You’re in an airport waiting for your plane to board and decide to buy a magazine. The price, with tax, is $4.59. Then you decide you could really use a frozen yogurt but aren’t sure you have enough time, so you look at your watch and are surprised to see that it’s 4:59 PM. Finally, you make it to your gate with a few minutes to spare, and only then notice that your flight number has been changed to — you guessed it — 459. Mean anything to you?
It seems that when events co-occur (which is to say, conjunct) some of us are prone to believe that they were ‘meant’ to co-occur, or at least were more likely to co-occur than a single event occurring alone. That’s the fallacy of conjunction, and according to a new study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, it’s at the core of belief in the paranormal.
The study set out to answer this question: do paranormal believers make more conjunction errors overall–for normal and paranormal events–than non-believers? The answer is yes, they do. And they especially fall prey to the conjunction fallacy when it comes to perceived paranormal events, including dream precognitions, waking precognitions, fortune teller predictions, and the mysterious power of ‘intuition’ (in the most new ageish sense of the word).
200 subjects, ages ranging from 18 to 56, participated in the study, which assessed their level of paranormal belief via questionairres (tested in previous studies for the same purpose). They were then asked to make “scenario judgements” that assessed their reliance on conjunction to explain given scenarios including normal or paranormal events. At the end of the day, differences in how believers and non-believers responded were large — when two or more events co-occurred, believers were quick to assign significance, while non-believers wrote it up to probability.
And that’s really the heart of the matter: where some of us see celestial conjunction, others of us see regular old randomness doing its thing. Where some see meaningful coincidence, others see probability. Turns out, the less prone you are to relying on probability to explain conjunction, the more prone you are to believing in the paranormal.
Interesting to note that previous studies have shown that a poor grasp of probability, and statistics overall, is a good predictor of paranormal belief. Ignorance may be bliss, but it can also lead you to believe that you’re really precoging the future in your dreams, or pay a fortune teller hard-earned cash to caress your palms.
Nevertheless, the conjunction fallacy clearly has its place. How else can people be expected to pick lottery numbers?