Self-discovery pseudoscience fads

December 28, 2020

For my friends who are into personality type tests and/or astrology — everything from Myers–Briggs and Enneagram to star signs and horoscopes:

Please watch this video from TED-Ed: How do personality tests work? - Merve Emre


As a person who has obsessively taken every personality test I could for years and years, I always enjoyed seeing how I changed every six or so months on my test results. It's amazing to see that I can grow and adapt (and that I'm not a fixed, static, invariable, programmed robot). Personality tests give me a brief (and modestly imprecise) snapshot of that temporary version of myself at that time. And by comparing changes across those snapshots I can see a glimpse of my personal evolution (although a biased view, at that).

However, as this video eloquent explains:

Personality is not a stable, measurable feature of an individual.

And most importantly:

The strict divisions between personality types don't reflect real-life nuances.

So beyond these snapshots, I've needed to learn the hard lesson that: While these categorizations and "types" are fun, intriguing, and a great go-to social ice breaker conversation for almost everyone, ... They are fundamentally inaccurate, flawed, biased, and most definitely not a solid foundation for decision-making or for assuming that we fully understand someone. (And this applies in its own ways to the pseudoscience of astrology.) As always, our best attempts to understand human nature require nuanced thinking and multi-factor thinking.


Why are you writing this, David?

As a clarifying note of context: I'm not trying to start a dispute with all my friends who are into personality tests and astrology. But I do want to:

  1. Advocate for nuanced/multidimensional thinking
  2. Promote scientific literacy
  3. Build understanding, awareness, and mindfulness around the harms and dangers of pseudoscience and "type" classifications, categorizations, and generalizations

This is the foundation and basis of my reasoning for why I want to write about this and share this research.

An overview of the topics


What is pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience is a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. (Dictionary definition)

Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be both scientific and factual but are incompatible with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; absence of systematic practices when developing hypotheses; and continued adherence long after the pseudoscientific hypotheses have been experimentally discredited. — Wikipedia

What are some common examples of pseudoscience?

Here's a brief list from Wikipedia:

Click to expand this list of pseudoscience topics

The Barnum effect

The Barnum effect, also called the Forer effect, or less commonly, the Barnum–Forer effect, is a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them, yet which are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some paranormal beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, aura reading, and some types of personality tests.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values. People tend to unconsciously select information that supports their views, but ignore non-supportive information. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs.


The test and all those of its kind, are generally considered to be one of many self-discovery "fads". [...] [These] rely on the exploitation of the Barnum effect, a mix of flattery, followed by confirmation bias, with the participants thereby proceeding to searchingly attempt to "fit the prediction". [...] The popularity of this instrument in the absence of proven scientific worth is troublesome.

Despite its popularity, it has been subject to sustained criticism by professional psychologists for over three decades.

The test has consistent problems with repeatability, in addition to problems of whether or not it has exhaustive and mutually exclusive classifications.


Astrology is a pseudoscience that claims to divine information about human affairs and terrestrial events by studying the movements and relative positions of celestial objects.

Researchers have successfully challenged astrology on both theoretical and experimental grounds, and have shown it to have no scientific validity or explanatory power.

The scientific community rejects astrology as having no explanatory power for describing the universe, and considers it a pseudoscience.

There is no proposed mechanism of action by which the positions and motions of stars and planets could affect people and events on Earth that does not contradict basic and well understood aspects of biology and physics.

Under the criterion of falsifiability, astrology is a pseudoscience.


Astrology consists of a number of belief systems that hold that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events or descriptions of personality in the human world. Several systems of divination are based on the relative positions and movement of various real and construed celestial bodies. Scientific testing of astrology has been conducted, and no evidence has been found to support the premises or purported effects outlined in astrological traditions. Where astrology has made falsifiable predictions, it has been falsified. — Source

Astrology has consistently been falsified. The most famous test was headed by Shawn Carlson and included a committee of scientists and a committee of astrologers. It led to the conclusion that natal astrology performed no better than chance. — Source


The Enneagram of Personality is a model of the human psyche [...] principally derived from the teachings of the Bolivian psycho-spiritual teacher Oscar Ichazo from the 1950s and the Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo from the 1970s.

There has been limited formal psychometric analysis of the Enneagram and the peer-reviewed research that has been done has not been widely accepted within the relevant academic communities.

While Enneagram teachings have attained some degree of popularity, they have also received criticism including accusations of being pseudoscience, subject to interpretation and difficult to test or validate scientifically, "an assessment method of no demonstrated reliability or validity".

My concern and my hope

I'm worried about entire generations buying into New Age beliefs and spirituality that is hidden under the guise of science. The dangers of subscribing to pseudoscience are numerous, but my biggest fear is that people will go their entire lives with a fundamental misunderstanding about the basic nature of humans, the universe, and science.

I'm concerned about the popularity of these pseudoscience beliefs, because it reflects a widespread and commonplace lack of rational, logical, scientific reasoning, critical thinking, and skepticism. And without a solid foundation of science, critical thinking, logic, and rationality, people will fail to reason effectively with their decision making and will firmly believe with conviction in misconceptions as truth. With such significant misunderstandings underlying the basis of people's thinking, biases and misconceptions thrive, while empirical evidence, scientific research, and proven knowledge are ignored and neglected.

At our very worst, human history has shown that widespread pseudo-scientific misconceptions, superstitions, misunderstandings, and unfounded/baseless spiritual beliefs have been harmful and lead to problems such as:

  1. rejection of proven disease/disorder treatments in favor of pseudo-scientific treatments and medicines, resulting in people forgoing important medical treatment, which leads to avoidable and preventable illness and death
  2. rejection of rationality, logic, reason, science, and empirical evidence
  3. forming classifications of people that lead to stereotyping, discrimination, judgement, racism, and even genocide
  4. forming cults and religious groups that prey upon the beliefs and convictions of people to take advantage of them and to breed extremism
  5. denial of important topics, issues, and ideas that proven with empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and scientific research

My hope is that we can undo and outdo these harmful beliefs and misconceptions by instead building upon our collective knowledge and using a rational, logical scientific method of approach to research, reasoning, and acquiring knowledge in order to lead humanity towards progress. Here's my hope for what we can do to replace each of these harmful potential consequences of pseudoscience:

  1. I hope we can continually replace pseudo-scientific healthcare, medicine, and therapy with legitimate, scientific healthcare, medicine, and therapy, so that humanity might continue to eradicate diseases and illnesses, prevent and treat suffering and sickness, and provide effective care and treatment for diseases, disorders, and illnesses.
  2. I hope we can replace people's tendencies to reject science with an excitement for and celebration of the sciences.
  3. I hope that we replace divisive classifications and stereotypes with celebrations of the complexity and nuance of humanity and human nature and the development of sciences that break down these divisions in classifications or types to instead unite people, rather than polarize them.
  4. I hope that we can reduce the likelihood of cults and extremist religious groups by disproving and eliminating baseless spiritual beliefs, unfounded superstitions, and pseudo-scientific misconceptions that drive dogmatic convictions behind such extremism.
  5. I hope that we can provide such convincing evidence of our most important topics, issues, and ideas that no one can deny their reality and their priority.

What instead? No mo' "pseudo"

Why does anyone care about getting involved and invested in these self-discovery pseudoscience fads?

My general suspicion is that people want self-knowledge and a deeper understanding of themselves and others.

So if you're searching for a better understanding of yourself, your behavior, your tendencies, your typical mindset, or your identity, then why not seek out the science of biology, neuroscience, psychology, and sociology? The best answers any human has to any questions of human nature come from these fields of study.

If you want to know why you do what you do, what causes those behaviors and thoughts, and what motivates and influences you, then seek out answers from accepted, proven science that is falsifiable, tested, and validated by skeptical criticism from experts and intellectuals. This will get you closer to "true" knowledge and understanding about yourself and others. Understanding human nature is a matter of science, not New Age spiritual speculation. Just because an idea is trending and popular, doesn't mean that it is valid, verified, accepted, scientific, or factual. Much of "pop" science is actually pseudoscience, and if we don't have the scientific literacy to catch these deceptions, we will be duped and susceptible to a host of misconceptions and false beliefs. The simplicity of broad, easy-to-remember classifications from personality types to astrological star signs is what makes them most appealing and popular, spreading like wildfire across social circles and conversations. But ironically, the very reason things like Enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, and astrology blow up and become popular fads is the exact same reason why these things are not scientific: they are extremely reductionary and awfully simplistic classifications.

You are much, much more complex than what any sign, horoscope, or "type" classification would dare to explain. Your behaviors and mind are the results of complicated, intricate systems with multiple nuanced factors. We will never get very far if we assume that we can classify all behaviors as the outcomes of a single personality type, a star sign, a hormone, a genetic disposition, a brain region, or a childhood experience. Instead, we know that every bit of behavior has multiple levels of causality. To explain all of an individual's behavior with a simple classification is a hugely reductionary oversimplification that doesn't take into account the multitude of contextual factors that impact each person every second. There are influences on your behavior traceable from milliseconds before the action in your neural network and nervous system, to moments before in your environment, to days before in your body's regulatory systems, to months before in your brain's neural plasticity, to years before in your life experiences shaping your memories and frontal cortex, to a lifetime before in your genes and fetal life, to generations before in your cultural history, to species before in your evolution, etc, etc, etc. (That long sentence is just the tip of the iceberg, barely scratching the surface of the complexity of behavior causality.) If you want to understand behavior, you have to take into account what happened a millisecond before to a million years before, with everything in between.

If you want a better, bigger picture of just how nuanced and multi-factored human behavior is, read the first few chapters (and the final closing thoughts) of the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky. (Explore the book on Google Books, borrow it from the Open Library, and/or listen to Robert Sapolsky's TED Talk on the topic.)


Finally, I want to advocate for the practice of introspection, reflection, and self-examination. As you've heard a hundred times before since Socrates: "The unexamined life is not worth living." And that line of reasoning is probably what drove most people to seek out examining life through the lenses of popular self-discovery fads, such as astrology and personality typing. I love that my generation is filled with the desire of self-examination and self-discovery. However, I feel devastated by the popular spreading of pseudoscience sapping that potential and diverting the enthusiastic attention of millions of people away from truly effective means of self-examination and self-discovery. The labels, classifications, and types of personality tests and astrology give people a false sense of some satisfactory understanding and deceptively appeases that desire for self-knowledge. Millions of people in my generation buy into the belief that their star sign and personality type give them a holistic understanding into themselves and a complete self-concept. They are ignoring and missing the bigger picture while fixated on a tiny piece of the bigger puzzle (or what might actually be a false claim, void of truth, answers, and value).

I want to promote a more effective way of reflection/introspection, seeking understanding, examining the self, forging an identity, and building a self-concept:

  1. Ask the right questions about yourself and your values, tendencies, habits, perspectives, beliefs, concepts, emotions, relationships, roles, groups, experiences, memories, history, strengths, weaknesses, interests, flaws, aspirations, traits, desires, ideologies, and all of the many aspects of the "self", and write down answers.
  2. Ask people who you have a good, trusting, respectful, positive, and close relationship with to help you answer those same questions to work past your biases and blindspots and get a more accurate depiction and representation of your actual self.
  3. Explore and examine the answers you've gathered to analyze yourself, find patterns, and infer general conclusions using inductive reasoning. (Ask the same people for help with this as well.)
  4. Research and study the science behind the aspects of yourself you've discovered to better understand the nature of your nature! (This is one of the most rewarding, insightful, and exciting experiences I have ever had. I cannot recommend this enough!)
  5. Seek out opportunities to handle your uniquenesses of self or even change aspects of yourself according to what you learn from your research. Self-development and self-improvement is the next logical step for any self-examination practice. Turn your newfound knowledge into practical wisdom by applying it to your life.


There are some incredible tools for aiding in this long (but very worthwhile) process of introspection. But mainly any resources you find should be only helping you ask the right questions and then write down answers and observations. Here is one of my personal favorite tools from Clearer Thinking that assists you in clarifying your understanding of yourself and your life: Answering life-changing questions. Try it out!

My key takeaways

These are the relevant missions/priorities that I believe humanity ought to strive for:

  1. Advocate for nuanced/multidimensional thinking.
  2. Promote scientific literacy.
  3. Build understanding, awareness, and mindfulness around the harms and dangers of pseudoscience and "type" classifications, categorizations, and generalizations.