While shopping a few days ago, a friend and I stumbled upon Oscar, the fortune-telling machine. For a quarter, he would rate your prospects in love, success and luck on a scale ranging from poor to excellent. Thinking it would be a laugh, I decided to give Oscar a try and inserted a quarter into the slot.
“Welcome. Please place your hand on the sensor,” Oscar intoned.
Rolling my eyes at my friend, I did as instructed.
“Now, look into my eyes.” I glanced at the cartoon face of Oscar- a man with a turban, a sly grin, and glowing yellow eyes.
“I see your future.”
Giggling, I looked down at the first meter, the one for love. Red bars lit up and dimmed at “good”. Hmm, not bad. Next, the success meter lit up but ended abruptly at “poor”. What? I thought. I would be unsuccessful?! Meanwhile, the last meter, the one for luck, blazed all the way up to “excellent”. In confusion, I stared at Oscar for clarification- I would be lucky, but not lucky enough to be successful? But how lucky would I be, if I failed in my endeavours?
“I recommend that you go on a hot air balloon ride. Thank you, and come back soon to have your fortune told by me.” With those final words, the machine’s lights faded.
We laughed, but my thoughts raced back to my success rating. Why would I be unsuccessful? Why? Then, another thought flitted into my head: Was I actually bothered by a programmed machine’s flashing lights? After all, I believe in free will and that events are not pre-destined. So how can Oscar’s predictions influence my future?
Fichten and Sunerton (1) showed that fortune-telling predictions have little reliability. When subjects were asked to evaluate the reliability of their horoscope from the previous day, predictions were rated 5.44 out of 10 on average. Furthermore, for any given day, different astrologers predict different events. Yet, why do some of us believe predictions to be valid in general? We tend to remember occasions when events occurred as predicted and forget all the times forecasts were wrong. Drawing illusory correlations from our memory, we arrive at the conclusion that horoscopes hold some validity.
Descriptions of personality based on astrological signs seem to be even more valid than horoscopes. Why? Astrologers employ the Barnum effect, where ambiguous descriptions lead us to feel our personality has been dissected.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at this paragraph from The Fallacy of Personal Validation- A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility published in 1949:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them (2).
Did the statements describe you? The sentences are so vague that they can apply to anyone, regardless of gender, age or education.
What makes these predictions so powerful is that its suggestions can initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we read that Aquarii are honest, we may think: Hey, I’m an Aquarius… there was that one time I returned the extra dollar in change to the cashier and there was that other time the waitress forgot to add my drink to the bill and I told her. Yeah, I am honest. Thus we become even more honest.
These predictions have the ability to change us. In Korea, physiognomy, the reading of a person’s character or the divination of a person’s fortune based on facial features, is so prevalent that companies employ physiognomy specialists to select job candidates (3). In a survey of 1181 managers, 79.5% of managers considered the appearance of candidates when hiring. Unsurprisingly, cosmetic surgery is a thriving industry in Korea. One out of ten Koreans have had cosmetic surgery to not only become more beautiful, but luckier. Having more auspicious facial features (e.g. long, round nose, white complexion) inspires more confidence in Koreans, enabling them to attain that promotion or attract the eye of a crush.
Essentially, we become what we think and what we think can be influenced by predictions.
In the end, Oscar’s prediction of my lack of success will arise if I believe him. Nonetheless, my friend patted my arm and reassured me, “Don’t worry. If things don’t work out, you’ll be lucky enough to marry a rich guy.”
(1) Fichten, C.S., Sunerton, B. (1983). Popular Horoscopes and the Barnum Effect. Journal of Psychology. 114. 123-134.
(2) Forer, B.R. (1949). The Fallacy of Personal Validation- A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 44. 118-123.
(3) Kim, A.E. (2005). Nonofficial Religion in South Korea: Prevalence of Fortunetelling and Other Forms of Divination. Review of Religious Research. 46. 284-302.