Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cultivate Your Michael Shermer

Cultivate Your Garden
How a lack of control leads to superstition and what can be done about it
(published February 2010 in Scientific American)

Imagine a time in your life when you felt out of control—anything from getting lost to losing a job. Now look at the Figure 1 on this page. What do you see? Such a scenario was presented to subjects in a 2008 experiment by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and her colleague Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University . Their study, entitled “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception,” was published in Science.

Defining “illusory pattern perception” (what I call “patternicity”) as “the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli … (such as the tendency to perceive false correlations, see imaginary figures, form superstitious rituals, and embrace conspiracy beliefs, among others),” the researchers’ thesis was that “when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptually.”

As Whitson explained the psychology to me, “Feelings of control are essential for our well-being—we think clearer and make better decisions when we feel we are in control. Lacking control is highly aversive, so we instinctively seek out patterns to regain control—even if those patterns are illusory.”

Whitson and Galinsky sat subjects before a computer screen, telling them that they would be presented with a series of images for which they were to determine the underlying concept. For example, they might see a capital A and a lowercase a, one or both of which could be colored, underlined, or surrounded by a circle or square.

Subjects would then generate an underlying concept, such as that all capital As are red or surrounded by a circle. There was no actual underlying concept—the computer randomly combined characteristics and was programmed to tell the subjects that they were frequently either “correct” or “incorrect.” Consequently, the ones hearing that they were often wrong developed a sense of lacking control.

In the second part of the experiment subjects were shown 24 “snowy” photographs, half of which contained hidden images such as a hand, horses, a chair or the planet Saturn [see Figure 2], whereas the other half just consisted of grainy random dots. Although nearly everyone saw the hidden figures, subjects in the lack-of-control group saw more figures in the photographs that had no embedded images.

In another experiment Whitson and Galinsky had subjects vividly recall an experience in which they either had full control or lacked control over a situation. The subjects then read scenarios in which the characters’ success or failure was preceded by unconnected and superstitious behaviors, such as foot stomping before a meeting where the character wanted to have ideas approved. The subjects were then asked whether they thought the characters’ behavior was related to the outcome.

Those who had recalled an experience in which they lacked control were significantly more likely to perceive a greater connection between the two unrelated events than were those who recalled a controlling situation. Interestingly, the low control subjects who read a story about an employee who failed to receive a promotion tended to believe that a behind-the-scenes conspiracy was the cause.

In their final experiment Whitson and Galinsky gave one group of subjects a sense of control by asking them to contemplate and affirm their most important values in life—a proven technique for reducing learned helplessness. The researchers then presented those same snowy pictures, finding that a comparison group of subjects in a lack-of-control condition with no opportunity for self-affirmation saw more nonexistent patterns than did those in the self-affirmation condition.

In 1976 Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer and Judith Rodin, now president of the Rockefeller Foundation, conducted a study in a New England nursing home in which the residents were given plants, but only some had the opportunity to water them. Those residents who were in charge of watering the plants lived longer and healthier lives than the others, even those given plants watered by the staff. The sense of control had the apparent effect on physical health and well-being.

Perhaps this is what Voltaire meant at the end of Candide, in the title character’s rejoinder to Dr. Pangloss’s proclamation that “all events are linked up in this best of all possible worlds”: “’Tis well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our gardens.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Learning more about Easter....

Active NOSHA member, Robert Carver, got his letter published in the Houma newspaper and it has caused a stir IF you are NOSHA Google Group member. Decide for yourself!

Easter practices based in paganism

I read the stories in the paper about Good Friday with interest especially the one about the reenactment in Dulac. The faithful in these reenactments are fascinating since they are commemorating a mythical event as if it were a historical fact. Easter was celebrated long before Christianity co-opted the holiday. Many modern Christians are ignorant of the Pagan origins of their faith. They act as if the story of Jesus becoming the resurrected Christ was unique in history which leads them to conclude this myth must be the literal historical truth. Their belief is misguided as even a cursory examination of history clearly shows how the early Church created and evolved this myth.

The word Easter itself is likely derived from Eostre, the Saxon mother goddess, whose name in turn was adapted from Eastre, an ancient word for spring. The Norse equivalent of Eostre was the goddess Ostara, whose symbols were an egg and a hare, both denoting fertility. Festivals honoring these goddesses were celebrated on or around the vernal equinox, and even today, when Easter has supposedly been Christianized, the date of the holiday falls according to rather pagan reckonings, i.e. on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Throughout recorded history the focus of spring religious festivals was a god whose own death and rebirth symbolized the death and rebirth of life during this time of the year. Many pagan religions had gods who were depicted as dying and being reborn. In some legends this god even descends into the underworld to challenge the forces there. Attis, consort of the Phrygian fertility goddess Cybele, was more popular than most.

Attis was simply the latest manifestation of earlier resurrection myths, like those of Osiris, Orpheus, Tammuz and Dionysus, who were likewise said to have been born of virgins and resurrected three days after their deaths. In areas where Christian beliefs later took hold, these already existing tales were grafted onto the story of Christ, and continue to be retold to this day as evidenced by those who “recreate” this myth this Easter in our region. They have every right to practice their faith thanks to the Separation Between Church and State enshrined in the Bill of Rights even if said faith has no basis in reality.

Robert Carver