“Will you teach me something that is college-level?” my ambitious and competetive soon-to-be third grader requested.
I was reading the Sunday paper so I tried to do a little dodging. “You have to learn all the elementary stuff before you learn the college stuff. That’s why we go to elementary school first.” Then I added a classic line, “Go read a book. Reading anything will help you prepare for college.”
Yes, I was dropping the ball.
Blake contined to prod me for some type of brain-food activity. I noticed a funky multi-colored bouncy ball on the table. It reminded me of a movie Israel and I just watched, Match Point. I only need to tell you that Woody Allen directed it to give you an idea of what type of movie it was.
The story revolves around the luck factor. In tennis, there are times when your ball hits the net and bounces straight up. Where it goes from there has nothing to do with your skill, but pure luck. Chance.
As much as we like to factor our skill and talent into our successes, we often fail to note the innumerable avenues on which luck travels around us.
The bouncy ball on our table provided me an idea for an activity to occupy Blake. I told him to get a piece of paper and a pen. He dashed around the room in exhilerated bliss. He came back with the items. I handed him the ball and told him to let it drop straight down onto a line in the floor that he chooses. He was then to record the direction the ball headed after the first bounce. He would do this ten times. Here are the results:
2. Under the line.
8. Over the line.
I asked Blake if he saw any kind of pattern in the direction the ball went. He said, “Not completey. But it is starting to go over the line all of a sudden!”
He was excited, as if he was onto something.
“Do you think there is something causing the ball to go in a certain direction? Maybe the way your hand drops it, or a crease where it hits the floor?” I asked.
Those possibilities didn’t interest him. He felt there was something within him that was predicting the direction of the ball, but he didn’t have his finger on it yet. This is a topic I’ve been wanting to experiment with Blake on because he thinks he can make accurate predictions based on his feelings.
He’s often asked me questions like, “Mom, what do you think the percentage is of people who go to college?”
My reply is something like, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never paid attention to that statistic so I’d have to look it up.”
And he comes back with “I think it is . . . 60 percent. No, 63! That’s it! It’s 63 percent.”
“Interesting,” I answer back. “And what information do you base your answer on?”
“It just feels like that’s what it is.”
“Is that an accurate predictor? Your feelings of what it is?”
No matter how many times I’ve explained to Blake that his feelings can’t give him an accurate answer at that type of question, he doesn’t get it yet. I realized this is something I’m going to have to show him.
So I changed the direction of our experiment with the ball. I turned the paper over to the other side. He was now going to predict which direction the ball would bounce, then drop the ball, and I would record whether his guesses were right or wrong.
Here are the results:
Before showing him the results on paper, I asked him if he thought he had been right most of the time or wrong. He said, “I think I was mostly right.” This surprised me because we spent a lot of time in the middle of the experiment talking about the third and fourth tries being wrong. And the last try was also wrong. Still, this didn’t give him the lasting impression of having mostly guessed wrong. At least he has confidence in his abilities!
I showed him the paper and added them up. Six wrong guesses and four right guesses.
I then asked him, “How many possibilities were there?” His answer was four: Over the line, under the line, right or left.
My next question was, “What if this activity had 100 possibilities? Would that have made it harder or easier to make a correct guess?”
He answered, “Harder.”
“This activity only had four possibilities, making it easier to guess correctly just by chance. Still, you guessed wrong more than you guessed right. Do you think there is a pattern here for where the ball goes, or do you think it is all random chance, both where the ball goes and whether your guess is right or not?”
It was interesting because he made the connection, and yet he still wanted to hold onto the idea that he had some ability to predict the direction of the ball.
In Michael Shermer’s book, How We Believe, Shermer shared his hypothesis of a human Belief Engine. “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern-seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants. The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.”
Blake made four “hits,” as Shermer calls them, or in other words, Blake made four accurate guesses when he was making his predictions about the balls. Sometimes it only takes one accidental hit for someone to think they are onto something. I explained to Blake that this is why some fortune-tellers, astrologists, self-proclaimed prophets and the like, think they have the power to predict. They got a hit. A lucky guess. Sometimes they get many hits. But how many misses do they also get in the process?
This activity with Blake was just a seed. I think it will take a few similar experiences such as this before he gets it. Shermer stated the following about the tendency to think the way Blake does:
It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse shows, for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking in education. There is variance in magical thinking among individuals, or course, but all humans posses it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe. We do not live in a Pleistocene environment, but our minds were built there and often function as if we do.
The good news is that the more answers we have to life’s mysteries, the less we rely on superstition and errors in our pattern-seeking. For this reason, my focus in raising my children has less to do with telliing them there is no god and more to do with teaching them accurate ways of finding answers.