Chapter 8 of my trade book, The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, is titled "Marketing Hope by Selling Lies." In it, I argue that many peddlers of hope (e.g., religion, medical quackeries, self-help gurus) are successful because they target our Darwinian-rooted insecurities (mortality, mating prowess, parenting skills, social status, and so forth), and offer "solutions" to these. The human need to resolve the angst associated with these universal challenges makes many people susceptible to a wide variety of unsubstantiated claims, all of which are nonetheless very adept at offering hope.

I was recently appointed an advisory fellow of the Center for Inquiry. The organization's mandate is "to educate and provide training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational, and humanistic enquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library, and to develop communities where like-minded individuals can meet and share their experiences. We focus on three broad areas: 1. Religion, Ethics and Society, 2. Pseudoscience, Paranormal and Fringe-science claims, 3. Medicine and Health." (http://www.cficanada.ca/about/

In today's post, I'd like to discuss the practice of tasseography (an example of item 2 listed in the previous paragraph), namely the use of coffee stains left in your cup to foretell your future. This practice is quite common in the Middle East where I originate. One of my paternal aunts was reputed for her supposed abilities in this practice. Whenever she would visit my parents' home, it was akin to hosting Nostradamus. What could lead people to believe that coffee stains left in your cup could be a means by which your future is revealed? It's all in the art of non-specificity. Whenever my aunt would make a prediction, it was sufficiently vague that nearly an infinite number of future events could be made to fit that particular prediction. Her favorite prediction was the infamous "I see joy in your future." Thank you Nostradamus, I can now plan my life accordingly! Here are possible ways by which this "prediction" might be instantiated in one's immediate future (let alone all of the possibilities for joyful events in a more distant future):

Steamy sex that night with one's partner => joy
Favorite sports team wins => joy
Lost three pounds this week => joy
Received a clean bill of health from personal physician => joy
Daughter received an A on her math exam => joy
Favorite TV show is renewed for another year => joy
Complimented by boss regarding one's work ethic => joy

As soon as ANY joyful event occurs, my aunt's prediction becomes valid in the minds of the believers. In other words, it is impossible to invalidate her prediction given that every individual will experience at least one source of joy at some future date. Fortunetellers stay clear of very specific predictions. You never hear them making the following prediction: "Your stock portfolio will increase in value by 8% over the next six months. Furthermore, you will be receiving a great job offer in San Diego in three weeks. Finally, you will meet your soul mate by no later than September 15th. Her name is Candice." Specificity is the mortal enemy of fortunetellers.

As poignantly discussed by Michael Shermer in his book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition,and Other Confusions of Our time, humans seek to reduce the angst associated with the future by identifying patterns (even when no such patterns exist). Hence, a vague prediction that becomes true in the mind of a believer serves as an additional datum of the fortuneteller's foretelling powers.

I should also mention that in all of the séances of tasseography that I have witnessed, my paternal aunt seemed to always provide positive readings. I never heard her claim that "you will experience unbearable pain" or "darkness awaits you." Her predictions were always vague positive platitudes meant to fuel the believer's desperate need for hope. Incidentally, I do not wish to imply that my paternal aunt was a charlatan, as my feeling is that she believed that she possessed foretelling powers.

Bottom line: vague predictions that peddle hope constitute a deeply alluring message that few people choose to reject. Irrational positive hope trumps rational uncertainty.

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