Musings on Friday the 13th

It's late evening and I just realized it's Friday the 13th! If I recall, there is no definitive beginning to this superstition, only some suggestions of how it came about. Suffice it to say, people are superstitious and it doesn't take them long to associate an action or outcome with mundane things and think they are magically connected.

I think about this a lot, probably because I'm often trying to figure things out and make them better (I have a preternatural affection for efficiency, not to mention my desire to understand how things work).

For example, I was trying to set up my new phone (It didn't go well. Don't ask, I might start twitching again. Suffice it to say, a new phone - better, faster and stronger! - is on its way as I type!) Unfortunately every site I went to for information was written by the nerdiest, Asperger's Syndrome afflicted boys who obviously all failed every basic English class they ever had. Nothing was written clearly and the grammar was atrocious, making whole paragraphs meaningless. Everything was in gobbledygook.

I'm not stupid, but I'm only a surface level geek. Basically I know enough to fix common problems and (obviously) get myself into trouble for the bigger issues.

Anyway, suffice it to say, I read a hundred articles and tried a bunch of different walk-throughs. (And it worked, too! I waded into the Android pool and conquered ... briefly. Then I decided to dive in head first, only to find that the water was suddenly infested with piranhas with deadly lasers mounted to their heads! Oh, FAIL, Neece, you damned fool!)

Where was I? Oh, right. So as I was stumbling around trying different things with my phone, every time something went right, I would just keep going (after doing a little victory dance, of course). But if it went wrong, the very first thing that went through my head was, "what was I just doing to cause the problem?"

This makes sense. We make a mistake or something bad happens and our wonderful brains rewind and figure out what happened so that we refrain from doing it again.

Unfortunately, this can go awry simply because Cause does not always follow Correlation. Sometimes it does, which is why we have that heuristic (basic rule of thumb - for example, I have a rule of thumb that if I water my plants they won't die. If I do x then y happens, my plants keep living.)

In the case of my phone, I would follow a set of (poorly written) instructions and it would work. I would then move on (not always stopping to note what I did right), but if suddenly my phone would reboot, then I'd say, "Ok, that didn't work. I will try to remember not to do that again."

Unfortunately, the situation that caused the phone to reboot might have been a combination of 5 different actions I had taken over the course of an hour that just built up. Or it might have rebooted for a completely different reason totally unrelated to me, like the battery got bumped.

We all have these heuristics that we use quite frequently. I've heard evolutionary biologists talk about how they helped us develop. If we had to process each action from a fresh perspective and try to analyze and calculate possible outcomes, we'd never even get our shoes on in the morning, never mind drive a car or have a relationship with anyone.  They are immensely helpful, and save brain power for higher functions.

But they are also a great source of problems for all of us too. We were watching some fantastic college bowl games lately. There is this play that many teams go to over and over again. (I love football, but I am not good with all the terms, so I'm going to go all girly to explain, please bear with me)

The running back goes behind the offensive front line and drives right up the middle. I hate this play because probably 95% of the time there is little or no gain.

Sure, sometimes the big guys up front do a wonderful job blocking and this magical seam opens up and the little fast guy weaves his way through deftly and makes a huge play. This is very rare though. Yet most teams run this play over and over again, often resulting in a punt to the other team.

If I made shrimp scampi for dinner (blech, I hate seafood, but I'd cook it for my Man if he asked for it) and he got sick, I would assume it was something in the dinner, probably the shrimp. I would probably either never get seafood from that store again, make sure I checked the date more closely in the future, or maybe never cook or serve shrimp again. In other words, I'd try to fix the problem and make sure it never happened again.

I wouldn't cook it 100 times exactly the same way, hoping that "this time he won't get sick", when the last 95 times he did. Yet people do this all the time.

We get these heuristics stuck in our brains and then we just keep repeating those patterns. Why? Probably because the first time we did it was a great success.

I see this in MMA. A guy will try to submit his opponent with a rear naked choke, for example. Probably the first time he did it, he got a bit lucky and did it just right. Then in subsequent fights, even though his technique isn't that good, he'll go to that same move over and over again. He'll wear himself out trying for that rear naked choke for 15 minutes. But he doesn't know how to finish it off, so it's not successful. This can often end in a decision going the other way, and the guy loses. Of course, as I sit on my comfy couch, I can see that he hasn't put his hooks in, so he can't possibly win, but the guy goes from his one stock move, even though he might lose fight after fight.

The better fighters will then go back to the gym and figure out how to fix the problem. But football teams don't ever seem to give up on certain plays that have a very low success rate.

Often we all fall into the common logical fallacy of Causation and Correlation. Sure, sometimes A leads directly to B. Every time I eat a whole blackberry pie (can you tell I'm hungry?), I get a stomach ache.

But sometimes A happens before B and it's just timing. They have nothing to do with each other. The world isn't all nice and neat. Sometimes things can correlate but one doesn't make the other happen.

At the store the cashier won't make eye contact with me or engage in conversation with me. I might think that it's because I had 50 things in her 10 items or less lane, but really it was because her boyfriend just broke up with her by text a few minutes ago. (no, I would never go through the 10 items or less lane with more than 10 items. That's just uncalled for!)

Now, extrapolate our natural tendency to use heuristics to supernatural phenomena. Mix into that some cognitive bias, cognitive dissonance, wishful thinking and the placebo effect, and you've got people believing in ghosts, gods, demons, homeopathy and all manner of conspiracies (their patternicity is turned up to max!).

So, heuristics are good. But it's probably a good idea to revisit patterns we have that don't give us the results we would prefer, and maybe find new ways to go about achieving our aims, especially when it comes to superstitious behavior.


  1. I read about an experiment with rats, where rats in two different cages each had a bar to press. In the first cage, pressing the bar would give the rats a treat every time. In the second cage, pressing the bar would give the rats a treat only sometimes. The researchers then stopped giving the rats any treats. The rats in the first cage figured out pretty quickly that the bar didn’t work anymore, but the rats in the second cage never figured it out; they just kept pressing the bar, hoping for a treat.

    1. That's fascinating, Eric. That doesn't surprise me. I recall Skinner's famous superstitious pigeon experiments. Eventually, after the pigeons who were fed randomly and had developed superstitious behaviors stopped doing those behaviors when they didn't work. Apparently when tried with humans, they didn't stop the superstitious behaviors when they stopped getting rewarded randomly. Fascinating stuff!