On zodiacs, horoscopes and personality tests
I’m an Aquarius. According to one website, Aquarians are “progressive, original, independent, humanitarian”. We like intellectual conversations, helping others and having fun with our friends. Likewise, Astrology.com points to a humanitarian streak and a keen interest in “making the world a better place”. If I had been born five days later, I would be a Pisces. People born under this sign are highly associated with feelings and dreams, both their own and those of other people.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
Zodiac signs are just one kind of popular identity concept. Personality tests, specifically the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), are another fairly recent phenomenon to take hold of the Western world. In 2018, the personality testing industry was evaluated to be worth more than two billion USD. The MBTI is the most popular personality test, with over two million people from more than 26 countries taking it every year. It works by dividing humans into sixteen different categories based on four binaries: extroverted or introverted, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving.
The Myers-Briggs test has an interesting history. It was developed by a mother and daughter, Myers and Briggs, throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Known for being somewhat eccentric, the creators were passionate about developing a system that could match workers to roles that best fit their personality. Neither Myers nor Briggs had any formal qualifications in psychology, yet they dedicated their lives to creating the MBTI system. Copyrighted in 1943, the test didn’t become popular until the 1980s long after the death of the founders. Today, people use the test for a variety of reasons such as assessing job candidates, soldiers, students and even romantic partners.
Even if you’re not familiar with the MBTI system, you’ve probably been asked to complete a personality test at some point in your life. Consider, for example, the sheer popularity of Buzzfeed personality quizzes and those slightly silly charts in magazines like Total Girl.
Utilising Personality Tests in the Workplace
The personality industry is about more than just entertainment. Increasingly, employers are using tests like the MBTI to screen job applicants. Personality tests collect personal data that has been used to target social media ads in the lead up to US elections.
Despite these dangers, personality testing continues to be a lucrative industry with millions of eager participants.
The Growing Popularity of the Personality Industry
After reflecting and realising how prevalent these two identity systems are today, I was left with the following question: why and how are zodiac signs and personality tests so popular?
After studying Marketing and International Relations (a weird combination, I know), I have some ideas of why zodiac signs are so popular and why we love Buzzfeed quizzes. Critical Theory (CT), namely Postmodernism and Marxism, provide some interesting insights into the decline of old identity systems and the creation of new kinds of subjectivity.
In Australia and Europe, the 20th century saw a significant decline in religiosity and communal identifications. There are conflicting versions of why this might be the case. Some theorists point to the devastation of World War I and II as being responsible for overthrowing old mores. Others position the modernist identity crisis in relation to a broader structure of inequality, exploitation and exclusion: capitalism.
Postmodernism, while a little hard to describe, asserts that a universal ‘Truth’ does not exist and that ideologies like nationalism and religion that we accept as ‘real’ are socially constructed. Postmodernist thought came about during and after the Industrial Revolution, both World Wars, and decolonisation of former colonies. These events heavily shaped the social, economic and political norms of European countries and those places, such as Australia, that we would now define as the ‘West’.
Carl Jung, the famous 20th-century psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, positioned the popularity of zodiac signs in line with this broader sense of cultural loss and collective grief at the death of identity.
“Since the stars have fallen from heaven and our highest symbols have paled, a secret life holds sway in the unconscious. That is why we have psychology today, and why we speak of the unconscious. All this would be quite superfluous in an age or culture that possessed symbols (…) a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being.” (Jung, 1931, p.17).
A belief in zodiac signs, in the eyes of Jung, represents a misplaced desire for belonging in an increasingly isolated and atomised world. Marxism corroborates this public feeling in relation to the expansion and intensification of capitalism. As seen in the case of magazine horoscopes, identity systems such as zodiac signs are commodified and repackaged to appeal as being personal and specific to a diversity of groups.
Feeling disillusioned with capitalism and meaningless work, but unable to articulate the root of these feelings, people seek emotional respite in commodities and the media. In a broader context of worker alienation and exploitation, zodiac signs and personality tests can make people feel ‘understood’. This could account for why many followers of astrology are women. In one 2018 report, 60 per cent of 18 to 25-year-old, Australian women surveyed had experienced “gender inequality”. Of this same age group, a shocking 40 per cent had been sexually harassed in public in the last 12 months. Some women may not feel like they experience inequality, and that’s okay, but this survey clearly points to widespread discrimination and mistreatment. Feeling excluded, even subconsciously, can push people to look for belonging in other places such as astrology.
The quality of being an Aquarius, to give one example, is not determined by gender, class or race. The same could be said for MBTI personality types. Identity systems like zodiac signs, therefore act as a means by which women and other marginalised groups can express themselves beyond the constraints of mainstream society.
A Commoditised Industry
This brings us to the ‘how’ component of understanding the popularity behind identity systems like zodiac signs and personality tests.
The media, namely magazines and movies, perpetuate zodiac signs as a quasi-legitimate system that can explain people’s personalities and their behaviour. When the first magazine horoscope appeared in a 1930 edition of The Sunday Express, readers went wild. Since then, what started as something whimsical and light-hearted has expanded into an empire with countless websites, books and magazines that use astrology to make sense of everyday situations such as work and romance.
I, myself, am guilty of becoming entrapped. I remember being eighteen and purchasing a book on the zodiac personalities from a second-hand shop.
My mum, incorrectly believing the book to be about horoscopes, expressed her concern.
“Won’t the book be out of date?”
Exasperated, I pointed out her misperception.
“No mum, it’s not about horoscopes. It’s on zodiac personalities, so it’s always relevant.”
Today, our roles are reversed. I find myself being sceptical of star signs, personality tests and those Buzzfeed quizzes which tell you what country or celebrity you are. I don’t like the idea of having a static identity or personality.
A 1999 study of 309 women and 114 men found that being exposed to astrology profiles shaped how participants saw themselves in the long term. This highlights the malleability of our self-perception and how easily our minds can be moulded to conform to expectations of our behaviour. The study also reveals the ease by which identity can be manipulated for specific purposes, such as to sell a magazine or profile someone for a job.
Zodiac signs and personality tests reflect our hyper-individualistic and pro-consumer society in which we often pay to be told who or what we are. That being said, for some people, these systems provide a strong sense of belonging and comfort.
Despite once being convinced of my zodiac-determined personality, I have since moved beyond the idea of my identity being fixed by my time and place of birth. Rather, my personality, including who I am and what makes me unique, is open-ended and dynamic and subject to change as frequently as the ebb and flow of a tide.
“Appearance”, Charlotte Bronte writes, “should not be mistaken for truth”.
Likewise, systems of self-identification should be taken with a pinch of salt. I can’t help but be sceptical of those tests that promise an objective evaluation of a person’s inner workings. But then again, maybe it’s because I’m an Aquarius.
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