
The speech begins a little dry.
Passages from holy books are read and fit to history.
It takes you a few minutes to adjust to the speaker’s accent and strange mannerisms.
You begin to drift off a little without realizing, softly daydreaming about the happenings in your world and where you have to be by when.
But then there’s a subtle change to the quality of the talk, at least as you perceive it.
Certain lines leap right out at you from the rest, gripping your attention . . . lines that seem to speak directly to your circumstances and specific things you’re hoping for, perhaps confirming some good potential future you’ve been considering.
Now, that same dynamic can occur when attending a college lecture, listening to a business podcast, or reading a novel.
Something said awakens or gives weight to what you hope for.
It feels too perfect to be a coincidence.
In divination, those moments of illumination happen by proxy: You’re focused on the tea leaves, star charts, or number quadrants in your search for truth and meaning; and that conscious focus frees you up on the inside to grasp unconscious knowledge, unlock unconscious capacity, or discover and express unconscious wants, needs, feelings, perceptions…
Even if divination is apophenia (at least in its mechanics), outwardly navigating the connections you think you see between facts and events enables you to inwardly reach, register with, and begin to rely on your true core values.
There are always 2 parts to divination: a part that provides an accounting story to directly explain real facts in the world—that story is the proxy you focus on—and a part that reaches indirectly to touch your real experience.
Divination might say:
“You’re able to show unique wisdom (possible experience) because you were born in the year of the Monkey (accounting story proxy).”
“You care deeply for your loved ones (possible experience) because your sun sign is Cancer (accounting story proxy).”
“You’re passionate and have much inner strength (possible experience) because your life path number is 8 (accounting story proxy).”
“You care about what’s objectively real (possible experience) because your moon sign is Aquarius (accounting story proxy).”
Yes, these are simple examples.
Almost anyone could relate to most of these possible experiences (filling in their own details).
But the deeper you go into any divination system, the more accounting story you’re given to sift through so that more experience/intuition/desire can then be connected with.
With astrology, for example, I mentioned how additional planets are brought into play; as you read or hear about what each of these is meant to mean, more and more of your actual tendencies and drives can be brought to light and “made sense of.”
Proxy systems that deal with personality can be especially helpful in this regard because personality is never as simple as we tend to want to make it.
Although we do each favor certain ways of perceiving and approaching both our inner and outer realities, we all actually have to make use of every aspect of personality at times, whether or not it’s something that comes naturally to what we are.
So an infinitely complex system of interpretation that allows for ever more aspects of your nature to be discovered and applied can be useful . . . to a point.
- Divination is limiting.
Seeing by proxy is not without cost.
There’s a downside to those ever-expanding mythological narratives used to account for possible knowledge, history, potential…
Such stories can’t help but speak to how things ought to be.
Taking the same examples above:
“You’re able to show unique wisdom (possible experience) because you were born in the year of the Monkey (accounting story proxy). But you shouldn’t do much cardio, since your heart and nerves are weak (limiting prescription).”
“You care deeply for your loved ones (possible experience) because your sun sign is Cancer (accounting story proxy). But it would be a mistake for you to date fire signs or be a Math major (limiting prescription).”
“You’re passionate and have much inner strength (possible experience) because your life path number is 8 (accounting story proxy). But little things aren’t that important to you, so it would be wasteful to try to focus much on keeping your life in balance (limiting prescription).”
“You care about what’s objectively real (possible experience) because your moon sign is Aquarius (accounting story proxy). But don’t try to feel your actual feelings in any kind of visceral way, since they’re alien to you and a complete mystery to everyone else (limiting prescription)”
Can you imagine the inner monologue of someone whose divination accountings happened to cover all those traits?
Well, I do have a unique and objective way of seeing things; and I want to work hard and turn that perspective into something useful so I can take care of my family (experience).
But I guess all those Economics classes were really a waste of time. And does my family even know I care so much? I mean, my wife’s a fire sign . . . maybe that’s why it’s like we can never fully understand each other. Oh well, I’ll likely burn out and die soon, anyway, since I can’t do anything about all this stress; but at least I’ll accomplish my big dreams first (limiting prescription).
As I said, astrology became my way of seeing and measuring everyone I met.
But I was worried, deep down, it was just a flaky approach to life.
Of course astrology itself wove in plenty of its own narrative to explain away such concerns:
“Oh, that’s because you’re a…”
But I hated seeing how it limited my relationships and pursuits.
I’d watch myself prejudge all potential partners on scales of compatibility.
One day, I was talking with a wise older friend about my pesky astrology perspective; and he told me, “Astrology is like your pseudo-calling.”
I think what he meant was my interest in astrology could be a signpost to reveal my true passion: understanding people and values.
Later, as I studied Psychology and concepts like self, identity, and personality, I found systems that didn’t share divination’s built-in limitations—systems that could work both ways: from observed traits to a person’s “type,” as well as just from fed type data back to trait predictions.
As I said, some approaches to personality function exactly like divination systems.
The easiest way to tell the difference: Can the system work both ways?
Again, since divination only works from fed data back to its predictions, it requires an ever more complex accounting story to serve as a proxy for illumination—an accounting story that can’t help but speak to how things ought to be.
And it’s those prescriptions from the story that are limiting.
I once worked with this girl who asked me for an astrological reading.
The results left her speechless.
But in the months and years that followed, it became clear she was using her reading as an excuse not to grow and live more by her values.
Specifically, her bold and careless sun sign became a role she loved to play in order to hide and protect her soft and fragile moon sign.
The result: normalized imbalance, poor coping skills, dishonesty, rudeness…
But by then I was learning personality systems that could work both ways.
So one morning I walked up and just gave her 4 words to search for online, which were the names of 4 personality traits she’d shown often in the years we’d worked together.
What she discovered as she searched and read was a model that allowed her to transcend the limitations of the proxy system she’d enjoyed but been held back by.
I’ve had that same experience, myself, being set free as I’ve come to understand my nature in ways that go far beyond whatever the stars might say.
Those systems that can work both ways—and even unfasten knots held tight by decades of divination narratives—are what we’ll start to look at next time.
Here’s a report on an interesting study conducted to test any correlation between personality and astrological predictions.