Archive | September, 2013

Abracadabra: Why it Reaches out and Grabs Ya

6 Sep

magic

I recently attended a silent auction and was the high bidder on a walking stick that I added to my small collection. Although I don’t really like walking all that much, I was attracted to this stick because of its unique design and because it reminded me of the sumac walking stick that Emma Thompson use in the Nanny McPhee movies. Whenever Nanny McPhee needed to conjure up some magic to teach naughty children a lesson, all she had to do was tap her stick twice on the floor. Oh, if it were only that easy!

Oklahoma State University social psychologist and Psychology Today blogger, Melissa Burkley refers to the continuing popularly of magic as the “Harry Potter Effect” after J. K. Rawling’s hero from her immensely popular series of books and movies. According to Burkley, “If there is one thing psychologists can learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon, it is that people love magic.”

Part of our attraction may stem from the fact that all of us have had experience with magical thinking. Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event takes place as a result of a second event, without any plausible connection. From ages two to seven years of age, magical thinking predominates and youngsters have considerable difficulty with logical thought.

Magic may also appeal to people who feel powerless or lacking in control over their environment and circumstances. This may be especially true for adolescents and young people who struggle with interpersonal situations. Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and on-line and other role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, can provide an alternative magical universe where they have limitless power in contrast to their everyday life.

But do people really believe in real world magic? According to Burkley, “Recent research suggests that not only do people believe in magic, it is likely hard-wired into our brains…”. We often see this in everyday superstitions.

Just the other day my wife Diane and I were discussing the “knock on wood” superstition and also how our granddaughters play the childhood “jinx” game. Various cultures have different explanations for the “knock on wood” custom. It is one of many forms of “apotropaic magic” which is intended to “turn away” evil influences. According to one explanation at the divinecaroline.com website, the ancients druids, worshipped trees, believing that spirits lived in all wooden objects. To encourage these spirits to work on their behalf, they would knock on wood. Thus, whenever we want a good thing to continue or to prevent a bad thing from happening, we rouse these elemental spirits by knocking on the nearest piece of wood. Diane and I also recently received a clock and a bracelet, that came from Turkey as a gift, and both of them were decorated with the traditional apotropaic blue eyes, for protection.

The “knock on wood” superstition also reflects the magical belief that just talking about something good happening can cause bad luck, since it tempts fate. Athletes tend to be very superstitious in this regard. For examples in baseball, it is widely held that you can jinx a no-hitter by talking about while the game is still in process. A recent study by Jane Risen from the University of Chicago and Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich explored the magical thinking behind the belief that is bad luck to “tempt fate”. They theorized that this belief stems from two sources. First is the strong human tendency to be disproportionately attracted to negative events. They contend that, “negative events simply “pack a bigger psychological punch” than positive ones, probably because of evolutionary associations with survival.

Second research has consistently shown that thinking about an event makes it seem to us more likely to take place. Combining these two phenomena, the researchers then hypothesized that since the bad outcomes that might result from tempting fate are very negative, we automatically think more about them. Next, because we think more about them, we also conclude that they are more likely to occur, than the bad outcomes resulting from not tempting fate. Their studies clearly demonstrate that people are predisposed to expect the ironic. An example might be the careless college applicant, who ostentatiously wears a sweatshirt from the college to which he wants to be admitted, only to be rejected.

Our granddaughter’s “jinx game”, which also purportedly brings bad luck, is initiated when two people simultaneously say the same words. The rules vary on just how to resolved the jinx created, but usually it ends when one child pronounces the name of the other, who is then considered the jinxed party. The historic penalty for violating a jinx, is a “pinch or a poke” in the arm or buying the other person a drink, hence the phrase, “Pinch and a Poke! You owe me a Coke!” San Francisco psychoanalyst Jerome Oremland has described the game as a ritualized expression of preadolescent conflicts over their emerging new identities.

One of Diane’s aunts once wrote a family history of her mother’s side of the family, who were German farmers in east central Wisconsin. In this narrative there were several references to “hexes”, which were spells casted by neighbors to account for unfortunate events, such as cows going dry, bad crops, and at least one fretful baby. Historically such beliefs are common as prescientific explanations for events with unknown causes. When Diane questioned her mother about this she said, “Yes, it was true.”

Such magical thinking is still present in various forms. In a 2006 Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues conducted a study to determine if college students could be lead to believe that they possessed magical abilities. The participants were first introduced to a confederate of the experimenter, who posed as a fellow student. With half of the subjects, he acted extremely cordial and friendly. With the other half, however, he acted as obnoxiously as possible, in an attempt to evoke hostility. Then the subjects were given a voodoo doll and directed to stick pins in it, in the presence of the confederate, who was the intended “victim”. The “victim” feigned having a headache and then the participants were asked how much they believed they had actually caused the headache. As predicted, the people who had interacted with the obnoxious confederate were more much more likely to believe that they had actually caused the headache.

According to evolutionary psychologists, the human mind is especially adept at identifying patterns, since such casual links are critical for survival. Unfortunately this process is far from perfect, so we often believe that events are connected when they are not, resulting in magical thinking and superstitious behavior. It may well be that we are so receptive to magic because as Burkley asserts , “…we are hard-wired to overestimate our control over external events”.
Although I enjoy magic as entertainment, personally I’m not a superstitious person and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I stay that way.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

The Sherlock of Homes

6 Sep

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Being a homeowner is fraught with challenges. Not the least of these is solving the numerous mysteries which inevitably present themselves. Below are two cases that have recently tested our meager powers of deduction.

The Mystery of the Secret Stench

A few weeks ago, we started noticing what seemed to be an odd smell emanating from somewhere in our upstairs bedroom. At first I thought it might an animal or perhaps one of the appliances malfunctioning. The odor was very unpleasant and waxed and waned throughout the day. Our cat who is the usual suspect, when something like this happens, had an airtight alibi, since he has been permanently banned from the bedroom.

A careful examination of the steam iron and air conditioner revealed nothing amiss. Although the disagreeable smell was indescribable, it seemed to be organic in nature. My wife Diane and I wondered if some animal had managed to sneak into the bedroom, perhaps through the window where the weather-stripping is loose. At length we considered the relative probabilities that the animal was a mouse, a snake, or possibly, a snake who had eaten a mouse. Coming to no firm conclusion, we immediately decided the wisest course of action was to abandon the bedroom and move all operations downstairs until the mystery was solved.

Our six-year old grandson listened to the story and said that it must be a skunk. At that point I began systematically investigating every inch of the bedroom, all the while room dreading what I might eventually find. I moved and looked under a large bookcase, a massive chest of drawers, the mattress, and the box springs. After all this I still couldn’t even isolate the source of the odor.
And every time I thought the odor might be dissipating, the smell would come waffling back, with a vengeance. I began to wonder if some animal might have been trapped inside the wall, had come to an untimely end, and was now stinking up the joint, as a kind of ghostly revenge.

Just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, one of the electrical wall plugs in the bedroom suddenly stopped working. At the time I didn’t believe the two incidents were connected, although I did imagined that a mouse might have chomped down on an electrical wire and had been electrocuted. What I couldn’t figure out was how his decomposing carcass could have created a stench, days before his unfortunate demise?

In my childhood I worked as a helper for my father, who was an electrician. My usual assigned tasks were to install wall plugs and to cut possibly electrified wires in insect ridden crawlspaces and hot itchy attics. Child labor laws were a bit lax back then.

Drawing on this experience, I set about replacing the wall plugs in our smelly bedroom. The first plug actually had a large crack in it, but replacing it did nothing to help. When I got to the third plug on the circuit, however, I hit pay dirt. This plug, although still working had melted inside and the smell of the scorched plastic turned out to be the unidentified odor that had been violating our bedroom. I now believe that when that plug heated up, the smell would become airborne, like a perverse version of those plug-in room deodorizers.

Diane had come into the bedroom, while I was working on this plug and I asked her to hold a flashlight for me. I realized what must have happened, as soon as I saw the melted plug. Unthinkingly I thrust the plug into her face saying excitedly, “Hey smell this!” It’s remarkable how much a melted electrical plug can look like a dead mouse in a poorly lit room. Thus the mystery of the fowl odor and the nonfunctional electrical plug were solved in one fell swoop and perhaps in a month or two Diane will start speaking to me again.

The Curious Case of the Concealed Cat

The second mystery more directly involved our chronically wayward cat, Klaus. First of all, Klaus is a very spoiled cat. A few years ago, while we were out of town, he managed to convince the cat-sitter into giving him wet cat food every night. He also persuaded the sitter to urge us to continue the practice when we returned. At the time, I told my Diane that there was no way that I was going to buy expensive wet cat food, just so Klaus could stuff his face every night. I said that it was totally unnecessary, since he got plenty of nourishment from his dry food and that he was fat enough as it was.

So yesterday, as I was opening a can of wet cat food, I mentioned to Diane that we needed to get more grilled salmon, since Klaus was getting tired of the flaked whitefish. Normally we keep Klaus in the house at night and make him go out in the mornings. I realize that this just the opposite of what most people do (like the Flintstones) , but we’re afraid that the coyotes, raccoons, and tougher cats in the neighborhood will beat Klaus up at night. Diane says that this is because we live in such a wild area, but I believe that it’s probably Klaus’ disagreeable personality that’s to blame.

Sometimes when it’s raining, Klaus resists going out in the morning, and we let him stay inside. Recently, however, he’s decided that he wants to stay inside every morning. He’s become like an unruly adolescent who wants to sleep late every day, go in and out of the house whenever he feels like it, and then stay out late every night carousing. He fully expects us to be on constant call to serve as his doorman and to make sure he never sees the bottom of his food bowl.

In order to stay inside in the mornings, Klaus has found a hiding spot that has left us completely baffled. We’ve search the entire house multiple times without success. I have to admire Klaus’ will power, as he has managed to resist coming out when I tempted him with the cat teaser (a fishing pole connected to a toy mouse), and when I rattled his wet cat food dish. He even stayed hidden when I shook his bag of cat treats, which almost always works. He usually come running, sort of like I do when someone shakes a bag of bacon jerky. I’m getting a little paranoid. The other morning I imagined that he must had snuck by me when I was half asleep and was now outside watching me through the window and mocking me, as I searched for him.

Klaus is so diabolical that I can find the family couch empty one minute and the next, like a ninja, he suddenly appears out of thin air. I told Diane that I fully expect to see him clinging to the ceiling or perhaps suspended under a chair. One of his chief strategies seems to be to circle back into the rooms we have already checked. I told Diane that I fully expect to see him clinging to the ceiling or perhaps suspended under some chair. One of his chief strategies seems to circled back into rooms that we have already checked. Our middle son, who is Klaus’ putative owner, and who had dumped him on us when he moved out , believes that Klaus is just using his magical cat powers.

Last week when we couldn’t find him, we tried making him over confident by talking loudly about much smarter he is than us. We hoped he would overhear us and get cocky and slip-up. He didn’t bite.
Never-the-less, Diane has theory as to his favorite hiding place and has neutralized his doubling back tactic. Tonight, however, just as we are preparing to leave town for a few days, another mystery suddenly cropped up. While watering plants, Diane spotted a mysterious wet spot bubbling up on our otherwise dry front lawn. I not sure what it is, but I’ll bet Klaus has something to do with it. I thought I saw him playing with, what suspiciously looked like a pipe wrench the other day.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

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