Abstract -- How can a positive experience of astrology arise from astrological effects that, according to half a century of research, seem not to exist? The answer is a process called projection, which underlies the hidden persuaders we call "finding meaning where none exists" and "consider only confirming cases". We can see how projection works by looking at the psychological tarot of the French-Canadian psychotherapist Denise Roussel. The client deals 13 cards and interprets each one according to their personal situation. What they don't see (or don't want to see) is as meaningful as what they do see. The approach works extremely well. Tarot images have a huge richness, so clients can look at almost any card and find it meaningful. Examples are given that show how the same card can evoke quite different responses in different people. Conclusion: it is the client who personalises the cards and gives them meaning, not some mysterious paranormal process. In more than five hundred psychological tarots, there was not a single instance where significant meaning could not be perceived. Susan Blackmore's tests of the tarot confirm that nothing paranormal is involved. Projection alone is sufficient to explain tarot success. The same applies to astrology. Astrological images are as evocative and ambiguous as tarot images (ambiguous both in their interpretation and in the inevitable presence of opposing images elsewhere in the birth chart). The projection process that works so well for the psychological tarot cannot help but work equally well for astrology including horary astrology. Indeed, the psychological tarot deals very well with horary-like questions (many examples are given). Of course to view an astrology reading as an exercise in projection may seem inappropriate for what can be a strong emotional experience. In a sense it hardly matters whether astrology involves truth or other levels of reality or projection or whatever, because for most clients it does its job, and that may be enough. They can proceed in whatever direction the experience suggests, confident that it was meaningful and had changed their lives. On the other hand, for people to deal with problems better, they need to learn a whole series of coping skills. So we need to ask what type of learning takes place during a chart reading, and whether the astrologer is competent to guide such learning. Self-determination is one of the more important components of well-being. Astrology should not be allowed to suggest there are mysterious forces we can tap into to achieve happiness, for that (like heroin) could be devastatingly harmful. Ten references.
Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of clients now living have had a positive experience of serious astrology. Their encounter with an astrologer was helpful. For them, astrology was true in very real and practical ways. Whatever our views of astrology, there can be no doubt that such experiences are genuine. (That the experience for some clients may be less than positive is here of no consequence.)
However, half a century of research has found no evidence for the existence of planetary gods, no evidence that astrological effect sizes are commensurate with astrological claims, no evidence that clients can tell a genuine reading from a counterfeit, and much evidence against such claims. How could a genuine experience arise from something that seems not to exist, at least not according to conventional reality?
Some astrologers, like some theologians, hold that other levels of reality exist, and that the experience of astrology involves these other levels. Astrologers tap into these levels via the birth chart and thus produce genuine truth and a genuine experience. Or so they claim.
We could of course accept their view if the existence of other levels of reality could be demonstrated. It is not enough for astrologers to point out that reality can do strange things at the quantum level, simply because we do not live at the quantum level (when were you last in two places at once?). We need to demonstrate that the wine used in the Catholic Mass, for example, would under appropriate conditions exhibit the properties of the blood of Jesus. It is as simple as that. But so far the existence of other levels of reality is an article of faith associated with a particular belief system. We can regard it as a possibility, but in the absence of evidence we have no right to assume it, and indeed we have an obligation to see how far we can manage without it.
The article Artifacts on this website shows how unaided human reasoning is subject to systematic errors we call hidden persuaders. Hidden persuaders explain how an experience-based astrology can seem to work even if (as the evidence suggests) it is actually invalid. The present article shows how the psychological process called projection underlies the hidden persuaders we call "finding meaning where none exists" and "consider only confirming cases". It then shows how the process works using examples from the psychological tarot.
Projection and projective tests
In psychology projection is a defense mechanism where we blame others for our unacceptable feelings and actions (it wasn't me who did it, it was Satan), which in an extreme form results in paranoia. It has led to projective tests where we have to respond to vague but neutral pictures or incomplete sentences. The assumption is that we project our private feelings and needs on to the accommodating vagueness and reveal them in our responses. If asked what we see in these inkblots and we see only violence then we might be judged antisocial and in need of treatment. However, what we project may not reflect our enduring personality but our artistic skills or the film we saw last night. The assumption is open to doubt.
Projective tests were once many and varied, and tens of thousands of studies have been made to assess their performance. Two of the most frequently used were the Rorschach Test (inkblots made by spilling ink on paper and folding in half, introduced in 1921), and the Thematic Apperception Test or TAT (vague pictures, introduced in 1938). But those tens of thousands of studies have shown that projective tests have such poor validity and reliability (both typically around 0.3) that today they are generally seen as not worth bothering with (ironically even 0.3 is well beyond what astrologers can achieve with astrology, see Index.
Left. An inkblot similar to a Rorschach inkblot. What do you see in it? A monster with big hands or two bulls fighting or something else? Right. One of the TAT pictures. What is happening? To answer, you make up a story that describes the situation and how the people in it are feeling. In each case the stimulus is vague and neutral, so our responses are held to reflect the private needs and feelings that we project on to it.
About the Rorschach, for example, even in 1964 Jensen could say "the 40 years of massive effort which has been lavished on the Rorschach technique [over 3000 published studies by 1964] has proven unfruitful, at least as far as the development of a useful psychological test is concerned. [Therefore] ... it seems not unreasonable to recommend that the Rorschach be altogether abandoned in clinical practice, and that students of clinical psychology not be required to waste their time learning the technique" (Jensen 1964:75). For the record, Jensen's conclusion had no immediate effect, at least not in North America. Thus twelve years later Liebert and Spiegler (1978:153) noted that, despite the poor validity and reliability of projective techniques, they continue to be popular among clinicians, for which "the simplest [explanation] can be summarised in one word: Tradition! [their emphasis]. Projective techniques have the longest history and have received the most attention of all personality assessment instruments. It is difficult to discard such a huge investment of time and effort". It could be astrologers speaking.
The psychological tarot
Roussel calls her approach the psychological tarot as opposed to the divinatory tarot. She uses the cards as a counselling tool to help clients express their problems and then find solutions. She stresses that her approach is based on the projections of the client, not the clairvoyance of the reader (p.148), and is
Resolutely psychological, it breaks with the fortune-telling tradition based on clairvoyance. Nevertheless it keeps its best characteristics, where the tarot images are used to illuminate the serious problems for which the client is making a consultation. However the counselling and decisions come from the consultant, supported by the procedures laid down in this guidebook. ... Approached as a psychological tool, the tarot will shed its connections with the Shaman and Gypsy ... In this way technical skill will add to the personal quality already present in this resource (p.12).
Certain tarot packs such as the popular Tarot de Marseille are not suitable because their minor arcana are too monotonous (like modern playing cards) to be evocative. Roussel much prefers the Hurley pack. The client shuffles the pack while thinking of the problem (this stimulates the concentration) and then lays out 13 cards face down in a diamond pattern in the order shown below (p.242).
We will finally discover...
In other words the client interprets each card according to a particular astrology-based perspective on their personal situation, much as they might do in a birth chart reading. As in a birth chart, the images act as a focus and the creator of new viewpoints. Under the guiding hand of the therapist, the clients see themselves and their problems in a new way. What they don't see can be as meaningful as what they do see. It is here that the psychological tarot provides a useful lesson for astrology.
A lesson for astrology
For example one of Roussel's clients sees the six of sticks, which shows a girl standing under an arch of flowers (below left). He identifies with the girl, turns the arch into a tunnel, and sees himself as emerging from a tunnel of difficulties that he was experiencing (p.238). But to the objective eye there is nothing in the card to suggest such a situation. The client has been persuaded by the projection process that the cards know his situation and can help him improve it. (In a divinatory tarot his belief that the cards have this power is a crucial factor, and comes from his trust in the reader and from the centuries-old tradition of the cards themselves, which is impressive to even the most skeptical client.)
This view is confirmed by looking at Roussel's cards with the most responses taken from actual consultations, namely the ten of sticks (5 responses) and the five of sticks (4 responses), see above middle and right. The responses reported by Roussel are as follows:
In the 10 of Sticks (above, middle)
In the 5 of Sticks (above, right)
The above examples show how the same card can evoke quite different responses. So it is the subject who personalises the cards and gives them meaning. In other words the whole exercise rests on projection. And projection is a potent process. Thus Roussel comments "After having made more than five hundred psychological tarots, I do not remember a single occasion where a significant and strong bond could not be established between the image presented and the put question" (p.249). Much the same could be said of astrology (and graphology, palmistry, phrenology, tea leaves, etc). Projection certainly works!
Try this for yourself
The nine TAT themes are basic human needs, namely the need to: Achieve and surpass others. Avoid pain and suffering. Be friendly or aloof. Be helpful and protective. Be independent and autonomous. Be organised and in control. Comprehend and understand. Defend and justify self. Seek pleasure and show off. Which numbered row above best fits each of the nine TAT themes? The answers according to Roussel are given after the references.
What about paranormal influences?
Then how was I to assess the outcome to decide whether it was successful or not? Obviously I had to develop some method for statistically evaluating how successful the readings were. There were methods available for doing this. For example, one can get ratings from subjects on how good they think readings are. You can use other people to judge how accurate they are, and you can use the ratings in calculations based on what would be expected by chance. If the scores come out better than chance would predict, and the controls are all good enough, hey presto, you might have psi. I put all this together and concocted a simple experiment to test whether the Tarot cards work normally or paranormally (pp.62-63).
In Blackmore's first experiment she got each of ten students from her parapsychology class to shuffle the cards while thinking about themselves and then to cut them three times with the left hand. An assistant noted the order of the first ten cards and gave the orders without identification to Blackmore, who laid out the corresponding cards and typed up an interpretation. Each student then ranked the ten interpretations in order of accuracy where 1 = best and 10 = worst.
According to chance their own interpretation should show an average rank of 5.5, but if the cards were working paranormally the average rank would be less than this. In fact the average rank was 4 and was statistically significant, but there was a problem -- the students knew each other, so if a reading happened to fit one of them very well, the rest would automatically know it wasn't theirs, which would of course bias the results.
Nothing paranormal in the tarot
Furthermore, the ability of Roussel's clients to see what they want to see, or sometimes don't want to see, shows that we have no need to look beyond projection to explain the outcome of tarot readings, impressive though they can appear (which of course had led Blackmore to believe that something paranormal was happening).
Neher (1990) reports an experiment similar to Blackmore's in which subjects were unable to identify their own tarot readings with better than chance accuracy, and concludes "there is no adequate evidence in support of paranormal processes in [tarot] readings ... However, this does not mean that readings are worthless; ... viewed as tools for the projection and understanding of the content of our own unconscious, readings can be very useful".
Evans (1987:207) comments that Roussel's psychological tarot "is an impressive demonstration, on the one hand, of the mind's ability to objectivize its situation by externalizing it, and on the other, of the need the mind has to distance itself from its preoccupations, expressing them in this way as a preliminary to understanding and then accepting or resolving them. Projection is yet another example of a process which, though it can take a negative form [as in paranoia] can also serve as a positive and practical function: at critical times in a person's life, it can be an effective way of helping him to tackle the situation".
Of course projection underlies not just the psychological tarot but also the divinatory tarot and any other system of fortune-telling. For example Dobkin (1969) notes that the naipes, a card-based fortune-telling system used in Peru and much of Latin America, is essentially a projective technique. It provides "a series of neutral stimuli whose symbols and meanings are shared by both the healer and his patient within a world laden with misfortune ... and magical import". Dobkin shows that at least three misfortune cars will appear 90% of the time in a typical reading, so "the deck is loaded not in the direction of good fortune but rather to highlight stress and conflict", so it is ideal for dealing with problems. Furthermore "The aura of omnipotence the healer is able to maintain ... [contributes] to success in healing."
Astrology as a tarot reading
All of which applies equally to an astrology reading. In a birth chart the astrological images are evocative and ambiguous (ambiguous, that is, either in their interpretation or in the inevitable presence of opposing images elsewhere in the chart). The aim is not to tell fortunes but to help clients solve their own problems. And the projection process that works so well for the psychological tarot cannot help but work equally well for astrology including horary astrology. For the psychological tarot deals very well with "the astonishing range of questions that can be put concerning health, relationships, work, choices, actions, etc" (p.153), Indeed, Roussel gives many examples of questions successfuly answered by the psychological tarot, all of which would be at home in textbooks of astrology or horary astrology, for example from pp.153-154:
Lisette, 35, will I escape the prison of my hangups?
If projection alone can deal with such questions, there is clearly no reason to invoke paranormal explanations for horary astrology such as those advanced by Curry and Willis (1999), whose book is reviewed on this website under Book Reviews.
On the other hand, for people to deal with problems better, they need to learn a whole series of coping skills. So we need to ask what type of learning takes place during a chart reading, and whether the astrologer is competent to guide such learning. Therapy is not an experience which helps people feel better, gives them more insight, or calms them down. It is a process which attempts to show people how to gain more personal responsibility for their thoughts and actions. It teaches them to take risks and to accept that life has no certainties. Self-determination is one of the more important components of well-being. Astrology should not be allowed to suggest there are mysterious forces we can tap into to achieve happiness, for that (like heroin) could be devastatingly harmful.
The many ways in which an astrologer can manipulate a reading and unknowingly help the projection process are vividly described by Jacques Halbronn in his article Astrologer meets Client: Tricks of the Trade on this website under Daily Life. "Your client needs to feel special. Once his confidence has been obtained by your general attitude, astrology can gradually grow blurred, leaving you to focus on the feedback. Soon you and your client will be closely joined in a dialogue, and astrology can mostly be ignored except as a convenient means of changing the subject."
ReferencesBlackmore S (1986). The Adventures of a Parapsychologist. Prometheus, Amherst NY.
Curry P & Willis R (2004). Astrology, Science and Culture. Berg, Oxford.
Decker R (1996). Tarot. In G Stein (ed), The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Prometheus, Amherst NY, pages 752-759. Decker is curator of the US Playing Card Company.
Dobkin M (1969). Fortune's Malice: Divination, Psychotherapy, and Folk Medecine in Peru. Journal of American Folklore 82, 132-141.
Evans H (1987). Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians: A Comparative Study of the Encounter Experience. Aquarian, Wellinborough. An excellent detailed study of reported contacts with gods, angels, devils, ghosts, spirits and visitors from space, and how and why they occur. 273 references.
Guiley RE (1991). Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. Grange, London, pages 602-604.
Jensen AR (1964). The Rorschach Technique: A Re-Evaluation. Acta Psychologica 22, 60-77.
Liebert RM & Spiegler MD (1978). Personality: Strategies and Issues. 3rd edition, Dorsey, Homewood IL.
Neher A (1990). The Psychology of Transcendence. Dover, NY, pages 240-242.
Roussel D (1983). Le Tarot Psychologique: Miroir de Soi. Un essai de psychologie appliquee. Editions de Mortagne, Boucherville PQ 1983, 372 pp, no index, reprinted in 1990. Includes a brief history of the tarot illustrated by cards from more than fifteen tarot packs. My thanks to Axel Harvey of Montreal PQ for tracking down this otherwise hard-to-find book (it was in the bookstore around the corner from his office) and then graciously declining to accept payment. That was in July 1990.
Which row best fits which TAT theme?