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In 1948, American psychologist B F Skinner reported some unusual animal behaviour.
He placed a succession of hungry pigeons inside a cage
where an automated machine delivered food to them at certain intervals
and observed that the birds started repeating actions
that had coincided with the delivery of the food.
They behaved as if their actions were influencing the food to appear
as if there was some causal connection, when in fact there was none:
the food would have appeared at the same intervals, whatever the birds did.
At about the same time Skinner published his paper, "Superstition in the pigeon"
psychologist Bertram Forer was conducting a study
relating to a human superstition, astrology.
He gave each of his subjects a test
followed by a confidential personality analysis
which he told them was based on their test results.
When they were asked to rate their analysis for accuracy
on a scale of nought to five, five being the most accurate
the average rating came out as 4.26.
Forer later revealed that all subjects had received exactly the same analysis
taken from horoscopes in an astrology book.
The Forer Effect, named after him
refers to people's tendency to be impressed by personality readings
given by astrologers and other pseudo-scientists
which they're led to believe are tailored to them individually
but are actually general enough to apply to most people.
Forer's experiment, which has been replicated many times
with the same basic results, is an important demonstration
that the seemingly impressive accuracy of horoscopes
can easily be reproduced without birthdays
or planetary positions playing any role.
According to superstition
a wedding ring dangled over the belly of a pregnant woman
can predict the baby's gender.
A circular motion predicts a girl.
A straight pendulum swing predicts a boy.
This involves the same mechanism found in dowsing
the superstitious belief that one can detect underground water
or other hidden substances with dowsing rods.
It actually works by amplifying small, almost imperceptible movements of the hand.
This hand movement is often an unconscious 'ideomotor effect'
whereby one's expectations lead one to make involuntary movements
in line with those expectations.
Sometimes, dowsing rods are even used on maps
which are declared somehow to have the same detectable 'energies'
as the terrain they depict.
Wedding ring predictions, dowsing
automatic writing and ouija board activity
have all been attributed to the ideomotor effect
though the person making the involuntary action might be convinced
the movement is coming from elsewhere.
Of course, often, there is a deliberate attempt to deceive others.
The belief that we can contact spirits with ouija boards
is one of countless superstitions surrounding death
and countless television shows seek to give evidence
of ghosts and spirit-channeling.
Viewers send in footage in which spots of light are leapt on
as so-called ghostly 'anomalies'
and self-proclaimed mediums declare they can channel spirits
in shows that disclaimers admit are 'for entertainment purposes only'.
Interestingly, when magicians give their audiences
apparently uncannily accurate details about their lives and relationships
our typical response is "What's their trick?"
But when others do the same, posing as psychic mediums
the response is often, "They must have supernatural powers".
All that differs between the self-proclaimed medium and self-confessed showman
is presentation style.
If the showman doesn't need supernatural powers, nor does the medium.
In the fifth season of the so-called ghost-hunting show Most Haunted
its resident medium, Derek Acorah, behaved as if possessed
by the spirit of 'Kreed Kafer'.
But it was later reported that this name had been invented
and misinformation about the fictitious person had been fed to Derek
prior to filming, to test his integrity.
As filming began and Derek became swept up in the persona
of the non-existent spirit, he didn't realise that 'Kreed Kafer'
was an anagram of 'Derek Faker'.
He went on to channel a similarly fictitious highwayman
whose name was an anagram of 'Derek Lies'.
Many superstitions revolve around the treatment of illness.
And many want their superstition to be regarded as authentic medicine.
Homoeopathy involves preparations that have been repeatedly and extremely diluted
until it's statistically uncertain that there's even one molecule
of active ingredient present.
How do homoeopaths justify selling water as medicine?
They claim water has a memory of the substances with which it's had contact.
A major problem with this claim, even if there were valid evidence to support it
is that the water the homoeopath sells you may have had contact
not only with the substance claimed to treat your health
but with countless other substances during its natural existence.
The '10:23' campaign has staged mass overdoses
of homoeopathic products around the world
to protest against their sale
and raise awareness of the problems with homoeopathic claims.
Homoeopathy hasn't been shown to have any effect beyond placebo:
when receiving and having confidence in a dummy treatment
can itself lead to an improvement in health.
Some feel that if placebos sometimes show improvement
then deceiving people into thinking a fake medicine actually works does no harm
or is ethically justified.
Among the well-known objections to this idea
is that if people come to rely on treatments with no scientific validity
they may fail to pursue treatments that would be effective.
But a 2010 study by Ted Kaptchuk and his colleagues
indicates that the placebo effect may work even when you know it's a placebo.
They divided IBS patients into two groups.
One received no treatment; the other was given dummy pills twice daily
and told the pills had no active ingredient.
The word 'placebo' was even printed on the pill bottle.
And yet the study's results showed that the group who knew
they were taking placebos had significantly greater relief from their symptoms
than the no-treatment group.
As Kaptchuk points out, there may be a benefit simply in the performance
of a medical ritual. More research is needed in this area
but anything that might help to rid us of medical deception
would seem to be worthwhile.
As a child, I was brought up to think there was a divine creator of the universe
that listened and responded to prayers.
If I prayed and nothing happened
I was told I must have prayed for the wrong thing
or didn't pray hard enough
or that my prayer was answered but in an indirect way I'd discover later.
I eventually worked out that a god that moved so mysteriously
I had no idea what it had actually done, may as well not be there at all.
Ann prays she'll find a parking space in town. She finds one.
Was her prayer answered, or was it too trivial a request to make of a god
and just a happy coincidence she got her space?
If it's coincidence in this case, why not in others?
On what basis do people rule out coincidence?
Careful analysis or unreliable intuition?
Ben's daughter suddenly stops breathing. He prays she'll be okay
until the ambulance arrives. She dies.
Are we meant to believe Ben's prayer wasn't good enough?
Or that there was a different divine plan for him and the child?
If our fates are already divinely decided
then prayer would have no effect even if gods existed.
Big problems arise when superstitions get so well-established
that any outcome reinforces them.
So if you pray, dance for rain or put on what you think is a lucky hat
then get the results you want, you go on praying, dancing, or wearing the hat.
But if you don't get the desired results, you still pray, dance or wear the hat
certain that it will work for you again. In this way
you create a bias towards confirming the causal connection you've made
and a blindness to conflicting information
that would help you identify your mistake.
Once that happens, you've built a barrier to rational thinking
and you've departed from reality.
Like Skinner's pigeons, you're left flapping about
in a psychological cage of your own making
blocked from realising your actions are not having the effect you imagine.
If we find Skinner's pigeons quaint and amusing;
if we find ourselves thinking, "If only they could understand";
how much more should we, with our much greater intelligence
be prepared to examine our own behaviour and confront the false beliefs
that are literally getting us nowhere?
Superstitions can give some a comforting illusion
that they have more control in their life than they actually do.
But their effects can be more oppressive
especially when the superstitious insist
that others share or support these irrational beliefs.
We might know people whose reaction when we put new shoes on a table
or open an umbrella indoors
is clearly designed to make us stop the 'unlucky' behaviour
and thereby validate their magical thinking.
This is one way in which superstitions extend their tyrannical grasp
beyond the believer, and we do well to resist this kind of manipulation.
If some are happy to let evidence-free beliefs rule their lives, so be it.
But they've no right to expect the collaboration of others.
When you reject superstition, you no longer feel protected by good luck charms
but you also stop worrying about black cats and broken mirrors.
Holy water can't bless you, but curses can't harm you.
Crystals or homoeopathy may not improve your health
but you'll also be less vulnerable to psychological and financial exploitation
from medical charlatans.
You can't control people with magic rituals
but they can't do the same to you.
Perhaps most importantly, good and evil supernatural forces
no longer get the credit or blame for what human beings do.
Instead it can be clearly understood that people are responsible
for their own kindness, cruelty, generosity, meanness, laziness or hard work.
Owning responsibility can give a sense of genuine self-control
but it does mean learning from mistakes.
When we follow superstitions, our mistakes become invisible to us
because we've already mixed them into our whole way of thinking.
If we tell ourselves magic can solve our problems
or rid us of guilt for any wrong we do, that's a much easier ride
than thinking critically or holding ourselves accountable.
But if the price is denying reality, becoming fearful of knowledge,
being unable to distinguish true and false claims, or demonizing difference
it's worth considering the possibility that that easy ride
will cheat you out of much more in the long run.
With a little careful, critical thought
we can identify our own cages of superstition
and walk free of them.
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Superstition [HD]

5680 Folder Collection
阿多賓 published on January 15, 2014
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