Is it unlucky to be unoriginal?
Posted by 1minionsopinion on December 4, 2009
Although it’s original on my site:
About a dozen of us skeptics found space at a local cantina a couple nights ago to chow down on some good food and talk about how crazy other cultures are. We hit on a few strange things North Americans believe (forgot all about Bigfoot – hit on black cat concepts though – comes from Norse goddess Freya, BTW) but a couple of the girls each had trips to the East and stories to tell about their experiences in Tibet and Taiwan. We also talked about the sad state of Africa with their child witch hunts and albinos being cut up and sold for their (not so) magical parts. I left when talk turned to chiropractics, but only because I was tired. Apparently Canada has been allowing that body cracking for children and babies but is going to start insisting on some evidence that it’s scientifically useful. They never thought to insist upon evidence based treatment before? Scary thought.
Anyway, the woman who’d been to Tibet suggested an interesting theory to explain how superstitions may have developed. First she mentioned London Zoo’s behavioural click training of Lucifer, an Asiatic lion they have (catalogue number 666):
Sound quality’s poor, but when Lucifer responds to the clicks and sit commands, the actual purpose of the paws up routine is to make sure they’re not getting damaged by paddock life, and allows the trainers to eyeball his overall health, without having to drug the big guy every time they want a good look at him.
Then she mentioned some studies done with pigeons. B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning experiments were originally designed to see how well rewards could be used to create a desired behaviour.
If the goal is to have a pigeon turn in a circle to the left, a reward is given for any small movement to the left. When the pigeon catches on to that, the reward is given for larger movements to the left, and so on, until the pigeon has turned a complete circle before getting the reward.
That’s also called positive reinforcement. But Skinner didn’t stop there. He also checked what would happen when the reward wasn’t obviously connected to a behaviour, but instead connected to time of day.
In six out of eight cases the resulting responses were so clearly defined that two observers could agree perfectly in counting instances. One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. The body generally followed the movement and a few steps might be taken when it was extensive. Another bird was conditioned to make incomplete pecking or brushing movements directed toward but not touching the floor.
In English: whatever behaviour a bird was engaged in at the time the food appeared (grooming, turning, etc) would be repeated if the bird associated the act with the reward.
So how screwed up do they get when rewards are even more random and not happening in timed intervals? Bird brain chaos. So long as the reward comes soon enough after the act (some birds would do the action 5 times in 15 seconds) the conditioned behaviour gets cemented. If repeated acts don’t net them any food, they stop assuming that behaviour will get them what they want.
Which leads to the idea of superstition in human beings. A book I need to borrow again is Amen, Amen, Amen by Abby Sher. Abby grew up with a serious case of OCD, made worse by the death of loved ones, and began assuming her ritualized behaviours would somehow make a difference for who lived and died. That’s a very extreme case, but superstition works much the same way.
Someone who just sat through a porn movie and then had a tornado rip through the yard might bizarrely assume the porn movie had something to do with it. That seems to be the idea in the head of Tifatul Sembiring, Indonesia’s Minister of Communication and Information Minister. Immoral behaviour causes hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Irony – an information minister spreading misinformation as truth. But how many superstitious locals will take him up on that and actually think what they like to do in their free time is going to bring bad weather to their island? What century are we living in again?
The woman who’d been to Taiwan talked about their superstitions around the number four, since it sounds very similar to their word for death. They’ll build narrow fourth floors into buildings just so people can’t actually use them, but so people living or working on the fifth feel like they’re really on the fifth instead of the fourth with another name. People don’t even want their ID cards to have any 4s in them. Crazy, but true.
And entrepreneurs take real advantage of people and zany beliefs about lucky numbers and other nonsense.
Taiwanese customers indicated they would be just as willing to pay NT$ [New Taiwan dollars] 342.63 (approximately $10) for a pack of eight tennis balls as they were to pay NT$227.10 for a pack of 10. To put that in perspective, consumers who held positive superstitions about the number eight were willing to spend 50 percent more on 25 percent fewer units–all because in Chinese, “eight” sounds like “prosper” and “wealth.”
Well, somebody’s prospering and wealthy, but I doubt it’s the buyer in this case. Sheesh.
Anyway, think about the power of the mind vs the nature of reality today. What are you believing for no provable reason?