Saturday, 23 June 2007

A tale of PM's shoes, the chap who had a talking horse until he realised (?) he had a body language reading horse and a self hypnotised card sharp

This is from an interview with Tony Blair;
The secret of Tony Blair’s success at the dispatch box has been revealed to be a pair of lucky brogues that he has worn at every Prime Minister’s Questions since 1997.

Mr Blair, who believes that “cheap shoes are a false economy”, has seen off four Conservative and two Liberal Democrat leaders in the Church’s handmade leather shoes.

“I know it’s ridiculous, but I’ve worn them for every PMQs,” he told The Times in an interview to be published in full tomorrow. “I’ve actually had them for 18 years,” and they have been resoled once.
Presumably he can tell us of the positive influence they weave and list examples of how things went well when he wore the shoes, how they give him more confidence or perhaps just comfort, and how, "all in all he just feels better for wearing them".

Imagine what might have happened if he didn't wear them?

Tests actually suggest everybody works like this, no I don't mean spending far too much on shoes, I mean that we act in this strange and irrational way from time to time.

We look for positive reinforcement of what we already think.

We apply far higher "rules of evidence" for evidence which goes against our existing beliefs and opinion than we enforce for evidence which supports our existing beliefs and opinions.

There are good evolutionary reasons for why this might be so, but it remains very counter-intuitive, even after you spot yourself doing it, or see it in someone else.

The key to keeping the effects of this behaviour under control and relatively harmless and therefore stopping such nonsense from taking over your life, seems to be the ability to actually know when you are doing it.

It's a bit like hypnotising yourself. The power of suggestion from your own brain. It almost makes the question asked by Carl Pilkington look profound; "Are you in charge of your brain or is your brain in charge of you?"

Take Hans, he was a horse who could do maths, answer many complex questions, oh and he could read as well, you know proper writing and stuff.

Well actually he couldn't, but his owner seems to have genuinely convinced himself that this is what Hans was doing.

More details here if you haven't heard this tale before.

Now his owner does seem to have genuinely fallen for Hans' innocent ability to read body language and a desire to please his master Osten (or to eat more sugar lumps?). He made this mistake because he was human and in essence he did what Tony Blair did to convince himself his shoes were lucky.

Quite simply he looked for the positive and ignored or was sceptical of the negative. In sceptical circles these errors of thinking are known as the "file drawer" effect (results with an answer that goes against your hypothesis go into the file drawer and not into the public spotlight) and "observation bias" (we see the positives very clearly and remember them very well).

I am currently reading "Stumbling On Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert. This is a tour de force of how our minds seem to work. He comments that when Osten found out he was shocked and dismayed as he had honestly convinced himself of Hans famed intelligence.

According to Wikipedia and others this discovery did not actually stop Osten and Hans continuing to tour Europe and continuing to charge money for their performances. Although I can't find out if they performed a claim of horse intelligence or as a demonstration of fantastic horsey body language reading.

What has this got to do with a self hypnotised card sharp?

Well this happened yesterday. . .

I can do a card trick, it's OK, and when it works, it works well.

My punter will choose a card from a shuffled deck, cut the pack and insert their card, they then shuffle the deck again before handing it back to me. I will then pick out their card from the pack. This involves turning over the cards one at a time and, at some point in the drawn out and theatrical process, naming their card.

I must stress that this is indeed just a trick and involves no "psychic ability" nor any "reading of subliminal body language signals" given out by the punter.

I did this trick to a colleague at work yesterday, with two other colleagues observing, one of these chaps knows how to do the trick (I taught him in a bar in Edinburgh once, but that is another story).

I started out as usual by asking the punter to think clearly of his card as I would be "psychically reading it" from his brain. He duly obliged. Yes I could see him actually thinking of the card - but not which particular one of course. The trick finished with a flourish and my punter was duly impressed.

At this point the observer who did not know the secret of the trick chimed in with the perfectly accurate comment that "psychic reading is rubbish " and that instead I must be using my punter's "subliminal body language".

This bit of explanation, which is of course just as woo-woo as my psychic claims seemed to impress the punter such that he immediately challenged me to do the trick again , but this time he would remain "frozen" so as not to give any clues away.

Off we went again, this time the trick failed - sometimes it just does you know ;-(

The sceptical observer seized upon this as proof of his assertion about "subliminal body language reading".

I was just going to point out that actually it was just a trick which is not guaranteed to work (the punter does get to shuffle the deck after all) when the punter leapt to my defence. Apparently his card had come out very early on in the failed trick (in the first few cards turned over) and he had noticed that I had not looked at him properly until after this had happened, so he instantly adopted this as an explanation in my defence and so "It hadn't been a proper test and so we must do it again".

By this point I had added the cheesy twist that the cards turned over and apparently chucked randomly onto the desk, actually spelled out the first letter of the suit and the number/picture of the card.

This seemed to seal it for my punter who said that this "message" must be coming through from my own subconscious!

The trick worked perfectly this time despite the punter attempting to resemble a wax work model of himself the whole time.

Finally I thought that this must be the time for me to come clean but no, the punters ability to build a pattern where none existed and reinforce this with any kind of evidence that came his way now took him a step further and he said he wanted to have a try for himself!

My mate (who knows the trick) volunteered to be his punter and off we went.

A subtle exchange of glances and I realised what my mate was up to!

Sure enough the 1 in 52 which my punter had actually described as a "chance in a million" came about with my mate saying "Wow, yes, that is my card!" and both my punter and the other observer who didn't know the secret of the trick were now unshakably convinced that both "subliminal" body language reading and the "subconscious" influencing the fall of cards on to the table were not only real but that they could learn to tame their secrets The card trick had became their very own Hans the clever horse.

By this time I was so busy trying not to injure myself from the effort of avoiding insult to my colleagues by laughing very loudly, that I never did get around to explaining what had happened, I might tell them next week I suppose.

I can't help wondering what kind of a weekend their families have enjoyed as they demonstrate their new found "powers" to their wives and kids.

- - -

BTW just watched Dr Who - was I supposed to laugh when the baddie blasted the president of the USA?

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