Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What's your sign?

Some years back, B.F. Skinner did an experiment in which he gave food to a pigeon at random intervals. The pigeon, not being in any way in control of when the food came, began to assign meaning to random behaviors of his - if he was standing on one foot the last time he got fed, he'd stand on one foot. If he was pecking the ground the last time he got fed, he'd stand on one foot and peck the ground. He became, essentially, superstitious.
Later studies have revealed that the less control humans have over their own lives, the more superstitious we become. When people are put in a clinical setting in which they don't have control over their environment, they're more likely to see hidden messages in abstract pictures, for example.
This explains a lot for me... and gives me a new contempt for people who exploit this. I have fibromyalgia, if you're not aware. It's a disease that, for reasons that doctors are still working to totally pin down, makes you feel achy - like you're coming down with the flu, or just got brutally beaten the night before - all the time. I've actually got it really well in hand these days, but there used to be these endless strings of sleepless nights where I'd be up, aching and pacing because it hurt too much to lie still, trying every remedy I could. If you weren't aware, the middle of the night is when they start showing these infomercials for magnetic bracelets and magic shoe inserts and herbal remedies that will take all of your pain away like magic, and damn, those stupid things are cruel. When you're in so much pain that you go for days with almost no sleep, you'll start believing a lot of things no sane person would.
A slightly less evil, in my opinion, phenomenon that plays on the credulity of insomniacs is a radio show called Coast to Coast AM.  It's a radio show that runs in the wee hours of the morning, and it's all about the supernatural. I think it's less evil because they're not selling you anything, and everyone who works on the show seems to really believe in Bigfoot and black helicopters and alien probings and it's kind of adorable. I used to love that show. On it, everything in the tabloids is just assumed to be true. What's really funny is when people combine the myths - like black helicopters dropping chupacabras into the countryside so as to guard against alien abductors. Okay, I made that up, but it's not nearly as outlandish as some of the stuff on that show.
Chupacabras, by the way, is Spanish for goat sucker, because they're believed to suck the blood of goats. The chupacabras myth has a lot more than a grain of truth to it. They don't suck blood, but there is a disease out there that affects coyotes, causing them to go bald and gross and act all crazy. 
A depressing number of people in poverty believe that they can, if they work really hard at it, divine the winning pick 3 lotto numbers, so much so that they'll spend several dollars a day on lottery tickets even though the top prize is only $250 bucks, money they could easily make in a couple of months just by not buying the freaking lottery tickets. This site tells me that there are only 3,600 astronomers in the US, but 15,000 astrologers. I find the latter number suspiciously low, though.
That site also tells me something more interesting though. That 25% of people who attend sports games believe their presence has some effect on the outcome of the game. And who doesn't say that at times. Oh, the Indians score a home run every time I leave to go to the bathroom, or the Browns always lose when I attend a game (news flash, the Browns always lose, period). Which makes perfect sense in light of the fact that fans have absolutely no control over the game, and that helplessness makes them want to feel like they've got some power.
Also, think about the professions whose practitioners tend to be more superstitious - athletes, sailors, and actors. There are a million things in any of those professions that could go wrong, things totally out of the control of the individual, and so they come up with strange routines to help them cope. Not changing their socks, not saying "good luck," etc. By the way, the reason it's bad luck to whistle in a theatre? Probably because people who worked the riggings up in the fly lofts used to communicate by whistle, so whistling might just confuse a rigger into dropping a fly on your head.

A few new vocab words for you, related to the theme:
Cryptozoology: Study of animals rumored, but not proved to exist - Nessy, the Yeti, etc.
Psychomancy: Communication between spirits.
Cold Readings: Very sneaky trick in which a supposed psychomancer uses mind tricks to make people think they're talking to their dead relatives, ala John Edwards of Crossing Over fame. You can learn more about the tricks cold readers play here.

To those of you who have inquired about my health, I tell you what, I'm naming my firstborn Valtrex. I'm seriously 100% fine. 


Nicholas J. Carter said...

I have a Philadelphia Eagles sweater that I hadn't worn in about 10 years and brought out in the 2009 season. For a string of like 10-11 games I wore it and they won. Then they lost a game while I had it on.

I figure that I'd worn out all the mojo it had stored up while in my closet.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for getting the theatre whistling thing correct. We theatre people are a superstitious bunch. Or crazy. Or both.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

I used to be a theatre person. Perhaps I wasn't superstitious enough. Or perhaps I wasn't a particularly good actor :(

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps, like me, you're more intrested in other aspects of theatre.

Pearl said...

more stress = more irrational, less control = more superstitious. that makes sense. paranoia is a gambit for control because control is a kind of balance but being deprived of control causes imbalance.

yeah, those magnet blankets and things are crazy. had to talk down a coworker once from buying into a pyramid scheme for them.