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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.

In 1948, American psychologist B F Skinner reported some unusual animal behaviour.

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    阿多賓 に公開 2021 年 01 月 14 日
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