Tuesday, July 06, 2010
The Andrews Stuttaford and Sullivan each point to an interesting post by one David McRaney, who discusses the Forer Effect, a subcategory of a type of mis-integration normally known as subjective validation. Both focus on how the Forer Effect might account for why some people fall for horoscopes. While this is (partially) true, what I found more interesting is the fact that each uses this observation as a means to smuggle in his own "horoscope substitute," as it were.
Stuttaford smirks at the Forer Effect as an example of a "need to find patterns (and thus 'meaning')" that we all have, while Sullivan's preferred way of dismissing reason is biological determinism: "It's biologically ingrained."
I suspect that many people inclined toward the view that man lacks free will, and thus has no real control over the content and method of his thinking would find statements like the above compelling. Why? For the same reason the Forer Effect works in the first place. McRaney's partial explanation of how the Forer Effect operates is as follows:
The Forer Effect is part of larger phenomenon psychologists refer to as subjective validation, which is a fancy way of saying you are far more vulnerable to suggestion when the subject of the conversation is you.Leaving aside the blatant determinism, the valid parts of this argument boil down to this: The human mind is an integrating machine and will attempt to systematize data into something useful.
Since you are always in your own head, thoughts about what it means to be you take up a lot of mental space.
With some cultural variations, most people are keen on being an individual, a unique and special person whose hopes and dreams and fears and doubts are all their own.
Yet, somewhere between nature and nurture, we are all far more similar than you think.
Genetically, you and your friends are almost identical. Those genes create the brain which generates the mind from which your thoughts spring. Thus, genetically, your mental life is as similar to everyone else’s as the feet in your shoes.
When you want to believe something, when you need something to be true, you will look for patterns; you connect the dots like the stars of a constellation. You will take the random and give it purpose, transmutate the chaotic into the systemic, see chance as fate.
Your brain abhors disorder. You find patterns where there are none, see faces in clouds, demons in bonfires.
What is missing from the above, of course, is that there is a way to check one's process of systemization, namely by comparing one's results against reality. This is what people who fall for horoscopes and similar mumbo-jumbo are failing to do.
Doing so with a horoscope, one can immediately see, as McRaney indicates, that much of what is being said can apply to anyone. As he fails to indicate, one should ask further why any actually specific advice would necessarily follow from either the vague generalities (however true) or the whole idea that the positions of stars have any bearing on what happens in our lives.
So it is with the notion of biological determinism and any other form of belittling the power of reason. Human minds, being things that exist, have specific identities, and so would have to work in a certain way. Simply pointing to evidence that this is so does not in any way validate the leap to something like, "the functioning and content of one's mind is determined by one's genetic makeup," or to a notion like, "finding meaning is naive." Such a leap ignores many things and contradicts evidence to the contrary of determinism that one needn't have a degree in psychology or neuroscience to see.
The main difference between what an astrologer or fortune teller is doing and what we are seeing here is that the appeal to the individual has been shifted from a concrete focus on one's own situation to an abstract focus on what one's nature supposedly is and an appeal to one's vanity. On the latter score, I have known too many scientists who take pride in their own skepticism -- and yet who are basically determinists and see that view as a sign of sophistication.
Stuttaford, Sullivan, McRaney, and many of their readers may feel smug about "celebrat[ing] self-delusion" as they look down their noses at a hoi polloi who they think might as well consult horoscopes. But something isn't rational or true if it isn't tied to reality, no matter how in-the-know it might make one feel to imagine so.