Psyched!

The science of psych

Ask iGod

When superstition and technolust combine.
This post is a response to On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a God by Matthew Hutson

In my last post, I explained how magical thinking might help us navigate cyberspace. But there are several cases where we've already jumped the gun in attributing powers to our tech toys.

•Nick Yee, who studies the psychology of online role playing games, surveyed 380 people on superstitions in online worlds. A typical response: "on my first dragon raid, I was regaled with a long list of things I MUST NOT DO or else the raid would be wiped. Not one of them was valid, but they were incredibly detailed and equally silly. (Things like you can't switch weapons, press hotkeys, cast spells, attack anything but a single leg of the dragon, that sort of thing)."

•New media artist Rob Seward built a Consciousness Field Resonator based on the pseudoscientific premise that psychic energy affects random number generators (RNGs). His device hangs on a wall and flashes when there's a spike of nonrandomness in its RNG's output. "Any time it goes off in this manner, the user tries to associate it with a significant event either in his life or the lives of others," Seward writes. It could be hot sex or the death of a loved one. "Even if his rational mind thinks the basis of this device is complete nonsense, the primitive brain will develop superstitions around the machine."

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•B.F. Skinner induced "superstition" in pigeons by feeding them at regular intervals and watching them associate the food with a repertoire of arbitrary behavior that grew in scope as the experiment progressed. Forty years later, Japanese researcher Koichi Ono placed a randomly incrementing electronic point counter and some randomly flashing lights next to three false levers and watched as one human subject going for a high score eventually abandoned the levers altogether and exhausted herself after 15 minutes of jumping to touch the ceiling with her slipper. Anyone familiar with the TV-rabbit-ears-dance will recognize this procedure intimately.

•For a while there were conspiracy theories about how random the iPod shuffle function is; users noticed weird patterns and Steven Levy had to ask Apple engineers to assure him it was really random. People still see connections between songs and whatever is happening at the moment, and some use the shuffle function as a sort of magic 8 ball: Ask it a question, hit "next," and interpret at will. I just asked iTunes if I will meet someone special this weekend, and "Poor Kakarookee" by Venetian Snares came up. Um, that song contains only two lyrics: "poor" and "Kakarookee." No help at all.

•Cliff Pickover has a great online ESP experiment. Try it. Then read the explanations people have submitted. You'll see all kinds of jazz like "Quantum mechanics may permit synchronicity of thought and computer software. I suggest that, on the quantum level, you were able to predict the card I selected even before I selected it." That's an attempt at a technological explanation, but magical spells and rituals are (misguided) forms of technology too: finding the hidden laws that connect mind and matter and exploiting them.

We all see patterns where they don't exist, and we're also programmed to detect intentional agents--we anthropomorphize inanimate objects that merely hint at being alive. So we may perpetually overestimate the capabilities of artificial intelligences we come across. And a new study reported in the February issue of Psychological Science (pdf) says that the

lonelier you are, the more that will happen. In the study, people who felt more more socially isolated attributed higher levels of free will, consciousness, and emotions to gadgets like "'Clocky' (a wheeled alarm clock that 'runs away' so that you must get up to turn it off)". Uh oh. Psychologists reported a decade ago that loneliness increases with Internet use. That means: more geeking out, more loneliness, more reliance on technology for companionship, and the cycle repeats. It looks like we've got a dangerous feedback loop here, at least until Teddy Ruxpin learns hold up his end of the conversation. He can be so insensitive sometimes.

UPDATE: Looking for a message in "Poor Kakarookee" might have been futile, but that album (Songs About My Cats) harbors life on another track. According to spectography, there are seven cats trapped in the song "Look." Look:

Poor Kakarookee!

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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