News Column

Happy Anniversary, Maya -- 12-12-12

Dec. 12, 2012

Nancy Van Valkenburg


You may have noticed something repetitive about today's date: 12/12/12.

According to news reports, churches around the world are booked for weddings of people who consider the day 12/12/12 to be lucky, or who may just want an easy way to remember their anniversary.

Or maybe you're more focused on the date 12/21/12, just nine days hence, which the alarmists among us predict as the end of the world due to the limits of a Mayan calendar crafted five centuries ago.

If you're seeing a pattern here, it's because you are human.

"We are built to see patterns, even when we are told numbers or events are random," said Eric Amsel, professor and chairman of Weber State University's Psychology Department.

The Mayan calendar, created more than five centuries ago, ends on 12/21/12, leading some to believe the world will end that day.

"There's a strong evolutionary advantage to seeing patterns. You learn a certain blue plant is something you can eat, but a certain green plant will hurt you. It can be enormously effective to see patterns."

Recognizing patterns that seem significant is an evolutionary survival skill, he said. But we push ourselves to find meaningful patterns even where none exist.

"One of the hardest things we do here is try to help students understand randomness," Amsel said. "When we do science or higherorder thinking, we have to inhibit thoughts about patterns."

The belief that dates and numbers can have magical powers is not supported by any evidence from science, he said.

"Paranoia sees patterns in random events. A lot of mental illness is related to things we were built to do, that run amok."

Amsel said he's always amused to hear about athletes who adopt superstitious rituals in hopes of winning their games. They may follow the same schedule habitually on game days, or refuse to change the socks or underwear they wore on the first game of a winning streak.

"Is there really a connection between smelly socks and pitching a nohitter?" Amsel said. "Well, maybe if it makes you feel more confident, at least until you no longer win, there is a casual connection."

Amsel especially dislikes the philosophy of "The Secret," a book that asserts people can actively visualize an item or circumstance they want and make it materialize in their lives.

"There isn't any force being exerted by the power of thought, but people think it's possible," he said. "And if it does happen, they don't consider any alternative explanation why it happened."

Steve Siporin, a Utah State University professor of English and history, teaches courses on folklore.

"Superstitions, or beliefs in folklore, are ways of coping with anxiety," he said.

A 1920s anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, studied Pacific Island cultures and discovered that a group of fishermen who fished in deep, dangerous waters was far more superstitious than another group that fished the safer shallows.

"He found a correlation between anxiety and folk belief," Siporin said. "You do everything you can to control the outcome, everything you rationally can do. And beyond that is where the area of belief comes in.

"Another guy did a similar study in the 1960s, and the same thing held true, even with modern technology. Those who went out farther to sea had more anxieties and were more likely to have folk beliefs they hoped would keep them safer."

Even in our modern world -- in which we understand the sun will come back after an eclipse, even without ritual prayer and human sacrifice -- superstitions and folk beliefs remain.

"As far as I can tell, educated people are just as vulnerable to folk beliefs," Siporin said. "I suppose the average schoolteacher has less superstition than the average combat soldier, for instance, due to the amount of anxiety they have. But the teacher may have students who are eating certain foods or wearing certain clothes in hopes of good grades on their finals.

"Modern life is full of all kinds of folk beliefs. There are many buildings that don't have a 13th floor, and in Japan, they don't like the number four because it sounds like the word for death."

Neither Amsel nor Siporin reported any fears or good-luck plans associated with the dates 12/12/12 or 12/21/12.

Amsel joked that he wished he could attend a Quebec restaurant's advertised free dinner (alcohol charges are extra) for survivors of the Mayan apocalypse.

Siporin confessed to one illogical "lucky" practice:

"I might knock on wood after I mention my granddaughter's name. It can't hurt, right?"

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c) 2012 the Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah)

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