Quirky little quirkology
One of my favorite writers these days is psychologist Richard Wiseman, who delights me by investigating psychological issues like- Can we really tell when someone is lying? How honest are the people of a nation? What is the funniest joke in the world?
Even though these may seem like light questions, the answers seem to tell us more important stuff. For example, results of one body of research suggests that people are much more likely to help someone who is similar to them.
Dr. Wiseman wrote “The Luck Factor”, which was a nifty book about how luck is really a behavior. His latest, published this year, is my latest fun read: “Quirkology: How We Discover The Big Truths In Small Things”.
People say: “It’s a bunch of bunk” or “to debunk”…What’s up with “bunk”?
Unfortunately my etymological dictionary is still in storage… I purchased a nice set of etymological dictionaries from a colleague of mine while living abroad. I couldn’t resist! The poor guy had just been told by his wife the week before that she had sold their house and the family was moving. Surprise honey! There wasn’t going to be room for all his books in the new house.
And, ah well, I know that many people question some of the claims of such dictionaries, and tracing words back is just like writing history- the history written depends who’s writing and what sources were used and the author’s perspective- but honestly, it’s just neat sometimes finding out where, supposedly, words came from. Like “cheerio”, the British well-wishing word, which I learned in London comes from “Chair-ho!” This is something that would be shouted in times past so the doormen would open up the doors to let out the sedan chairs… Or “gung ho” which comes from the Chinese words “liver fire”. And then there’s “chow”, as in Puppy Chow or “Let’s have some chow”, which I’ve made my own guesses about. The word for fried rice in Chinese is “ciao fan” (pronounced “chow fahn”). If the word came from the West and cowboys, and there were many cooks of Chinese descent at one time in that area, I’m guessing that someone asked the cook, “What’s this?” “Ciao fan”, he answered. “Chow?” said the cowboy. So now we can tell people to “Chow down!”
Hmm. So “bunk”…I would do a google search, but my computing power is limited right now. I’m writing on a dinosaur computer of a relative’s, and even to search for one item takes a minute. That’s a long minute in computer-user time. So, I’m thinking google-less: “bunk bed” “bunker” … giving me the idea that “bunk” is about hunkering down under something…So a debunking would be taking the head off of or pulling something out of where it’s hiding. And that’s what Dr. Wiseman has done to astrology for me.
Off with her head!
It’s true, the bloom has been off the rose for astrology for me for quite a few years now. I became more and more skeptical as my education made me more critical of things people want me to believe. For example, I really really don’t believe that putting a very intelligent large white and black whale (who’s supposed to have an entire world’s ocean to play in) into a tank that is in comparison, miniscule, is a honorable or good thing. (Yes, I mean you, Sea World). It doesn’t matter how many tickets get sold or how “educational” the show’s supposed to be. The human version of this we call “jail”, and people who are put there have been convicted of something criminal. But I digress. Onward to the stars.
Our first piece of evidence against the accused
Eysenck’s study on astrology and personality: Hans Eysenck developed a personality test that sorted people into personality types on the categories of introversion/extroversion and neuroticism/stability. According astrology, the extroverted signs are Aries, Gemini, Leo, LIbra, Sagittarius, Aquarius, the more neurotic signs (water signs) are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.
Approximately 2,000 students of the Mayo School of Astrology, with the founder, Jeff Mayo’s blessing, took the Eysenck Personality Test and provided their birth dates. And guess what? The results were in line with astrological assertions. Wiseman writes, “The astrological journal Phenomena announced that there findings were possibly the most important development for astrology in this century.” (p. 15)
But wait! Look before you leap. Was there any bias in the sample group? Yah-huh. These were all believers in astrology. Could reading descriptions of astrological signs have actually influenced the type of people they turned out to be? A large body of research suggests that others’ and our own expectations (as well as our personal names!) influences our choices and our personalities.
So Eysenck did not stop here. He went to a purer source. He took information from 1,000 children. And he found no relationship between star signs and personality.
Going one better, Eysenck took another look at adults- those not associated with the Mayo school. His follow-up findings in this study found that if the adults knew nothing about astrology, there was no pattern of similarity between their star signs and their personalities. If the adults did know something about astrology, there was a pattern.
Pogo the Clown: the second piece of evidence
Yikes, I have never found clowns to be appealing. In fact, even as an adult, I still think they are scary and eery looking. My aversion to clowns began early. There’s a picture of me that still affects me- held in my father’s arm, age three, flinching from a clown at a fair. My clown-aversion deepened when at the tender age of four I first looked at myself in my first-ever Halloween costume. I looked in the mirror and saw a horrid little clown and I started to cry.
So what about Pogo? Researchers used the birth data of serial murderer Pogo, who moonlighted at children’s birthdays, and tortured and murdered thirty-three men and boys (p. 19). Taking Pogo’s (John Gacy’s) data, researchers asked five different astrologers for readings on personality and job advice. The readings were far from accurate. “One encouraged the researcher to work with young people ‘because he could bring out their best qualities.’ Another analyzed the information provided and confidently predicted that the researcher’s life would be ‘very, very positive’. A third said that he was ‘kind, generous, and considerate of others’ needs.’” (p. 20)
“Time Twins”: Their stars are the same
If the stars at a person’s birth do truly influence his or her life, then people born under the same stars should lead very parallel existences. Geoffrey Dean examined a database of 2,000 people followed through their lifetimes. The database included personality tests and intelligence tests. Geoffrey Dean found no more similarity between “Time Twins” than between people who were separated by days. “Geoffrey has carried out many tests like this and the results have one thing in common- none support the claims of astrology. As a result, he sometimes describes himself as ‘the most hated person in astrology’.” (19)
Using the horoscope of a mass murderer operating in occupied WWII France (Dr. Marcel Petiot, who promised escape from France and then lethally injected his victims), French researcher Michel Gauquelin sent this reading to 150 people who responded to an ad in the newspaper offering a free “computerized” horoscope. The bland horoscope that murderer Petiot’s reading had generated ended this way:
“He may appear as someone who submits to social norms, fond of propriety and endowed with a moral sense that is comforting- that of a worthy, right-thinking, middle-class citizen.” (p. 24)
Ninety-four percent of his horoscope respondents agreed that the reading was accurate, and one even wrote that it was “extraordinary”. (p. 25)
Give everyone something they want…and most of ‘em’ll take it?
Do you read your horoscope? Hmm. This might make the way you read completely different. In one world-famous research study, Betram Forer gave his intro psychology class a personality test. He returned a one-page report to each student in class, and asked them to raise their hands to signal they thought the test had measured their personality well. Almost all of the students raised their hands. But Forer had given them all the same report- he had pasted together sentences from different astrological readings. Eighty-seven percent of the students had circled a four or five as to how accurate the report on “them” had been (p. 22).
The secret? Wiseman says our brains will trick us into agreeing with something if we are given something general enough to fit us in…and suddenly the information is “insightful” (p. 22). When Forer revealed the truth to his students, their actions showed them to be both impressed and embarrassed. Many of them asked for a copy of the “personality report” so that they could try it out on their friends. And when told erroneously that Forer had lost their original ratings of how “true” their reports had been, fifty percent claimed lower ratings when asked to recollect what they had rated the report.
This is called “The Barnum Effect”. It’s named for Phineas T. Barnum who said that a good circus should have something in it for everyone. (p. 23)
What makes astrological horoscopes seem so true?
“People endorse many of the statements because they are true for the vast majority of the population. After all, who hasn’t had serious doubts about an important decision, would deny wanting other people to admire them, or doesn’t strive for a sense of security? Even specific-sounding statements can be true of a surprisingly large percentage of the population…It seems that many Barnum statements appear accurate because most people tend to think and behave in surprisingly predictable ways.” (p. 25)
In addition to this is the “flattery effect” (p.25). It’s no big surprise that we want to agree with someone who says we have hidden depths or talents, or the winning ways to make a romance work- this month- ahem, only after the twenty-fifth, of course.
So do I still read my horoscope? Um, yes, in fact I do. But I don’t read it in the same way. Instead of reading it with a nice dose of skepticism as I used to, now I look and see what message in it that I would really like to be true. Then I look at my sister’s and see what part of hers I would like to be true for me. And I think about my life. The one that isn’t written in the stars.