Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Punxsutawney Phil is an @$$h%le

That groundhog's a big jerk. And a phony too.

Several months ago, I read an interesting post by fellow blogger Chris Peterson, who pondered the ethics of psychologists who comment publicly on the lives of public figures. For the most part, I think, my opinions on the matter echo Dr. Peterson's:

Using famous individuals to make general points about psychology? Seems perfectly appropriate.

Speculating as to the sexual promiscuity of Victoria Beckham (the former Posh Spice) in pondering the gender of her children, as another fellow blogger did this week? Probably not up to the standards of traditional psychological ethics.

So I admit I'm breaking with my own ethical code in writing this post. It's just that sometimes celebrities are just asking to be called out, hurt feelings and other moral considerations aside. Sometimes their behavior is so problematic–nay, reprehensible–as to require immediate censure and intervention. That's why I feel that I really have no choice but to offer the following conclusion right here and right now:

Punxsutawney Phil is an @$$h%le.

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First, he has the nerve to come out of his cozy Gobbler's Knob burrow in the midst of one of the worst snowstorms in the middle of one of the worst winters in years to taunt his human acolytes with claims of an early spring. Ha-ha, Phil. Very funny.

Then I looked into it a bit, and it turns out that Phil's hit rate over the years is a paltry 39%. He's far worse than a coin flip! I know, I know, citing Wikipedia to back up a statistical claim is rather suspect. But, hey, even Wikipedia is right more than 39% of the time. And no one named a day on the calendar after it, either.

But the straw that broke the proverbial groundhog's back was this little factoid I read just an hour ago, right after my third time shoveling out the pile of frozen snow piled up in my front of my driveway by a local plow:

In reality, Pennsylvania's prophetic rodent doesn't see much of anything. The result is actually decided in advance by 14 members of the Inner Circle, who don tuxedos and top hats for the event.

What the woodchuck!?!

You mean to tell me that it's just 14 Brian Doyle-Murray lookalikes in top hats who get to decide whether or not Phil saw a shadow? This whole thing is nothing but a puppet meteorological regime? The damn groundhog is just a shadow prognosticator (no pun intended)? Man, this revelation is even worse than when I found out I've been ignoring the wrong horoscope all these years because the zodiac signs are off-kilter.

Now what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with psychology? Good question. I'll admit, I've selected a far less scientifically rigorous topic for this post than, say, the reproductive fitness of former Spice Girls. Maybe I'm just going stir-crazy from this endless winter of our discontent.

So forgive me. I promise, we'll return to our regularly scheduled, non-rodent programming next post. Until then, enjoy the fleeting days of winter–after all, The Great Phil has spoken. Or, rather, has been spoken for by some dudes who rented tuxes.

 

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Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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