Birthdays/biases/logic

Gili Bar-Hillel gbhillel at netvision.net.il
Tue Dec 21 02:54:22 EST 2004



The knowledge Pika wrote:

> (a very vague astrologer who surprisingly
>often manages to point out good advice on what ails me, even though I
>don't believe in astrology one bit)

A psychologist by the name of Ray Hyman figured out a formula for writing
horoscope descriptions that most people will probably identify with (or at
least I'm pretty sure it was Ray Hyman, I may be fudging a bit). It's called
the P.T.Barnum formula: %80 vague and generalised but relatively positive or
neutral statements, %20 percent specific and negative. He ran all sorts of
experiments scrambling real horoscopes and inventing false horoscopes and
then asking people to rate how closely the resulting description matched
them.

One of the chapters I've read in one of Ray Hyman's books is all about how
he managed to convince a whole bunch of people he was psychic, to the point
that he almost started believing it himself. I've discovered myself that
it's a dangerous game to play. I was having a conversation with a friend
about psychics - a friend who ought to have known what a sceptic I am, and
how strongly I disbelieve in psychics - and I jokingly said that I was
psychic myself, and that I could tell what was going on in his mind by
staring deep into his eyes. I proceeded to glean out of him the information
that his mother had called that morning to tell him that his grandmother,
whom he had never known intimately but wished he had, was now seriously ill.
I believed I was being incredibly obvious about how I was getting this
information out of him, and I thought it was clear that my behaviour was
meant to be a parody of a psychic. My friend, however, was shocked and
disturbed, and had trouble believing that I was merely being perceptive, not
supernatural. I will never again run such a demonstration so lightly.

Gili


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