3.1 Looping Effects
The term, “looping effect,” was introduced by Ian Hacking to describe the instability of social kinds. Hacking is primarily interested in the ways in which social scientists, in putting forward human categories that can be used in scientific explanation, can have an effect on those who are meant to be captured by the category, thereby changing the very thing that was supposed to be the subject of social scientific inquiry. Hacking gives a number of putative cases of this effect, including that of the child television viewer:
Once we have the phrase, the label, we get the notion that there is a definite kind of person, the child viewer, a species. This kind of person becomes reified. Some parents start to think of their children as child television viewers, a special type of child (not just their kid who watches television). They start to interact, on occasion, with their children regarded not as their children but as child viewers. Since children are such self-aware creatures, they may become not only children who watch television, but, in their own self-consciousness, child viewers. They are well aware of theories about the child viewer and adapt to, react against, or reject them. Studies of the child viewer of television may have to be revised because the objects of study, the human beings studied, have changed (Hacking 1999, 27).
For Hacking then, the work of social scientists changes the social world by producing categories, labels, and associated descriptions of behavior—which go on to influence the behavior of various individuals. On the one hand, there are labeling effects, cases where individuals understand themselves using the label, behaving in accordance with the new category (Scheff 1974). On the other hand, there is Hacking instability: cases where individuals see the new category and reject it, behaving in ways that are at odds with the label (Mallon 2016). Whether the effects of the new categories are labeling effects or Hacking instability, these effects are real changes in the social world, and should our scientists be alert to such changes, ought to lead to our scientists updating their theories in order to better capture the newly changed social world—the effects loop back around.4In turn, the changes to the theories of the scientists produce new labeling effects and Hacking instability as society becomes aware of the changes to the theories and their associated categories, leading to a changed social world and leading to newly updated theories, and so on.
Note that whilst the above from Hacking implies that the categorized must be conscious of the category, Muhammed Ali Khalidi has pointed out that this need not be the case. Writing about Hacking on child television viewers, he argues that the behavior of such children can be shifted without them even realizing that they are being treated as a child television viewer. He writes,
Imagine that in the illustration above, it is not the children themselves who are aware of the theories of the researchers but their parents. Having read reports about the research findings in the newspaper, the parents initiate certain lifestyle changes so as to alter the viewing habits of their children. They cancel their cable television subscription, acquire a public library card, arrange more frequent outings to the park, and so on, in such a way that the properties associated with this category of children change, and with them, the beliefs of the researchers (who are conducting an ongoing study of the phenomenon). Suppose that the children have no awareness that they have been labelled in a certain way, or that some researchers have theories about them. The beliefs associated with the category would still influence members of the kind and alter the properties of the kind (thanks to the behaviour of the parents). These modifications would the “loop back” to effect a modification in the beliefs associated with the category, and so on (Khalidi 2013, 146-147).
The children who were categorized as child television viewers in the above example began watching less and less television, due to the actions of their parents, and the researchers then update their theory of the child television viewer to suggest that child television viewers actually watch little television.
Whilst Hacking and others in this tradition are mostly interested in social scientists producing labels and the effects that these scientific labels have on the social world, we wish to suggest that there is no good reason to think that it is just scientists that can have this kind of impact. Indeed, we want to suggest that anyone with the appropriate reach and perceived epistemic authority can produce labels that have looping effects—whether they be labeling effects or Hacking instability.5Why is this perceived epistemic authority necessary? Well, because otherwise people will not take the label seriously, and therefore will not act in accordance with or defiance of that label. They simply will not care. After all, what reason is there to think that scientists have any special social power here? Certainly, scientists are invested with a certain perceived epistemic authority in our current social milieu, but such perceived authority is not unique to scientists, and, we maintain, those who produce contemporary astrological content are perceived to have a similar authority by their audience.
3.2 Proleptic Mechanisms
Bernard Williams developed the notion of a “proleptic mechanism” to explain the way in which blame can be a mechanism of social construction (Williams 1995). On Williams’s account, blame is proleptic when it makes an agent have a reason that they did not have before. The thought is something like this: suppose that I respect you and want to be respected by you, and I perform some action which you regard as wrong, but which (at least from my perspective) I have no reason to regard as wrong. In such a situation, admonishing me for my action might seem unfair, or harsh—after all, I had no reason to act otherwise. However, in such a case, if you admonish me for my action, you can cause me to have a reason to not perform that action (a reason that I did not have before) because I desire your respect. This is the causal social construction of an (internal) reason for action that did not exist beforehand.6Broadly speaking, an internal reason is a reason that one recognizes in light of one’s goals, desires, values and so on, to be contrasted with an external reason, which is, broadly speaking, a reason that one has regardless of one’s recognition of it or one’s goals, desires, values, and so on.
Proleptic blame functions via “treating someone as if”—one blames another for some action as if they already had a reason to not perform that action. As Miranda Fricker puts it,
Exploiting the envisaged proleptic mechanism involves treating the blamed party as if they recognised the motivating reason when in fact they didn’t (or at least they failed to give it appropriate deliberative priority). Treating them in this as-if manner stands to gain some psychological traction in the as yet recalcitrant wrongdoer, provided that they possess a more general motive to be the sort of person that you respect… it exhibits a social constructive power by which the object of any such communication has pressure exerted on her to move towards shared reasons (Fricker 2016, 176).
What does all of this have to do with astrology? Well, as one of us has argued elsewhere, we can generalize the notion of a proleptic mechanism beyond the realm of blame: “Proleptic Mechanism: The causal social construction of a feature of an individual or group via treating that individual or group as if they already have that feature” (Cull 2020, 58).7This construal of prolepsis eliminates any reference to reasons and blame, but note that it can still capture the proleptic function of certain kinds of blame. Cull suggests that, for instance, we can understand gender as in some respects constructed via proleptic mechanism, and in what follows, we’ll suggest that, along with looping effects, proleptic mechanisms provide a way in which the claims of astrology make themselves true.
3.3 Astrological Applications
Let’s first take a look at how a labeling effect might function in for those who are fervent believers in astrology. Suppose you are a Pisces. At the moment, you don’t tend to do some action that we’ll call “φ.” However, you see a meme on the internet that suggests that Pisces tend to φ.8In contemporary astrology, φ in the case of Pisces will likely be some tendency such as “be in touch with one’s emotions,” “being a hopeless romantic,” or “being creative.” So, you start to φ, because that’s what Pisces do—it’s an important part of your self-conception that you are a Pisces, so you follow the description of behavior given by the meme as if it were a prescription. So, as a result of being labeled a Pisces, where that label has a rich description of what Pisces are like, your behavior is consciously modified to fit the label. One millennial interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald seemed to be conscious of the potential for this looping effect. Elissa Ratcliff stated, “‘I like it as a guide to what my future might hold,’ she says, although she admits she may be guilty of reading her horoscope and then turning its predictions into reality” (Ward 2019).
Now suppose that one is not such a fervent believer in astrology—we can still get a labeling effect here. It is enough that one thinks that astrological claims of the sort we have been discussing have some weight in the accurate prediction of behavior and character.9Anecdotally, we have found this to be the position of most people who are “into” astrology in academia. If one has the belief (after reading a number of Instagram influencers suggest as much) that Virgos generally tend to be critical of others, and one is a Virgo, all we need in order for a labeling effect is for that belief about Virgos to tend one to be more critical. We can easily imagine a case in which one has the opportunity to be critical of another person, but in which one is unsure whether to openly criticize that person. We might think that a thought of the form “Well I’m a Virgo, so they can’t complain if I’m critical” or “It’s excusable for me to be critical—I can’t help being a Virgo!” might cross one’s mind, and persuade one to be open with one’s criticism. In such a case, the labeling effect occurs.