Using astrology as a counselling tool
Much of what follows is updated from G Dean, Does astrology need to be true? Skeptical Inquirer 11(2), 166-184, Winter 1986-87. And from G Dean, IW Kelly, & A Mather, Astrology and Human Judgement, Correlation 1998, 17(2), 24-71, especially pages 62-65, and from material prepared for that paper but omitted from the published version to conserve space. Both sources incorporated the comments of many others as indicated in their respective acknowledgements. This update received help from counselling astrologers Robyn Lee and Chris Turner. Appendix 2 is abridged and updated from IW Kelly & RW Krutzen, Humanistic Astrology: A Critique, Skeptical Inquirer 8(1), 62-73, Fall 1983. Appendix 5 is abridged from Carol Tavris, Mind Games: Psychological Warfare Between Therapists and Scientists, Chronicle of Higher Education 28 February 2003.
Abstract -- This article is a long one and covers much ground. The astrology being considered is the serious astrology of journals and consulting rooms, not the nonsense of sun sign columns. The case against astrology as documented by articles on this website is that it has no intrinsic validity. Yet other articles on this website argue that astrology can be a useful aid to counselling. The present article explores in detail this apparent contradiction. It looks at relevant findings in psychology and sociology on what makes good therapists and clients (eg they should like each other), it brings together the known ways of being a better astro-counseller without requiring astrology to be true (eg be warm and understanding), and it explores the implications for research. The results will be useful to astrologers and clients alike. It starts with the welcome trend away from chart reading (astrologer talks, client listens) towards chart exploration (client does most of the talking), a trend that is sabotaged by the continuing but invalid belief among astrologers that astrology (when it works) is actually true. By continuing to hold this invalid belief, astrologers generate hostility from critics, obscure the genuine role that astrology can play in counselling, and obscure the factors that can maximise success. All psychotherapies fall into two broad groups, person-centred therapy or therapy by conversation, and symptom-centred therapy or therapy by action. Astrology as an aid to psychotherapy or counselling (the terms are used interchangeably) is person-centred. The basic techniques of counselling (listen, encourage feelings, reinforce good suggestions, discourage bad ones, avoid giving advice) are entirely compatible with astrology. But astrology itself is not counselling, nor is it without liabilities such as astrologers playing God or charging high fees, and clients expecting fortune telling. Nevertheless it is easy to see why the birth chart is a good aid to counselling: It provides a great check list, is hugely flexible, need not be true, is non-threatening, and helps clients accept their bad points by putting them on the table. Examples are given of how it works via hidden persuaders such as cold reading and the Barnum effect. Other therapeutic uses of astrology include experiential astrology, where for example clients role-play a planet or (in groups) different planets, eg walking in the street like Jupiter. Given that astrology adds nothing to the psychotherapy beyond non-astrological effects, there is a clear case for future research to focus on enhancing those effects, eg by attending to known correlates such as warmth, understanding, and wisdom. Some clues are given by the US psychotherapist Michael Mayer who uses an astrology called astro-poetics to emphasise that no claims of validity are made. Five appendices cover literature trends, humanistic astrology, placebo effects, The Samaritans, and pernicious therapies. 115 references.
The case against astrology as documented by articles on this website is that it has no intrinsic validity, it has failed hundreds of tests, and astrologers do not usefully agree on what a given birth chart indicates. Yet other articles on this website argue that astrology can be a useful aid to counselling. For example astrology provides personal support (Case for and against astrology), allows therapy by conversation (Astrologer meets client), is a tool, a focus, an ice breaker (Optimum place for astrology), involves images ... used to help the client (Basic statements about astrology), and it hardly matters whether it involves truth (Projection).
But how can an astrology without validity be useful in counselling? The following article explores in detail this apparent contradiction. It looks at relevant findings in psychology and sociology, it brings together the known ways of being a better astro-counseller without requiring astrology to be true, and it explores the implications for research. The results will be useful to astrologers and clients alike. The astrology being considered here is of course the serious astrology of journals and consulting rooms, not the nonsense of sun sign columns. There is a lot of ground to cover, divided into seven parts:
1. Background. Perspective, history, astrology need not be true.
Part 1. Background
Putting astrology and counselling into perspective
In the 1980s it was estimated that about 70 million Americans (about 30% of the population) would be suffering from one or more psychological problems during their lifetimes (Regier et al 1988). Sufferers tended to avoid psychotherapists and were more likely to consult their doctor or minister (Cowen 1982) or buy some of the 2000 new self-help titles then being published annually (Doheny 1988). About 15 million sufferers were attending a total of about 750,000 self-help and mutual-help groups (APA 1989). Sufferers had 280,000 licensed counsellors to choose from, and even more unlicensed ones -- 130,000 in mental hospitals and clinics, 300,000 clergy, and 10,000 instructors in TM alone (Zilbergeld 1983).
Today there are more than 400 types of psychotherapy (Erwin 1994:263) and over 1200 studies of psychotherapy outcomes, which have found that only "certain types of psychotherapy are effective (and even for these, only for certain types of problems and clients)" (p.274). One result is that professional counselling (at least in the USA) is "overpromoted, overused, and overvalued, [but] can be beneficial when used prudently" (Zilbergeld 1983:271). Of which more later.
In such a perspective astrological counselling emerges as a minor
player. In the 1990s in the USA, for every astrologer with paying
clients there were about 70 licensed counsellors of all kinds including
psychiatrists, an equal number of lay counsellors such as clergy, about
100 doctors or lawyers, 200 prison inmates, 300 nurses, 700 teachers,
and 3000 college students (Numbers 2002). Astrologers in the UK were
similarly overshadowed, albeit not as severely. Today in the USA roughly
one million people a year consult astrologers, which seems like a lot.
But even this number is only about 2% of the millions of Americans who
at any one time are seeking answers to their psychological problems. In
other words, if you should see the detail that follows as inflating
astrology above its station, you could be right. But we have included it
here simply because it has hitherto not been conveniently available all
in one place.
Chart reading is traditional and is what most people expect when they visit an astrologer. Chart exploration goes beyond tradition and is where counselling enters the picture. Chart therapy is rare. Only a tiny proportion of licensed psychotherapists use astrology on the side.
The move towards astro-counselling 1960-1990
On the other hand, Rudhyar tended to overemphasise the materialism of conventional astrology, and many astrologers outside the USA would have denied that their astrology was other than person-centred. For example Margaret Hone's Applied Astrology (1953), an early British and widely-used collection of case studies, gave much guidance that was person-centred such as "think of your client before yourself" (p.13), then "having established confidence ... get him [the client] to state his problem in the most clear manner possible. This will be his first step towards resolving it. ... Listen quietly, giving him the opportunity for what Jung calls 'a clearing of a cramp in the unconscious'" (p.14).
The 1960s was also the time when pop psychology and self-help books were becoming fashionable. A decade later, new astrology authors like Liz Greene were writing books that focussed on psychological astrology, which was attractive to people interested in astrology but who were put off by its popular fortune-telling image. It also inspired researchers to look again at astrology. For example Anerican astrologer Michael Meyer (1974) noted that the new approach "is presently attracting the attention and interest of many young and progressive people"; it also required a new style of chart reading because "One-time one-hour astrological sessions are obviously inadequate; the astrologer ... must understand the person as a whole" (p.40).
In the 1970s British astrologer David Hamblin (1975) noted that existing astrology courses in the UK gave no guidance on building a good client relationship. But things were changing. By the 1980s Christina Rose (1982:15), a British astrologer and qualified counseller, was able to report "immense changes" in the practice of astrology away from chart reading to chart exploration. Working astrologers in the UK had begun to see chart reading as defined above to be unhelpful because the client is too dependent on the all-knowing astrologer (but of course if clients are merely curious about astrology then a chart reading may be all they want). And in 1988 the UK Faculty of Astrological Studies began two-year post-diploma counselling courses to blend astrology and counselling.
Beyond codes of ethics
In the 1980s working astrologers in the UK saw the need for a professional body to maintain standards, and in 1990 the Association of Professional Astrologers International was formed to provide protection against astrological malpractice. Safeguards in its code of ethics included the mandatory referral of potential clients "whose needs are beyond the competence of an individual astrologer", and a ban on "offering any medical, legal or financial advice to a client on astrological grounds unless the appropriate [orthodox] skills or qualifications have been obtained" (APAI 2006). Membership was limited to astrologers with a diploma from an approved body such as the Faculty of Astrological Studies. In due course similar bodies were formed in other countries such as the Australian Association of Professional Astrologers in 2000, which is "committed to the development and maintenance of best practice in the astrology field through the promotion of strong education standards, professional competency, ethical understanding and integrity", and the American Organization for Professional Astrology in 2001, which is dedicated to maintaining "professional standards for the responsible use of astrology".
The countermove away from counselling 1990-
Where does that leave counselling? Publication is a good measure of interest because it reflects the demand that book sellers, publishers and authors rely on to stay in business. Judged by the number of astrology books that are devoted partly or wholly to counselling, the immense changes that were apparent to Christina Rose in the 1980s have now disappeared, see figure below.
Left: Rise and fall of astrology books with a chapter or more devoted to counselling. The titles on which the percentage is based do not include sunsign titles. Note that books with counselling in their title such as Doris Chase Doane's two-volume 1983 Vocational Selection and Counseling may have nothing on counselling in the sense meant here, whereas books without counselling in their title, such as Tracy Mark's 1986 Art of Chart Interpretation, may have a chapter or two. Right: The number of articles or book chapters in orthodox publications that look at the use of astrology in counselling show a rise and fall similar to that on the left (r=0.89). Appendix 1 lists all the publications plotted above.
The above figure shows how the number of new astrology books with some focus on counselling, measured either as titles or as a percentage of all new astrology titles, peaked in the 1970s and 1980s and has since fallen away to around 1 in 200 of all new astrology titles. Right, much the same pattern is shown by orthodox publications that address the use of astrology in counselling. Similarly, of the 1500+ articles published in The Mountain Astrologer since 1991, the proportion that have some focus on counselling is also around 1 in 200. The pattern seems clear -- general interest in astrological counselling has declined since its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, reflecting not only the 1990s re-emergence of non-psychological astrology but also perhaps a general trend towards concerns other than helping others.
Number of counselling astrologers
Ironically, despite the concern by some astrologers to be seen as responsible and self-policing, these attempts to educate the public about astrological qualifications have met with only limited success, especially in the USA. It is the general experience of astrologers that clients tend to be as uncritical and not bothered by credentials as they were in the 1970s. So the above concerns about professionalism have had little effect on client behaviour.
What about astrologers as a whole? In the 1990s the number of full-time professional astrologers was about 250 in the UK and 5000 in the USA, or ten times this if part-timers are included, see Various (1990s). The proportion of full-timers with some formal counselling qualification is unknown but might be around 5% in the UK and rather less in the USA (the Faculty had to discontinue its counselling course due to poor demand). If we include part-timers and hobbyists, but still excluding astrologers at fairgrounds, shopping malls, psychic fairs, or on phonelines, the proportion with some formal counselling qualification is likely to be very much smaller. For comparison the number of licensed counsellors in the USA today is about half a million. The UK does not yet have a licensing system for counsellors; the nearest is the UK Council for Psychotherapy, which sets training standards and ethicl requirements; it represents 80 UK psychotherapy organisations with a register of over 6,000 approved psychotherapists.
But the old (invalid) beliefs still prevail
Nevertheless putting the client first is still accompanied by a belief in astrology as a source of information -- information that has to be true otherwise it is not information, in the same way that news about an elephant under your bed is not information unless it is actually there. Astrologers tend to raise smokescreens at this point by appealing to correspondences or significations or as above so below, that is, to any kind of acausal explanation that might disguise their need for astrology to be true. Former American astrologer Charles Strohmer (1998:21) notes that:"If an acausal explanation for astrology sounds hard to swallow, it is, [simply because] we live in a universe, a world, of causes and effects. This means we can't keep causes and effects out of anything, including our theorizing. Thus it is not possible for astrologers, or anyone else, to hold causality at bay even in their theorizing. ... However unintentional it may be, astrologers cannot write without recourse to the language of causes and effects" (his emphasis).
Thus astrologers habitually refer to planetary energies, planetary actions, planetary influences, to planets governing, planets ruling, to variations in planetary strength, to Saturn restricting, to Uranus liberating, to planets triggering, trapping, clashing, conflicting, supporting, to the chart being a symbolic representation of energy patterns, to no factor in a chart being completely powerless, and to inclining not compelling. This is the language of information, of the need to be true, and it extends into the heart of the consulting room. For example listen to these typical claims of astrologers who are also counsellors:"astrology ... identifies the strengths and weaknesses we have" (Donna Cunningham 1978:10), "astrology in the counseling arts enables the counselor to help the person to align himself with the truth of his nature and being" (Stephen Arroyo 1979:56), "we recognize the truth in the relationship between planet and event" (Stephanie Jean Ellis 1982:42), "the astrological chart is far and away the most effective, comprehensive and reliable source of information about the client" (Roy Alexander 1983:xii), "The planets themselves show the way the psyche is broken down into its constituent parts" (Gregory Szanto 1987:104), "attitudes toward work, authority, and money do not readily show up in traditional vocational tests, yet they are clear in the horoscope" (Donna Cunningham 1994:141), all of which imply that astrology provides the truth. As does the psychiatrist Bernard Rosenblum (1983:1) who says the chart gives "an excellent psychological overview". Similarly the astrologer and counselor Maritha Pottenger (1982:207) gives an actual conselling session in which she tells the client things like "your Mercury in Aries quickens the thinking" and "With Capricorn rising, you needed to work"; Donna Cunningham (1994:159) says of one client "People with Neptune near the Ascendant keenly feel the needs of everyone they meet", and of another "With Sun, Mars, and Mercury in Aquarius, he had to put the [recommended] books down as simplistic, of course" (p.159); and even Christina Rose (1982) devotes much of her book to chart factors as if their meanings were actually true.
Similarly all astrological teaching bodies including those approved by the APAI run courses and set exams that take the truth of astrology for granted. Consider this typical exam question: "You have to share your house with an overseas student. Describe the kind of student you would favour, and give the astrological significators you would look for." Unless there is some pretext of truth in astrology, such exams become meaningless. Of the APAI members who give details of their practice via the APAI website, all claim in effect that the birth chart is a source of information. For them astrology needs to be true.
At which point some astrologers raise a further smokescreen by insisting that astrology is only a language, the language of myths and metaphors, a source of meaning with no claim to being a source of truth. The idea seems reasonable, so why is it a smokescreen? See next.
Astrology as the language of myths
The ancient founders of astrology, especially the Greeks, projected their myths on to the heavens. Anyone who knows their Greek mythology can find in the heavens something to match and illuminate every nuance of human existence. It is there because it was put there in the first place. Consequently, as pointed out by the astrologer Michael Baigent (1994:79), "The tales of heaven are, in reality, tales of Earth. Mythology forever connects these two realms and, of course, astrology's basic premise rests upon this connection. ... Indeed, the art of astrology itself can be seen as a means of working with mythology in a practical way".
Well, not quite. It is one thing to recognise our personal situation in the smorgasbord of Greek mythology, and quite another to be told by our birth chart that we must select certain myths in a certain way if they are to mean anything. It is like buying the Encyclopedia Britannica and being told for no good reason that we must look only at the pictures.
If today the Greek myths seem overly fanciful, the result of armchair enquiry rather tha empirical scrutiny, we are forgetting that the Greeks were faced with so great a variety of ideas that they had for starters to rule out ideas that were contradictory or failed to cover everyday situations. That much made good sense. And of course it was well suited to armchair enquiry (Toulmin & Goodfield 1961:64). On the other hand, when we consider all myths, not just Greek ones, we find an overwhelming diversity of contradictions that only rarely reveal a unifying link such as a related symbolism (Verdet 1992:19).
Nevertheless the mirroring of human conditions in the sky is why many astrologers see astrology as a language second to none for describing these condition, as if this was enough to elevate astrology above criticism. But it is not enough. Language can only transmit information, not generate it. Language also allows people to lie, mislead, deceive, distort, conceal, confuse, mystify, and obscure. Furthermore, what makes a language useful is that we agree on what the words mean, which astrologers often fail to do. For example no meaningful conversation is possible when the same piece of sky can simultaneously mean intense to Western tropical speakers who call it Scorpio, and relaxed to Eastern sidereal speakers who call it Libra.
At the end of the day, clients don't pay good money for myths or flowery language. Their motivation may be to learn more about themselves, or to resolve personal problems, but (like astrologers themselves) they still regard the chart as a source of information, otherwise why bother with it? Astrology in the consulting room still needs to be true. And that is precisely the problem. See next.
But astrology does not need to be true
That said, nobody should underestimate just how powerful the illusion of truth is. It is why thousands of educated people have a serious interest in astrology. It is why we ourselves, thirty years ago, began to research the literature and testing of astrology. It is why you can read newspaper reports such as the following:
Kathy Hacker (1978), an investigative journalist, found that a growing number of Philadelphia psychiatrists were referring their clients to astrologer Debbi Kempton Smith. It began when psychiatrist Dr Clancy McKenzie was impressed enough by her reading of his chart to send her some of his patients. There was a good match between "what she found and what I knew to be true about them. She was able to describe their sexual preferences, their dietary patterns, the small details about their lives that couldn't be guessed at." Smith says "With astrology, I can see where their hangups are, their fears, their weirdness, their kinky bits. I can take a sweet, pretty single girl who can't find a fellow and tell her she'll have two lovely guys to choose from ... Or I can tell a woman when her boyfriend will be horny during the next year."A similar experience was reported by psychiatrist Dr Bernard Rosenblum (1983:3-4). At age 41 he visited an astrologer and was told about his conflicts, talents, intellectual style, emotions, parental images, and much more. "It was all pointedly meaningful to me -- and surprisingly specific. The usual criticism of astrology, that it produces a variety of generalisations that can refer to almost anyone, was suddenly, in my mind, relevant only to newspaper and magazine types of astrology and no longer to the experience of going to a competent astrologer." But people said the same about phrenology, once more popular than astrology is today but now known to be completely invalid, just as they say the same about cold reading, and for the same reason -- hidden persuaders. Being a psychiatrist does not necessarily make you aware of hidden persuaders. For example, on receiving a reading of his sun sign, psychiatrist Edward Askren (1980:12) was astonished by its accuracy. But this was as it should be, "for I now know that our Sun signs indicate the nature of our personal growth and development." But psychologists are aware of hidden persuaders and are less impressed. For example psychologist Graham Tyson (1982), whose PhD thesis was devoted to the social psychology of belief in astrology, points out that hidden persuaders "make it highly probable that anyone who consults an astrologer is likely to perceive the horoscope as accurate and thus come to believe in astrology. Consequently it is obvious that personal experience, which is frequently cited as the basis for belief in astrology, does not in any way provide a validation of astrology."
Now for the key point: When astrologers ignore what is really happening, as they invariably do, they generate an otherwise avoidable hostility from critics, they obscure the genuine role that astrology can play in counselling, and they obscure the factors that can maximise success. Rudhyar's person-centred astrology is a classic example of this, see Appendix 2. Similarly astrological Codes of Ethics lay down the requirements for proper behaviour but say nothing about proper attention to the picture established by research. They pay lip service to high standards while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the findings on which those standards depend. In effect they are concerned with skating elegantly and not with thin ice. The same is true of approaches that see astrology itself as therapy rather than merely a tool.
Astrology as therapy vs astrology as a tool
In other words to use astrology as therapy requires using the chart as a true model of the person, that is, it requires that astrology be true. Szanto was of course writing in the days before the failure of this requirement became widely known. Today no approach can be ethical if it requires astrology to be true.
But back to counselling. In books on astrological counselling the need for astrology to be true nearly always gets in the way of learning what is necessary for any counselling to work. The result is like filling a book on car repairs with guidance from angels. Ironically, rejecting the idea that astrology is true leads to a remarkable clarification of the ways in which astrology can help counselling. This point is examined in detail below. Readers bored by detail can skip to "How to be a better astrologer" in Part 3.
Part 2. About counselling
Psychotherapy vs counselling: is there a difference?
What kind of problems are dealt with?
The above description also applies to those astrologers who are dedicated to helping others. But calling something a psychotherapy does not automatically make it good for you. Although psychotherapy is generally helpful, there is much evidence that certain kinds can be harmful, that they are "the well-intentioned path to harm" (Wright & Cummings 2005). The need to do something is not a license to do anything. The worst dangers come from pseudoscientific and unscientific psychotherapies (Lilienfeld et al 2005), which of course will include astrology if we see it as a source of information rather than an aid to counselling.
Features shared by all psychotherapies
- A confiding relationship with a helping person.
The procedures for providing relief break down into two broad groups depending on the level of intervention, which echoes the distinction some practitioners make between counselling and psychotherapy:- Non-directive or person-centred therapy aimed at a general problem such as internal conflicts or emotional blocks. The therapist follows their particular model but does not intervene and leaves the actual change up to the client. In effect it is therapy by conversation. Its targets are to make people feel better and function better.
- Directive or symptom-centred therapy aimed at a specific problem such as bed-wetting or fear of spiders. The therapist follows a definite structure, intervenes more or less scientifically, and remains firmly in charge. In effect it is therapy by action. Its targets are limited but it can succeed where therapy by conversation fails.
Some examples of the above approaches (orthodox / non-orthodox) are:
Non-Directive -- psychoanalysis / astrology, palmistry, tarot, psychics.
The above classification of astrology as non-directive applies only to modern Western psychological astrology. For example in the 17th century a successful astrologer might have a thousand clients a year, spending perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes on each; he routinely dealt with every kind of problem from likely business success to recovering stolen property, but most commonly he advised on personal problems that required a decision (Hare 1977). In India today astrologers routinely give instructions, predictions and remedies for every human problem and concern including marriage and career choices (Pugh 1983). No modern Western counselling astrologer would go this far.
Interestingly, despite decades of research and a huge literature, no orthodox non-directive approach has been found to be more effective in general than any other, which indicates that they all work for the same reasons -- reasons that can therefore be applied to astrology, see next section.
Similarly no non-orthodox approach has been found to be more effective in general than any other. For example Steiner (1945), a medical and psychiatric social worker, made a remarkable survey of US astrologers, palmists, numerologists, tarot readers, and similar consultants. The survey took 12 years during which she posed as a consultant to find out what people's troubles were, and visited consultants (including 40 astrologers) posing as a client to find out what their advice was like. She concluded that: (1) There is no agony like emotional turmoil. People will seek relief anywhere, usually quite uncritically. (2) In general consultants were utterly untrained for professional practice. Many were unscrupulous and dishonest. (3) No technique was better or worse than the others. Yet all consultants claimed success for their particular system.Frank & Frank (1991:65-73) point out that the client's experience of therapy will not be captured by scientific methods such as rating scales, so they suggest another way of looking at it. They suggest that therapy can be usefully compared with noble rhetoric, the use of persuasive arguments to reorganise beliefs, and with hermeneutics, the finding of meaning by artful interpretation. Thus both therapists and noble rhetoricians seek rapport with their targets; both offer the hope of better things by argument, vivid metaphors, and emotional appeal; and both rely on interpretation to make it meaningful. To be effective the interpretation must catch the attention and be meaningful, as when evangelists offer eternal salvation to their congregations. And of course when astrologers interpret a birth chart.
What makes psychotherapy work?
- Client and therapist should like each other.
Or as Clarkson (1994:30) puts it, "success in psychotherapy can best be predicted by the properties of the psychotherapist, the client, and their particular relationship". In other words the actual psychotherapy is less important than warmth, understanding, and being told you will feel better, all of which are characteristic of placebo effects. A placebo is anything not directly related to the treatment but which is nevertheless effective. No understanding is needed, just the belief that it will work, which for astrology has to be good news. For more on placebo effects and placebo effect sizes see Appendix 3.
In psychotherapy many techniques have appeared since the 1970s that involve the placebo effect in disguise, such as imagery, relaxation and self-hypnosis, all of which give the person faith that they can improve their condition by themselves (Plotkin 1985:251). Furthermore, if appropriately packaged for particular cultures and age groups, these techniques "can provide a legitimization for the manifest exercise of these [self-healing] skills, which in many contemporary contexts may otherwise appear silly, futile, or pretentious." (Plotkin 1985:252). This would certainly include astrology.
Interestingly, there is little evidence that some people are more prone to placebo effects than others. That is, the placebo effect is not related to individual variables such as gender, age, intelligence, and personality, except possibly anxiety, probably because the effect depends on too many variables to have a simple relationship with any one. Nevertheless faith plays a crucial role -- the more the faith in the therapy (any therapy) the better the chance it will work (Fish 1973). A good way to maintain faith in astrology is of course to ignore contrary evidence, as when astrologers unknowingly use wrong charts and find them to work as well as right charts. Many other variables, not fully explored, such as cost and perceived efficiency, may play a role in helping a therapy work. But a known crucial variable is the therapist.
What makes a good psychotherapist?
The power of empathy is rather dramatically revealed by the experiences that led to the setting up of The Samaritans, see Appendix 4.
Good psychotherapists tend to be empathetic, trustworthy, and warm (Strupp 1989). The chances of success are increased if the therapist shows interest, warmth, and sympathy for the client, is a good listener, is enthusiastic about the system, and expects a positive outcome, all of which determine liking by clients much more than competence does. For example Miller et al (1980) found that empathy accounted for 67% of the variability in therapists' success with problem drinkers whereas experience accounted for only 1%. (Sympathy is having similar feelings. Empathy is understanding another's feelings. You cannot sympathise unless you actually have similar feelings, but you can empathise regardless.)
Indeed, Shapiro (1971) concludes that the single most important factor
may be simply whether the therapist and client like each other. When
liking was mutual, four times as many clients reported an improvement
than when the client did not like the therapist. (But as noted by
Sutherland 1992:187, this can also mean that clients like the therapist
because they are improving; however, this would emerge only slowly
whereas rapid liking is more relevant here.) Similarly Sloane et al
(1975:225) found that "Successful patients rated the personal
interaction with the therapist as the single most important part of
their treatment". This is good news for astrology, because finding a
likable therapist is greatly hindered by the bureaucracy of
institutionalised therapies, and is greatly helped by the informality of
What makes a good client?
According to Curtis (1985) the clients to avoid are young (<20) or old (>50); with low intelligence, poor insight, poor motivation, or fragile egos; and with pathological, severe, or long-established problems. If astrologers take care to avoid such clients, and to accept only clients who share their values and beliefs, their own beliefs cannot fail to be reinforced, including the (wrong) belief that astrology is a source of information. But once the client and astrologer have found each other, what should happen next?
Basic techniques of counselling
(1) Listen, even when the problem and answer are known. (2) Help the client ventilate their feelings. Negative feelings always emerge first and are always followed in due course by positive feelings. (3) When the positive feelings arrive, reinforce them. Reinforce all good suggestions and discourage bad ones. (4) Suggest alternatives, discuss consequences, but avoid giving advice. Clients have to take charge of their own lives. (5) Never moralise, never be judgemental. A client's affairs are none of your business.
Or from Stewart & Cash (1975:184-203):
(1) Let the client state his problem when he is ready. Do not rush it. Do not argue with the client. (2) Suggest a range of possible solutions. Give information, not advice. You reflect and stimulate the client's ideas. You do not dictate. (3) Do not expect to cover everything. Leave room for another meeting. (4) These hints help you deal with normal people with normal problems. They do not prepare you for severe problems.
All this will fail if you misinterpret what your client says. So how to stay on track? As a general rule avoid evaluation (you shouldn't do X), interpretation (it happened because of X), and probing (why did you do X?). Sympathy can help (it's awful to get X), but best of all is paraphrasing (you are unhappy with X?). You repeat what your client says, but in fewer words with a clearer focus, asking for confirmation. You focus on your client's experience not on the problem. For example "You feel worried because it makes you angry?" or "You found you cannot afford it?". Your client's reactions will show if you are paraphrasing well or badly. It's not paraphrasing if you guess something your client has not stated. "Did this make you unhappy?" is not paraphrasing.
Don't despair if the client does all the talking. Varah (1965:13) cites an occasion where his client did not stop for well over an hour, then left after thanking him for "the best advice she had ever had", although all he had done was listen attentively and slip in an occasional "Mmmmm".
Clearly there is no conflict between the above skills and astrology. Nevertheless astrology is not counselling. People with problems need to learn coping skills, but this will not happen unless the astrologer is informed about coping skills and is able to help people work their own way through problems. In such areas appeals to planetary gods (other than to illustrate the client's position) are not likely to be helpful, especially if they seduce the astrologer into playing God, the all-knowing channel for cosmic wisdom. Nor do astrologers who promote invalid beliefs get off the hook for having kind hearts and generous intentions -- the wrong thing done for the right reasons is still the wrong thing.
Part 3. Using astrology in counselling
How astrology can help counselling
- Astrology (let planetary gods reveal new viewpoints).
The above listing shows that orthodox psychotherapies are based on a recognised mechanism (learning, perceiving, reliving, discovering inhibitions and unconscious processes). In contrast, astrology is based on "the distinctive attributes ... of each god in the closed circle of astrological polytheism" (Strohmer 1998:35),, that is, on a mechanism that involves our seeing faces in clouds of gods. Because the ancient founders of astrology chose gods that mirrored human conditions, astrologers such as Ralph Metzner (1970) can claim that astrology is "probably better adapted to the complex variety of human natures than existing [orthodox] systems". The faces we see are our own.
Astrology guarantees a match with this celestial identikit in three ways. First, by allocating human attributes at wonderfully abstract levels, which for Sun through Pluto are inner self, emotions, intellect, affections, drive, abundance, discipline, change, intangibles, intensity. For houses 1 through 12 they are disposition, possessions, communication, security, pleasures, service, friends, hidden things, travel, career, social ideals, sorrows. And for signs Aries through Pisces they are assertive, possessive, versatile, sensitive, creative, critical, harmonious, secretive, adventurous, prudent, detached, impressionable.For comparison, orthodox check lists are far less universal (indeed, that is the whole point). Thus for the much-used Adjective Check List (300 adjectives from absent-minded to zany) the subject ticks those that apply. For the California Q-set (100 descriptive statements) the subject sorts them into piles from most-apply to least-apply.
Second, by allowing a wonderful flexibility in bringing these abstract ideas down to earth. For example hard aspects are bad because their obstacles lead to failure, and good because their challenges lead to success (Carter 1972:12). Venus square Saturn can be shy and isolated in love relationships or alternatively can overcompensate ... by excessive sexual openess (Rosenblum 1983:39). Five planets in Aries is compatible with both aggression and suppression of aggression (Hamblin 1982). Rex Bills (1971) gives about 300 meanings for Aries, 350 for Gemini, 1000 for Venus, 1500 for Saturn, and so on. Michael Munkasey (1987) collected all the astrological keywords he could find and after six years of work he had 2000 pages of keywords. So in astrology there is always something that will fit any client.
Third, if an awkward indication cannot be overturned by another factor, standard practice allows it to be explained away as untypical, or as an unfulfilled potential, or as repressed, or as an error in the birth time, or as an outcome of the practitioner's fallibility. Or it can simply be ignored. Furthermore, as already mentioned, standard practice rests on non-astrological factors such as hidden persuaders that make astrology seem to work even when it doesn't.
In other words it is always possible to plausibly fit any chart to any person, which of course is astrology's strength as a focus for therapy by conversation, and its weakness as a source of information. Two examples of this from top astrologer Noel Tyl are given later.
Another benefit is more subtle. Rosenblum (1983:10) notes that "clients cannot overcome difficult traits unless they fully accept the fact that they have them", yet they are generally unwilling to do so just because the psychotherapist (or doctor or psychiatrist or priest) says they have them. But when the celestial identikit confronts them with "accurate generalities" that seem enshrined in their birth chart, they come to the party, especially as there is no implied physical, mental or moral weakness as with a doctor, psychiatrist or priest. The process is non-threatening. "Many who wouldn't ordinarily dream of going for therapy find it less threatening to go for a chart reading. Saying that you're 'just curious' about your future is less humbling than saying that you need help" (Cunningham 1994:88). In other words clients can understand themselves better by talking to astrologers than to psychotherapists.Or as one person replied to Steiner (1945:210) when asked why she goes to an astrologer with her tropubles instead of to a psychologist: "An astrologer doesn't pry into all your secrets."
The same process is described by Mivtzari (2002) as involving a "numinous third party", and by Noel Tyl (1975:35) as "objectification", whereby the chart puts the client's identity "on the desk top, becoming remarkably free from personal censorship, defense mechanisms, value judgement." The same of course is also true of graphology, palmistry, phrenology, and physiognomy. People unwilling to accept sympathy and reassurance directly may do so if the process is suitably "objectified" even if cloaked in the mystery of an ancient system and its arcane symbols.
The above points seem like a persuasive argument in favour of astrology being a useful tool for helping therapy by conversation. But how do orthodox psychotherapists and counsellors feel about it? See next.
Orthodox views of using astrology in counselling
Sechrest and Bryan (1968), two psychologists, consulted 18 US astrologers who advertised mail-order marital advice. They found that the advice bore no discernible relationship to astrological principles but was always realistic, and was usually direct, clear, vigorous, personal and friendly. They concluded that the advice was not likely to be damaging and, because it was friendly and cheap, was even a great bargain.
Skafte (1969), a psychologist and counsellor, tested the effect of introducing popular astrology (and palmistry and numerology) into personal and vocational counselling, for example by saying "a person born under your sign is supposed to enjoy travel -- does this sound like you?" The words were chosen to avoid implying validity and to promote dialogue. She found that: (1) This provides a focal point for discussion that often stimulates clients to talk openly about themselves. (2) Mutual interest in an unconventional activity quickly creates closeness and rapport that would otherwise take many sessions to establish. (3) The focus on individual qualities (as opposed to say impersonal questionnaires) meets the client's need to feel special.
Laster (1975), an educational psychologist and astrologer, makes the pragmatic point that the many people who believe in astrology can be reached on common grounds of faith by counselors familiar with astrology, just as Jews can be better reached by Jewish counselors than by non-Jewish ones. But as in the previous paragraph, if astrologers tend to attract only clients already into astrology, this might be a case of the blind leading the blind.
Wedow (1976), a sociologist, made tape recordings of counselling sessions with eight astrologers to find out what happens when they make a wrong statement about the client. She found that they gave one or more of the following explanations: Client does not know himself, astrologer is not infallible, another chart factor is responsible, manifestation is not typical. Wedow notes that such explanations make the whole process non-falsifiable, and that the participants seem to be unaware of this non-falsifiability. Hence once the session has begun, the end result can hardly fail to maintain astrology's credibility, and thus support whatever positive or negative effect it might be having.
Askren (1980), a psychiatrist who was once skeptical of astrology but later came to use it in his practice, describes the benefits of using astrology as follows: "[Astrology provides] me with a different view of personality -- one that seems to be more congruent with the world... By giving me a new set [of analogies] with which to perceive, it helps me to see things I would not see otherwise. My patients have responded -- some negatively, some positively, some gradually positively."
Perinbanayagam (1981), a psychiatrist in Sri Lanka, found that belief in astrology and karma allowed various forms of misfortune to be understood and handled. Case studies showed how astrology and the doctrine of karma enabled a person of that culture to create a number of structures that have a therapeutic effect.
Lester (1982), a professor of psychology, visited an astrologer, talked to clients of astrologers, and surveyed astrological writings. He concluded that: (1) Astrologers play a role similar to that of psycho-therapists. (2) People consult astrologers for the same reason that they consult psychotherapists, but without the stigma the latter may entail. (3) Clients get empathy, advice, compliments (which increase self-esteem), and positive comments about possible future traumas, all of which amounts to supportive psychotherapy.
Valentine (1994), in an anthology of innovative methods in psychotherapy, notes that the practitioner can use the birth chart as a means of reflecting and exploring the client's experience. It helps to bridge the gap between therapist and client and thus improves the psychotherapy.
Noble (2001), a therapist for women, noted that tapping into unseen, energetic and magical realms (as in oracles, astrology, shamanism and collective ritual) can be the source of deep healing and illumination in the therapeutic process. Using nonrational knowledge techniques takes the pressure off the individual therapist to figure everything out and relieves the client of helplessness and despair.
Mivtzari (2002), as part of his PhD thesis, interviewed in depth four licensed psychotherapists who used astrology in their practice. All four were passionate about astrology but apprehensive of criticism. They saw the chart as altering the therapeutic procedure by introducing a numinous third party into the relationship. They felt the chart was not just a tool but had a much deeper meaning because it brought a whole worldview and spiritual beliefs into the therapeutic process. They felt the worldview enhanced their skills and deepened the clinical work they did with their clients.
Not all professionals come away from astrology with such glowing opinions. Dr Anthony Stevens, a psychiatrist who assessed chart readings as part of Derek Parker's (1970) investigation of astrology, concluded that astrology is a delusional system comparable to organised religion and is used to impose order on private chaos. Unlike psychiatrists, who free clients from their paranoia that events are beyond their control, astrologers reinforce it by dragging their clients into a shared paranoia,"a folie a deux, in which both astrologer and client subscribe to the same delusional system. ... Astrology, in my view, is not so much anti-therapeutic as a-therapeutic, producing a psychologically sterile liaison between client and astrologer which stultifies creativity instead of making it possible: not know thyself but know thy stars. At this crucial point, the similarity between astrology and psycho-analysis ends: if my own fate should bring me to the crossroads, I know to which discipline I should turn for help." (pp.218-219).
Note how the problem raised by Stevens is due to using astrology as a source of information, which was the way it was generally used in those days. (That the same is now known to be true of psychoanalysis does not negate the argument, although it does weaken the case for outlawing astrology if psychoanalysis is allowed to go free.) Once we abandon that idea and move away from chart reading to chart exploration, the problem disappears. So how can we apply what we have learnt to being a better astrologer?
How to be a better astrologer
(1) Be warm, understanding, and (of course) wise. If you lack wisdom then hold off until it has accumulated. (2) Accept only clients who share your approach to astrology, and send the rest to someone more compatible. The more the mutual liking the better the results. Refuse clients with problems beyond your expertise. (3) Make your office businesslike with books and certificates on display, but also welcoming with flowers and a comfortable chair. Ensure privacy. Refuse phone calls. (4) Forget what other astrologers say about your chart technique, and vice versa. Research indicates that, in factual terms, all astrological techniques are equally invalid. So use whatever technique you like, simple or complex, logical or crazy, it makes no difference. The only thing that matters is that you and your clients should like it.
In other words what matters is the astrologer not the astrology. All of the above points are vividly explored by Jacques Halbronn in his pithy Astrologer meets client 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." Or as Richard Asher puts it: "If you can believe fervently in your treatment, even though controlled studies show that it is quite useless, then your results are much better, your patients are much better, and your income is much better too" (Richard Asher 1972, quoted in French 2001:35).
What about training in counselling?
Rose (1982) notes that the process usually requires several sessions, and that at least some basic counselling training is "necessary for the astrologer, for a qualification in astrology itself does not automatically imply counselling ability" (p.138). If the astrologer does not have this training, they need to recognise when it is needed and refer the client accordingly. Astrology does not exempt the astrologer from being responsible. In any case the rule is: Discussion, yes, advice or direction, no.
Rosenblum (1983:89-119) identifies four common client problems that require proper training, namely: stuck in a negative relationship, excessive dependency on astrologer, depression, and serious psychopathology. The last is most commonly revealed by past history or by disturbed eye contact such as rigid, fixed; or staring; or darting, unsteady; or dead, unfeeling; or frightened, childlike. The untrained astrologer should refer these cases to a qualified therapist.
Rose (1982:152) stresses that not all astrologers "are suited to counselling ... Others are eminently suited to it. ... Each counsellor is the foundation upon which all of the information or skills ultimately rest; therefore any training begins, and continues, inside the person herself". You can read about counselling skills in books and in this article but if it isn't instinctive it doesn't work. Good counselling comes from the heart, and clients notice if it doesn't. What matters is being a good person rather than a good astrologer.
In the next two sections we look at reasons against using astrology in counselling.
Money, money, money
Of course even these rates may still be half the cost of an hour with an astrologer via a psychic phoneline, but is it ethical to charge for time spent studying what is effectively nonsense? To be fair this problem is not unique to astrology and exists throughout psychotherapy generally, see Appendix 4. For disturbing insights into astrology by phone see the first (long) note in Dead End on this website under Sun Signs.
Is astrology harmful?
In an article "Top scientists must fight astrology or all of us will face the consequences", philosopher Robert Crease (1989) points out that the dangers of astrological thinking should not be underestimated:Consider the book Sexual Assaults: Pre-Identifying Those Vulnerable (Davis Research Reports, 1978). "The horoscope," this book claims, "is the only tool presently known which can be used to separate those who may be vulnerable to a sexual assault from those who would not." Evidently, astrologers are prepared to counsel rape victims that, on the most profound level, they had it coming. Or consider the advice that I heard Larry Berg, a prominent astrologer from Omaha, Nebraska, give at an American Federation of Astrologers (AFA) convention last July. Don't worry about the depletion of the ozone layer or the "wrong and alarmist" reports of global warming, Berg said. "The dominant celestial patterns are intact. I see no changes and no need to do anything."
Others have documented how occult practices themselves can be harmful. For example in 1995 a survey of 509 British schoolchildren aged 14-15 found that most saw astrology as harmless fun. But more than one-third actually believed their stars. And a minority had been led to other occult practices that ended in trauma, so for them astrology was not harmless fun (Boyd 1996).
Indeed, scattered across astrology books are many cases of adult clients being near-traumatised by unwise readings. For example Rudhyar (1979) says "I have received many letters from people telling me how fearful or psychologically confused they had become after consulting even a well-known astrologer and being given biased character analyses and/or predictions of illness, catastrophe, or even death." The astrologer and book reviewer Lore Wallace (1978) describes going at age 17 to a famous astrologer, whose prediction of things like a difficult birth and the death of a child "have damaged me probably for the rest of my life" (her comments imply that the predicted events did not occur).
Of course people can suffer just as much from parents, teachers, clergy, and lawyers, so it might be unfair to single out astrologers, especially as they are much easier to avoid. Indeed, people can suffer even more from psychotherapists whose disdain for empirical research has long been infecting psychotherapy and is now widespread and pernicious. They have torn up families, sent innocents to prison, cost people their jobs, and promoted great harm. See Appendix 4 on pernicious psychotherapies. Such disdain for research makes people vulnerable to whatever hysterical therapy comes along next, and is of course typical of astrologers who wear it like a badge of office.
Rosenblum (1983:120-128) identifies characteristics that make bad astrologers, namely: superiority, need to be right, hunger for power, bland positivism, failure to recognise own hangups, and intruding own philosophy. Suspect these if you find yourself becoming impatient with clients, or having arguments, or avoiding certain topics, or yielding to frequent demands for extra time. Cunningham (1978:193-196), in a chapter entitled Games astrologers play, suggests that clients "be suspicious of astrologers who advertise -- the best ones operate solely on the recommendations of their satisfied clients", and that they be wary of the guru, the power-hungry, the astro-junkie, the totally negative, the totally positive, the prurient peeping tom, and the spotlight seeker.
The above negative qualities fit a recognised disorder called the narcissistic personality disorder, characterised by grandiose ideas, self-importance, exploitiveness, fantasies of power, excessive need for admiration, lack of empathy, and patronizing arrogance (Oxford Dictionary of Psychology 2001:476). In the astrological community it is not hard to find individuals fitting this description, but they remain the exception, perhaps 5% of all astrologers. Most astrologers are nice people with a genuine concern for others.
Bourque concludes her survey with this suggestion: If you feel that irrationality can be a good thing, that demonic forces are imaginary, and that occultism is always positive, then astrology might be OK. Otherwise the worst worries are that (1) astrology encourages do what you want rather than do what will help others, and (2) occult practices may be harmful. "There certainly are current trends that could be seen as greater threats to our society than the increasing popularity of astrology. ... [Nevertheless] its appeal and potential negative effects are real and should not be ignored by any of us".
Of course many of the above worries arise from the use of astrology as a source of information, and will no longer apply when astrology is used as a counselling tool. Which introduces the key issue facing such use.
The key issue facing astrology as a counselling tool
The problem is less one for clients than it is for astrologers. Clients tend to arrive with at least some expectation of fortune telling, which has to be gently corrected by reference to the stars inclining and not compelling, to the imprecision of symbolism, and so on. Astrologers have always had to limit their clients' expectations in this way, so more of the same should not be a problem. Clients would not need to cancel their belief in astrology because once in the consulting room it would do no harm. But astrologers do not have the same option. It is cancel belief or nothing. And this is where the problem lies.
Would admitting that astrology is little more than a placebo effectively kill it off, as happened with phrenology? If so, would astrologers have no option but to defend the opposite view to the limit? Obviously a system that requires belief in claims that need not be true leads to personal and ethical issues that astrologers have generally yet to recognise let alone deal with. The similarity with religion is unmistakeable.
Probably most astrologers, as their experience increases, learn to see the chart more as a guide than as a prescription. And some of them, as foreshadowed by Rose (1982), do turn a blind eye to what the chart says in favour of using it strictly as a tool, a checklist of things to talk about, as Rudolf Smit does at the end of his My Disaster, and which Arthur Mather suggests is the only valid way ahead for astrology in his Optimum Place, both on this website, see Index. Where some go, others can follow.
Part 4. Examples
Examples of how chart exploration works
Rose (1982) stresses that the astrologer and client should work together on the chart. Having identified a particular chart factor:"the astrologer can help him [the client] relate it to his life as he knows it: How does he recognise this process in his life? How has he used it so far? What are his past experiences and environment and have they lent colour and direction to the way he expresses it now? Has he developed it at all, or does it seem to be a factor in his chart which, in life, is lying dormant? ... through conversations with the client she [the astrologer] will guide him into his own individual lines of discovery. ... it is this shared participation between astrologer and client that constitutes the kernel of astrological counselling" (p.24)
Rose gives many examples from actual counselling sessions. Jackie's Venus in Libra prompts an exploration of possible Libra-like careers. Brian's Mars in Aries helps him understand aggression in others. Carol's Moon in Scorpio helps her explore her jealousy. Catherine's emphasis on Earth and her young son's emphasis on Fire helps her understand their relationship (all from pp.68-79). And similarly for other factors such as house position, aspects, and transits. Thus the first quarter of Anna's Uranus return leads to recognition of why her attempted suicide was so transforming (p.122).
The key point is that there is no attempt to push what the factor is supposed to mean. "It is by talking with the individual that their actual setting in his life becomes clear. ... can it really be sensible to try to guess definite outcomes of planetary configurations, or is it not infinitely more wholesome to [help the client] become aware of their actual relevance in his life and share this with someone who is prepared to listen? ... More than anything else, through the counsellor listening to and conversing with the client, the chart is automatically 'interpreted', for the client is speaking it, living it, being it" (pp.133-136).
Rose also gives examples of the danger of pushing what the chart factor is supposed to mean. For example during Jane's long period of depression, her astrologer noted how the happy lucky Grand Trine in her chart was just what the doctor ordered. But what the doctor actually ordered was "15mg Valium, 20mg Tofranol, 25mg ampitriptilyne, bed rest in hospital and a visit from the psychiatrist there"! (p.138). (Valium is a tranquiliser, the other two are anti-depressants.)
Examples of non-chart factors that work
Tyl (1975:131-133) gives another example of a non-chart factor when he points out how astrologers needn't worry about chart technique or accuracy, simply because:"it is the human being who makes Astrology work and not the planets or their symbols. ... The answer [to an uncertain interpretation] is found simply by asking the client ... The client knows best the behaviour that corresponds to the astrological deductions. [So] a question to the client will provide the answer [to what the chart means]. Time and time again, individuals with assertive wills and rational cognitive processes will reach beyond even the wildest 'established' orb to create a supportive aspect between two symbolic energy dimensions, to make things happen in a specific way at a specific time".
The above is consistent with what research was soon to conclude, namely that astrology does not need to be true, so its value lies in its structure and symbolism. The unsuspecting client makes the chart fit by choosing hits from a smorgasbord of ambiguity that requires the collusion of the client to become meaningful. Control hidden persuaders and the chart no longer fits. But thirty years later, instead of embracing the obvious, Tyl (2004) does a cover up. He starts by calling chart factors "measurements", presumably to disguise their true basis in fantasy, and then piles on the obfuscation: "a minor measurement, eg an asteroid, a decile aspect, a planetary node, for example -- does not blow up to have arbitrarily large effects in the whole scheme of things, i.e., it does not reasonably become dominant. [But] its significance can be enlarged through the astrologer's analytical understanding and application of it to the human situation" (p.424, his emphasis). The straightforward message that astrology has no need to be true for the client to recognise himself in its engulfing symbolism is here buried under a smokescreen of "analytical understanding".
Cold reading is only one of the many hidden persuaders that make an invalid astrology work. Another is the Barnum effect, the reading of personal detail into vague generalities, which then appear miraculously prescient. Tyl (1975:25-27) unwittingly gives a good example of Barnum variations during an actual consultation. To Eric, a new client aged 24, after an introductory exchange, Tyl says:"we should begin with a general statement to differentiate you from ... all other people. The horoscope shows that you are gracious, friendly, that you express yourself softly [all this was already obvious, now comes the favourable Barnum], and that you're very sensitive. [Now the vague Barnum] But, Eric, there are tensions here ... linked to ... how you feel about yourself. [Now the double-headed Barnum] The horoscope suggests that, on the one hand, you're pretty particular about whom you relate to. [Now repeat vague Barnum] This might be a defense because you're not too pleased with yourself. [Now back to double-headed Barnum] And, then, on the other hand, you're friendly to the extreme in order to be accepted. Do you think that is accurate?" To which Eric replied "Yeah. That's it, right on the button. [But how could it be otherwise?] Gee, I know a little about Astrology; how do you see all that?"
To uncover hidden persuaders in this way may seem inappropriate in the light of Eric's strong emotional endorsement. After all, if short Barnums like "you have problems with money" were forbidden, normal communication might grind to a halt. Our propensity to read personal detail into vague statements is the price we pay for practical convenience. Nevertheless it is easy to forget that, for clients, the reading can be profoundly meaningful and life-changing, which can be more important than having any specific substance. This point is further explored below under "astro-poetics". But what is a believing astrologer to do when, despite everythng, astrology goes wrong?
What to do when astrology goes wrong?
(1) "Know realistically" that chart factors usually either "manifest at less than maximum potential and below the intensity and completeness of the client's wishes", or "simply pass unnoticed in the client's life" (p.734, his emphasis). (2) Recognise how much "We want measurements to manifest in order to prove astrology to ourselves as astrologers, to hear the praise from the client when things work out well" (p.735). So "Astrologers must be cautious ... it is decidely wiser to share the care of circumspection than to explore the chicanery of change" (p.736). Which does not stop Tyl from devoting many pages to interpreting isolated factors such as Moon through the houses.
Astrologer Roy Alexander (1983:84) says much the same thing:"Perhaps the most basic rule of any kind of counselling ... is Give up your need to be right. Without exception, all counselors, therapists and dealers in specialist information have a tremendous emotional investment in their own particular theory or discipline. ... So the practitioner will feel irrationally threatened if his system is challenged. [In particular] the astrologer ... not only has to worry about his own personal competence but about whether his discipline is valid" (his emphasis).
That was in 1983 when there was still hope of factual validity. Today that hope has more or less disappeared, a point explored in the final section of Part 5. Next we look at other therapeutic uses of astrology besides exploring personal birth charts.
Experiential astrology as therapy
For groups the possibilities are greatly increased. For example people can role-play different planets (eg in a particular chart or in imagined situations such as an accident or even in rehearsed plays), they can swap experiences with others having the same factor (eg Fire rising or a Pluto transit), they can display their own symbolism (eg pocket knife = Mars, credit card = Jupiter) and relate the reactions of others to their individual charts, or they can dance the paths of the planets to make abstract astronomical data come alive. They can even try to decide an unknown birth time by having others role-play possible rising signs.
Given our ability to link anything with anything else, the experiential approach can hardly fail even when the symbols are a poor fit. For example Jenkins (who conducted large-scale experiential workshops for around 100 people at a time) has noted "The planet-in-sign groups reveal [occasional] anomalies such as weak and self-doubting Leos, chaotic, incompetent Virgos, shy Sagittarians and Aquarians who hate groups. I have sat in horrific silence with twelve Gemini-Moon individuals, have noted the weak positioning of Uranus in the charts of many astrologers, and have heard some people reporting the hardness of Neptune transits, while others describe the softness of Pluto ones!" (in Jones 1991:137). All of which are contrary to what astrology predicts. Yet the result was always a reinforcement of belief, never the opposite because, as Jenkins explains, these particular images are but one of many possibilities, so failure does not invalidate the underlying theme.
Part 5. Implications for research
Implications of chart exploration for research
The new research would have many advantages. (1) It would embrace all the components of astrology but without presenting them under false pretences, so astrology would no longer be a target for debunkers. (2) The disagreement between systems would be of no consequence, including the disagreement over sun sign columns. (3) For psychologists and other professionals it would set out the realities of astrology in their own terms, thus eliminating misconceptions and paving the way to recognition. (4) Unlike the old research it would be of relevance to working astrologers. In particular it would meet what some astrologers see as the primary need for astrology today, namely simplicity. Thus Arroyo (1979:224) comments "If we want more people to understand what astrology is rather than rejecting it outright, it is incumbent upon us to develop a way of defining astrology which is ultimately simple ... [because then] we not only make it intellectually accessible to many others but we also bring it down to earth for the beneficial use of human beings." The new research would do exactly that.
On the other hand the new research would have to overcome a major stumbling block, namely how to encourage belief in astrology (on which the accompanying placebo effect presumably depends) if genuine cosmic correspondences are disclaimed. For example Szanto (1987:47) stresses that both astro-counsellor and "client must believe in astrology -- otherwise there will be no real relationship which can provide the basis for treatment". Researchers have to challenge anything that suggests astrology is a source of information, and they must do so without simultaneously depriving humanity of its potential benefits. But how? Some clues are given by the US psychotherapist Dr Michael Mayer (1984) who uses just such a system, which he calls astro-poetics to emphasise that no claims of validity are made, otherwise it is the same as conventional astrology. His views and experiences are worth describing in some detail:
Mayer explains why validity is not needed: "To say that an experimental group with the Moon in Cancer rated significantly higher than a control group on the variable of sensitivity, although providing interesting data on one level of analysis, leaves out the dimension of the person's experience of this quality. It is this later question which is of primary interest to the psychotherapist. Following this line of interest our inquiry shall focus on how, by using a certain symbol (let us say Cancer), the person experiences his or her unique way of being sensitive. Thus our interest is not in describing, diagnosing, or proving that the person is sensitive, but rather to examine the experience that occurs when astrological symbols are used" (p.186). In other words the way in which the person sees the symbol tells the psychotherapist something about the person. (On the other hand, if astrology were actually true, the psychotherapist could know all of this plus a whole lot more, so the argument is somewhat contrived.)
Mayer emphasises that, like the language of novels and unlike the language of psychology textbooks, the language of astro-poetics is close to human experience. Thus the imagery of Martian energy and Saturnian control take you to places that your MMPI scores do not. Furthermore, astro-poetics does not presuppose that the client is moulded by his past (Freud) or his future (Adler) or his stars (conventional astrology). Nor does it emphasise parts at the expense of wholes, which ignores uniqueness, nor does it emphasise wholes at the expense of parts, which reduces the person to an incomprehensible blur. Mayer argues that, as a aid to counselling for helping clients regain control of their lives (which is what counselling is all about), astro-poetics can be superior to orthodox techniques. He adds that its use would be contraindicated for clients incapable of abstract reasoning, or opposed to nonrational appoaches, or overinclined to fantasy, or who have organic problems.
Problems with astro-poetics
Of course there may always be a tendency for clients to rationalise the logic of any therapy, so it has to be accepted as a natural hazard in astrology and allowed for. The challenge to the client is to apply the benefits of astrological viewpoints without requiring them to be true, which process has to be guided by the practitioner. Unfortunately Mayer does not consider placebo effects or human judgement biasses (hidden persuaders) and their influence on the outcome.
There are thus three problems with astro-poetics. (1) Validity is necessarily implied by a continuing insistence on accurate birth data. But this problem is easily overcome by allowing clients to create their own birth chart, a solution not considered by Mayer, which would also bring an important new dimension to both therapy and research.
(2) Astro-poetics as a tool is too complicated for consumers to bother learning. But if clients create their own chart factors from a check list of cookbook meanings with underlying principles, nobody (including the therapist) has to learn anything. Research could then focus on establishing the optimum wording. In principle this might lead to a system with decreasing links with astrology, but in practice the appeal of astrology (which is what attracts clients in the first place) might maintain the status quo.
Similarly (3) the faith involved is now of a new kind, namely faith that the procedure can give useful insights rather than faith that cosmic correspondences exist. To psychologists this is clearly a more acceptable faith, but whether it can invoke as strong a placebo effect is a matter for research. It might not invoke as strong a following.
Part 6. Appendices
Appendix 1: References plotted in the figure
Orthodox articles or book chapters on astro-counselling. *Cited in text.Up to 1965 *Steiner (1945). 1966-1975 Donlan (1971), *Laster (1975), *Sechrest & Bryan (1968), *Skafte (1969). 1976-1985 *Askren (1980), *Kelly & Krutzen (1983), *Lester (1982), MacCleod 1982), *Perinbanayagam (1981), Pugh (1983), *Wedow (1976). 1986-1995 *Valentine (1994). 1996-2005 *Mivtzari (2002), *Noble (2001).
Appendix 2: Humanistic astrology
Furthermore, Rudhyar states that the very nature of his astrology denies any objective evaluation (Rudhyar 1979). Nevertheless his writings imply that chart factors are a source of information. For example when he claims that Sun means will and Moon means adaptation and Jupiter means excess and Saturn means stabilize, there is no provision for these meanings to be allocated any other way, so it matters that they mean what they are said to mean, ie are a source of information in whatever context they are applied. So for every page of his books one could ask the question: Why should anyone believe this? But nowhere are answers provided. All we have are speculations, and clearly this is not enough. (The same of course also applies to conventional astrology.) Rudhyar's main claims in plain English, and their problems, are as follows:
The claims of humanistic astrology and their problems
(2) Humanistic astrology is concerned with potentialities, not with precise character analysis or prediction. But how does Rudhyar know that the potentialities shown in the chart are in fact correct? The answer he gives (1979) is that the issue is not whether the indication is correct but whether the individual sees it as valid. But if correctness is irrelevant, why bother with authentic charts?
(3) Humanistic astrology is not empirical. Rudhyar is saying that what matters is not whether our beliefs are based on fact but whether they make us feel better. But feeling better can be explained without the need for astrology. Indeed, the symbolism chosen by Rudhyar to convey meaning is so obscure that one wonders how it could benefit anyone, even those who would normally benefit from a less-obscure astrology.
(4) Humanistic astrology is holistic. Here Rudhyar uses "holistic" both in its normal sense to indicate a concern with the whole person, and to elevate astrology above criticism by claiming it is meaningless to study parts in isolation. But if individual parts don't work then the whole is not likely to work either. After all, if it were true, then car repairs could not succeed, nor could cars be developed in the first place. Also, these days everyone claims to be holistic, leaving no advantage here for astrology.
(5) Humanistic astrology embraces philosophical relativism. What is valid or true is just a matter of cultural belief. But this is just a confusing way of saying that people and societies differ in what they believe to be true. The problem is to determine which beliefs are actually true. So relativism is the problem, not the solution. It implies that no one can be mistaken about their beliefs, which is absurd. What if we believe that relativism is false? Or that astrology is false? It is of course possible that some falsities become so deeply embedded that they become pseudo truths, as did belief in bloodletting. What critics are interested in is establishing which beliefs are true.
Rudhyar's response to the above problems
Appendix 3. Placebo effects
A placebo (pronounced pla-see-bo) is from the Latin "I shall please", the opening word of the Roman Catholic service Placebo Domino, I shall please the Lord). Thus a gelatine capsule filled with sugar, and given with the assurance that it will bring sleep, will actually do so for about one person in three (Melzack & Wall 1983). Placebos are effective even when people know they are receiving them (Levine & Gordon 1984), which should help astrology's effectiveness even when people believe there is nothing in it.
The placebo effect applies both to physical symptoms (eg post-operative pain) and psychological symptoms (eg anxiety), and is increased for actual sufferers (who need relief) compared with volunteers (who do not). Two placebo pills have more effect than one, otherwise the effect of pill shape, size and colour depends on what the person likes. Overall the effect is so potent that entire books have been written about it and about the special experimental strategies needed to cope with it (eg Spiro 1986).
In a recent review of the social (ie non-medical) factors acting on the brain that influence health and well-being, but without specifically mentioning placebo effects, Ray (2004) concludes "The power that our thoughts have on the body is not magic. The mind-body connection is supported by the very best of modern-day research, and each year we learn more and more about how this connection works. It is very clear that what one thinks and believes affects one's health, one's well-being, and even one's chances of dying." Similarly Frank & Frank (1991:89-112) point out how non-Western people (unlike Western people) can embrace a totality of mind, body and supernatural spirits as the cause of distress. The healing rituals of shaman or witch doctor can thus involve not just the person but their entire world-view, thus creating a powerful expectation (including the lethal power of spells) well beyond anything a Western person might imagine. Here perceptions and expectations are everything.
The placebo effect was observed long before it was named. For example Walsh (1912) noted how, up to that time, every new scientific discovery in physics (eg electricity, magnetism, x-rays) physical science had been followed by attempts to apply it to the treatment of disease. These attempts became the centre of public attention and produced a feeling that another great therapeutic remedy had been discovered. Sometimes wonderful effects were noted. But later, when the novelty wore off, its suggestive power decreased and the remedy lost its therapeutic power. Ironically it was several decades before the potency of the placebo effect was officially recognised. Only after a classic paper by Beecher (1955) on The Powerful Placebo were double-blind designs adopted as standard for evaluating drugs, a good example of a single short paper (5 pages) changing the course of scientific history. By 1980 the placebo effect was the subject of nearly a thousand articles and books, with many hundreds more since then (Roberts et al 1993:376). The placebo effect is held to be the underlying reason why any successful psychotherapy works.In medicine placebos can be defined as "therapeutically inert", but in psychotherapy they are not at all inert, and are therefore better interpreted as "common factors", ie factors common to most therapies. As noted by Lambert et al (1986:163), "Those factors that are common to most therapies (such as expectation for improvement, persuasion, warmth and attention, understanding, encouragement, etc.) should not be viewed as theoretically inert nor as trivial; indeed they are central to psychological treatments and play an active role in patient improvement."
Placebo effect sizes (expressed as a correlation) can vary from 0 to almost 1 depending on subjects and conditions (Wall 1999). For mild psychological disorders not requiring hospitalisation, placebo therapy has an effect size typically approaching 0.30, or generally almost as good as any actual psychotherapy except cognitive behaviour therapy, which has an effect size typically around 0.35, or 0.55 where especially effective eg phobias (Lambert et al 1986). Total studies then exceeded 1200 and may now exceed 1500. Only cognitive behaviour therapy shows evidence of effects usefully beyond common factors (Erwin 1994).
Interestingly, "The history of medicine is largely the history of placebos. When subjected to scientific scrutiny, the overwhelming majority of treatments, old and new, turn out to derive their benefits from the placebo effect" (Brown 1997:57). For example among popular treatments that were actually invalid were "purging, puking, poisoning, cutting, cupping, blistering, bleeding, freezing, heating, sweating, leeching and shocking" (Shapiro & Shapiro 1997:15). When something as invasive (and worthless) as bloodletting could be accepted for so long, we should not be surprised at the acceptance of the much less invasive (but equally invalid) astrology.
Appendix 4. The Samaritans
In 1953 the Rev Chad Varah was appointed Rector of the Lord Mayor's Parish Church of St Stephen Walbrook in London, specifically to try out his idea of providing an emergency counselling service for the despairing and suicidal. The publicity attracted more clients than he could handle, who therefore had to wait in long queues, but it also attracted helpers who "engaged the clients in conversation, plied them with coffee and cigarettes, and generally made them feel at home" (Varah 1965:23).
When the waiting clients eventually came to talk with him, he found they were free of the usual exasperation at having to wait and had improved confidence in his counselling. Many left before seeing him because the talk with a willing listener had done the trick. They didn't need him any more. This led Rev Varah to set up The Samaritans, a help service (initially by phone then face to face) for the despairing and suicidal that is now worldwide. Helpers listen attentively and empathetically but without giving advice, helping callers to work out their own way of managing their problems. In short, helpers listen while people talk themselves out of trouble. A good model for chart exploration.
Appendix 5. Pernicious psychotherapies
In the USA anyone can be a psychotherapist. No training is needed. Anyone can market an unvalidated therapy, charge whatever they like, and not be guilty of a single crime. So psychotherapists proliferate, and the work of psychological researchers tends to be invisible outside universities. Many claims promulgated by therapists are actually false, for example:
- Low self-esteem causes aggressiveness, drug use, and low achievement.
Indeed, the split is so wide that many psychologists now refer to the "scientist-practitioner gap," where "gap" is actually more like "war".
During the 1980s and 1990s there were three main wars (repressed memories, multiple-personality disorder, day-care sex-abuse scandals), all based on the mistaken beliefs of psychotherapists, and ended only by painstaking research. But as soon as one war ends, others (such as rebirthng, and restraint therapy, with no scientific validity) take their place. For more examples see Wright & Cummings (2005).
Why the gap exists
Science vs psychotherapy
Thus many psychotherapists consider only confirming cases (the people they see in therapy), and not the disconfirming cases. If observations confirm X, great, if not, then the observers are incompetent. [A situation exactly true of astrology.] Similarly, many therapists place too much faith in their leader, and never ask questions. They also tend not to be critical of what a client says (does he really have a terrible mother?).
The job of a therapist is to help the subject make sense of her symptoms and her life, not to be a detective or fact-finder or judge or jury. The latter is for scientists trained to ask "what's the evidence?". For them clinical insight and intuition are simply not good enough. It is wrong to conclude that a subject is X because they have Y without knowing what Y means for people in general.
Gap is here to stay
But to the public, all this remains invisible. And that's the danger. Social-scientific illiteracy is widespread and pernicious. It has has torn up families, sent innocents to prison, cost people their jobs, and promoted harmful therapies. It makes people vulnerable to whatever hysterical therapy comes along next. And there will be many nexts.
Part 7. References
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