Wondering why your friends aren’t receiving your texts? Or why your ride home turned into the commute from hell? Well, Mercury is retrograde through June 11, and astrologists everywhere urge you to be wary of communication mishaps and travel nightmares—all because a planet that’s 48 million miles away looks like it’s moving backwards in the sky. (Spoiler alert: It’s really not.) It’s the second retrograde orbit we’ve seen from Mercury this year and there’s one more to come this September—luckily this isn’t a year in which Mercury is retrograde four times. So what’s going through the minds of true believers while Mercury moonwalks its way through the sky? Quite a bit, it turns out.
You know how you just can’t stop talking about that feeling you have that something bad is about to happen? Yeah, that’s how the Twitter-verse tends to react to this celestial event.
In astrology, the planet Mercury rules all forms of communications, from speaking to negotiating to GPS directions. And astrologers describe planets that are retrograde as being in a sleeping state. So while Mercury takes a little nap, anything connected to communication can go haywire. That’s why you’ll hear astrologers telling people to avoid signing contracts, buying new phones, or heading out on road trips.
While we’re amused by all the attention Mercury retrograde gets today, this hoopla isn’t a new thing—far from it, in fact. Our fixation on planetary movements has a long history Medical astrology and its relation to modern psychiatry. Hare, E. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine,1977 Feb; 70(2): 105–110. . Way back before science was a thing, people looked to the sky for explanations and omens.
What Science Says
But today, science is well established, and scientists have never been able to back up astrology. Rick Fienberg, an astronomer and the communications director of the American Astronomical Society, calls the claims about Mercury retrograde “a whole lot of bunk.” The New York Times studied traffic data and found that the number of accidents didn’t increase while Mercury was retrograde—actually, they declined by one percent. And perhaps the biggest blow came from Geoffery Dean, a scientist who used to be an astrologer: Dean didn't find similarities in the personalities of thousands of people who were born minutes apart, which astrology would lead you to believe existed.
But that doesn’t stop people from believing astrology has some scientific merits. In a recent report from the National Science Foundation, just over half of the respondents said astrology was “not at all scientific,” the lowest number of skeptics in the survey since the early 1980s.
The believers have at least one scientific study in their favor: Researchers recently found that certain behavioral disorders are associated with different birth months and seasons Perinatal photoperiod imprints the circadian clock. Ciarleglio CM, Axley JC, Strauss BR. Nature neuroscience, 2010, Dec.;14(1):1546-1726. .
Why We’re Still Obsessed
Even though we know there’s little scientific merit to astrology, we still love to check our horoscope. And when we read it, we have a tendency to remember things that have happened to us in the past few days that make our horoscope make sense. Psychologists call this phenomenon confirmation bias. “It’s the filter we use to see a reality that is aligned with our beliefs, expectations, and theories,” says Joe Taravella, Ph.D., supervisor of pediatric psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center. “People may have a tendency to see the patterns they are looking for regardless of whether the information suggests or supports this.”
When Mercury is retrograde, people draw on the things they’ve heard about the three-and-a-half-week period—how it’s a terrible time to start projects or make big purchases—and look for examples of when making those decisions ended badly for them. They forget that misfortune happens all the time, no matter what Mercury is doing. “These negative beliefs that pertain to Mercury retrograde become part of one’s belief system,” Taravella says. “So if and when something goes awry, it confirms our belief regarding this perceived negative time and is consistent with their confirmation bias.”
Some astrologists are trying to revise Mercury's bad rap. Instead of looking at retrograde as a bad thing, they urge people to consider it a time-out, a period to evaluate life and the choices you’ve made. So instead of adding to the #mercuryretrograde hype, why not opt for some meditation and introspection? That's not a bad way to spend your time, whether you’re a believer or not.