Monday, June 23, 2008

You see what you want to see

I see red panda bears.

In 1978, a red panda escaped from the Rotterdam zoo. Hoping to enlist the public in finding this rare and distinctive-looking animal -- it looks a bit like raccoon crossed with a small bear, but bright red -- the zoo contacted the papers and stories ran in the local press with descriptions and contact information in case the poor creature was seen. Just as the story ran, the panda was found, dead.

Over the next few days over a hundred red panda sightings were reported. Keep in mind, red pandas are indigenous to tropical India, not temperate Holland. There is no chance that some other red panda was being seen and reported to the authorities. It's also not likely that people were hallucinating, either. What is likely is that people were seeing some other animal or something else they couldn't identify immediately, and interpreting it as a red panda.

When confronted with an unknown phenomenon, the brain immediately attempts to impose some kind of pattern or meaning onto it. Apparently, the brain can't stand not knowing what something is. What happened in Rotterdam is that the news stories primed people to recognize anything mysterious or otherwise unexplainable as "red panda", despite the unlikeliness. In other conditions, the template for the unknown might be an angel, Sasquatch, a UFO, faeries, or a will-o-wisp. Since the brain is working with so little evidence, it essentially makes it up, making our observations highly suspect.

Speaking of Priming
The suggestibility of the brain extends to more than just the unknown and unusual. As it turns out, even everyday events can be shaped by subtle cues in our environment.

In one study, two groups of subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and offered a crumbly biscuit by a research assistant afterward. In the room where the survey was administered

to one of the two groups, there was a hidden pail of water with a splash of cleaning fluid, filling the air with a slight scent.

The survey was a McGuffin; the real object of the study was to see what subjects would do after they ate the crumbly biscuit. What happened is this: the participants in the room where the

smell of cleaning fluid hung in the air were much more likely to clean up the crumbs left by the biscuit than the others.

A subtle effect to be sure (they ought to try it with teenagers!) but a good example of what psychologists call ?priming?. Priming calls on deep memory associations in the brain ? like the

association of the smell of cleaning products with the act of cleaning ? which seems to trigger responses without any conscious awareness or intention on our part. Isn?t that great?
So what we have here is a case where over 100 people honestly thought that they saw a red panda bear in a matter of a couple of days, when they clearly did not see a red panda bear. They were primed to see something that did not exist outside of the zoo, and they saw it. The human mind is fallible and will see what it wants to.

Sure, if you called in about a rabid dog and other people called in about dogs from hysteria - well at least dogs exist and people could misinterpret a dog for a rabid dog. This is not an adequate comparison.

There was only 1 (one) red panda and it was killed by a train the moment it left the zoo. Yet people said that they saw it all over town. They saw something that they didn't actually see.

The point is, the news said there was a red panda on the loose - and when people saw something that they weren't sure of, they falsely identified it as a red panda. So it is my belief that the news said there are bigfoots on the loose - and when people saw something that they weren't sure of, they falsely identified it as a bigfoot.

Now keep in mind that many bigfoot believers are saying that bigfoot mimics owl noises, this is just priming people even more to see bigfoot, whether it is actually there or not. This is even more absurd. Believers can't even prove that Bigfoot exists, so how can they attempt to prove that it mimics owl noises? Of course, bigfoot doesn't have any concrete evidence to prove its existence, so believers go in search of owl noises to prove its existence.

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