A Different Kind of Blog

news and things sacred and irreverent put together by opinionated people.

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?


11 Responses to “Is it unlucky to be unoriginal?”

  1. princessxxx said



  2. 1minionsopinion said

    Yeah, it was pretty interesting. I’m glad I went. I brought a book I’d gotten from the library that listed all kinds of popular superstitions (knock on wood and the like) so I could answer some of those ponderings. It was a good time.


  3. dorian said

    good reads, M!

    it must be a restrictive life for those who believe in superstition.
    i gamble when in vegas and see all kinds of superstition and ritualistic stuff going on. gamblers are the most superstitious lot. i guess it’s because it’s all a game of chance and random strikes of good luck. it’s really just 50% good timing and 50% math/probability. with those two percentiles adding up to 100% chance that you win or lose depending on how good your timing and calculations are any given moment.
    gambling i wouldn’t recommend as a livelihood and that includes day trading. ok enough nerdy rant on gambling…

    the cut-up albinos kinda sticking to my head. thanks, M.i’ll just focus on the bird behavior conditioning. i have a parakeet that has me trained. screeches loudly when he wants more food or water or when wanting to go out of the cage. my turn to train him. what could i have him do??

    i do have one superstition – i don’t travel by air around my birthday. started when my mom pointed out that a lot of our family passed away the day before or day after their birthday.


  4. 1minionsopinion said

    But since most accidents occur in and around the home anyway, why worry about an airplane? And they’re safer overall than a car. Way more people die in car accidents in a year than they do by airline crashes.

    But when driving a car (and we talked about this that night) there’s some feeling of control over the situation, whereas you get into a plane and you have no control over height or speed or turbulence or whatever, so that’s part of why people get so tense when flying. Some people hate being car passengers for the same reason.

    As to your gambling stats, it depends on what kind of gambling you’re into, doesn’t it? Doesn’t every casino have a house advantage?


  5. dorian said

    yup, the probability of a car crashing higher, i’m just following silly family tradition because i’m on the plane a lot and i don’t like making the folks nervous anyway.

    every casino has a house advantage in any game and the prime factor there is human greed and addiction. gamblers just don’t know when to quit. that’s why after a big win, the casino hosts are all over you offering free rooms, meals, shows, and all kinds of incentives to keep you in the casino. most of the time people lose back their winnings and then some! sports betting and craps and the best odds for a player who know the stats. gambling is expensive entertainment.


  6. princessxxx said

    i had a parakeet,
    did you kow they can be taught to speak,
    just like a parrot?
    but with a limited vocabulary.
    (sounds kinda like kay doesn’t it?)

    my parakeet could mimic other bird sounds
    and say pretty..pretty. (refering to me).


  7. princessxxx said


    this explains how to teach your parakeet to talk.
    now, just go ahead and fill your birds vocabulary with liberal poisonings.

    i loved my parakeet, i should go get me another.
    when i fed it pot seeds, it would sing the night away.


  8. dorian said

    yours was a well-trained parakeet, princess.

    mine just orders me around and preens in front of his many mirrors all day.
    the only toys he likes are ones with mirrors.

    hello, my name is mimmo.

    thanks for the link!

    “Parakeets are best with words with hard syllables, such as k, w or t. Words that begin with p or b are also good to use in teaching the parakeet.”

    i’ll teach him how to say “pretty” also. and indoctrinate his little brain with a healthy dose of liberal poison.


  9. princessxxx said

    is that really your bird? awww!, that’s adorable.
    you really do have to spend a lot of time with them in order to get them to talk. you could also make a tape, because it is a lot of repetition.

    one word of caution,
    don’t watch porno or have sex with the bird in the room,
    they easily pick up the sound of someone having an orgasm.
    especially if it is a high pitch squeal.


  10. dorian said

    yup, that’s massimo (mimmo is his nic). he had a girlfriend named cali, died of a heart attack last year after catching a cold. mimmo didn’t seem to be too bothered. he was more into himself anyway, with the mirrors.
    okay, no porn or wild sex with squealing in front of the boid.


  11. Sergey said

    Thank you, very interesting blog. Another sure you check out.


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