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No, Your Kid is Not Psychic

In the aftermath of every tragic event, there’s always someone who narrowly missed out on it. Think of those who didn’t go to work in the World Trade Center on 9/11 or who missed a connecting flight on a plane that crashed. And they almost always see mystical forces at work, usually thinking that God just loves them more than all the people who died. But the mother of a child at Sandy Hook elementary is now convinced that her son is psychic, which saved him from the shootings.

Karen Dryer‘s worst nightmare started to unravel when her young son Logan Dryer, 5, became so anxiety ridden when he went to kindergarten at Sandy Hook Elementary School that she decided to pull him out of school just two weeks before the deadly massacre.

Like any parent, Karen could not understand why her usually happy, healthy son Logan all of a sudden started having panic attacks while in school. Little did she know, that like her own late mother, her son had the gift to foresee the future…

“My mother, Milly, who passed away a couple of months ago was very psychic, and I know now without a doubt that my son has the same gift.”

Yes, and lots of people “know without a doubt” that the moon landing was fake, that they’re the reincarnation of Napoleon and that the earth is hollow and filled with people. Ben Radford points out the obvious:

But that logic is common fallacy with a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of it”). Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that, “B happened after A did, so A must have caused B.” Logan expressed anxiety and fear about school, and two weeks later that school experienced one of the worst shootings in history. It makes sense—except that it’s not necessarily true. It’s like saying “roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise.” Just because the boy expressed fear before the tragedy doesn’t mean he knew it was going to happen.

The case for Logan’s psychic or prophetic powers would be much stronger if he had specified what he was concerned about, but he never said anything about guns, a shooting, a tragic day or date, or anyone being harmed or killed. If the boy’s psychic powers were real — and the information specific enough for the police to act on — he might have been able to save dozens of innocent lives.

There’s another cognitive bias at play, one that psychologists call confirmation bias, also known as remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. The human mind more easily remembers events that seem significant in retrospect, and ignores those that don’t. Thus, for example, Dryer vividly remembers (and attaches special significance to) the times when her son expressed fear associated with the school, but not all the times when he acted the same way (on previous occasions or in other settings not related to school) and nothing happened.

Furthermore Logan Dryer was surely not the only child (nor the only five-year-old) among all the students of Sandy Hook Elementary school who expressed anxiety and fears about going to school in the days and weeks before Dec. 14. The only reason it stands out is that something did happen, so the earlier reactions might appear to be prophetic.

Rationality matters.

Comments

  1. Michael Heath says

    Ben Bradford writes:

    The case for Logan’s psychic or prophetic powers would be much stronger if he had specified what he was concerned about, but he never said anything about guns, a shooting, a tragic day or date, or anyone being harmed or killed.
    [emphasis mine - MH]

    Well his case would not be, “much stronger” for the factors I emphasized above. From a normative perspective it’d still be coincidental for those items emphasized since we know people have fearful moments about certain types of events which have occurred in the past and will occur in the future. I’m confident there are kids across the country right now fearful of attending class.

    Logan’s case would be, “much stronger”, if he had a prediction of a specific tragic event on a specific date where such events are exceedingly rare. And then our first reaction should be to interrogate him for knowing something related to that event he received through natural causes.

  2. Sastra says

    I’m a bit surprised that confabulation didn’t happen here, with the mother “remembering” things said or thought after the fact as happening before the fact. This would mean that the boy’s general expressions of fear were more specific. She’d remember he said things about a “bad man coming to get me” or “too many bullets” or something else which wasn’t actually said — or said in the way she remembers it.

    My sister-in-law is convinced her grandchild is psychic because of an incident which happened at his grade school. She gives me the details and asks “what other explanation could there be?” I tell her that if everything she tells me happened exactly as she says, with no mistakes made in what she or anyone else in the chain of narration remembers happening, then the conclusion is clear and unavoidable: yes, her grandson is indeed psychic. And the model of the universe which thousands of scientists have painstaking built up over the space of hundreds of years through laborious trial-and-error and blood-and-sweat is wrong.

    I tell her that my guess, however, is that it’s more likely that someone, somewhere has made a critical mistake in a remembered detail which makes the story far less remarkable and extraordinary — and far more co-incidental and ordinary.

    And she is sure that no, I’m just grasping at straws, to avoid the obvious.

  3. says

    Every day we make decisions that spare our lives. Oops, I looked back over my shoulder and didn’t pull out in front of that UPS van on my motorcycle. I decided not to eat that piece of chicken that looked funny at the salad bar. I held the handrail and didn’t slip and fall down a flight of concrete stairs. Every day. That we survive at all is not because we’re “psychic” it’s because we’ve learned how to predict the future in a limited sense, by basing our predictions on the past (concrete stairs are slippery when painted with epoxy paint; I don’t even remember the time I did a painful near-split but my subconscious sure as hell does!) As Bruce Schneier once pointed out, the outliers are more interesting both because they show up in the news and they show up in the news because they’re outliers. Nobody’s going to get pretty excited over an article reading “man saves life by backing off on the cheezburgers like his doctor suggested.” But we sure as hell remember the time that we had a flat tire and it made us miss our concorde flight from Paris to NYC.

  4. bcmystery says

    I was in the mall when the Clackamas Town Center shooting happened a couple of days before Newtown. While in the moment, it felt like it was all going on right next to me, I learned more about the event, it became clear to me I was further from the event than I realized, Not that I’m complaining.

    Still, I found myself reflecting on close I was. It’s probably natural to ponder the sequence of choices and chance surrounding a dramatic event. In my case, I thought about how if I’d taken more time ordering a coffee in the food court, or if there had been one or two people ahead of me in line, I’d have been right in the middle of the shooting rather than a level below and walking away.

    It was easy to think of myself as lucky, and nothing wrong with that so long as I understand “luck” isn’t some kind of intrinsic quality or a magic force bestowed upon some and not upon others. Choice and chance happened to combine in such a way for me in one way, and for others, more tragically, in another. Nor was my decision to order a quick, easy coffee drink a psychic flash to hurry along.

    What’s troubling about this story is the fact that jumping to the irrational conclusion, the mother effectively dismisses a potentially genuine issue her son may be struggling with. It may be nothing, but calling it a psychic flash is neglecting parental responsibility.

  5. says

    If being “psychic” is not a learned behavior (I can hardly see how it would be) then it’s got to have something to do with our individual make-up. I.e.: it’s going to somehow be expressed in our genes. Seems like being psychic would confer such benefits, even if they were “below the radar screen” that anyone sporting psychic genes would be much more likely to survive. In a relatively small number of generations we’d all be psychic to some degree, and some of us would be getting very, very psychic indeed. Perhaps past the point where all they could do would be to correctly interpret tea leaves.

  6. raven says

    Those people are as psychic as my cat.

    She always knows when I’m in the kitchen. And comes running in, claiming to be in urgent need of more food and treats.

  7. davidbrown says

    Confirmation bias indeed.

    More than once my ex-wife insisted that her dreams of her grandmother going into the hospital were always correct. She would phone her parents’ home after one of these dreams to discover that her grandmother had indeed been hospitalized. (If she didn’t phone her parents she wouldn’t find out as her parents never saw fit to tell us her grandmother was ill.)

    I quietly kept track of her premonitions for a year. Thirteen times she told me she knew her grandmother had been hospitalized. Five of those times she was correct. (Given that her grandmother was in her 90s and on oxygen, I’m surprised she didn’t have more positive hits.) These results surprised me not at all. She, on the other hand, never wavered from her belief that she was always spot on, having completely forgotten her misses.

    And, no, this isn’t why she’s now my ex-wife. :)

  8. mudpuddles says

    Sorry to be a pedant….. but I’m not sure that post hoc ergo propter hoc is the case here.

    That would be like saying “The shooting happened after the child threw a wobbly, therefore it happened because he threw a wobbly” – but no one is saying the child caused it, if you get my meaning.

    I reckon the case here is actually ante hoc ergo propter hoc – it happened before this, therefore because of it. In other words, the child had his nerves before the event, therefore it was because of the event.
    Which as a logical fallacy is perhaps twice as daft.

  9. Doug Little says

    Logan’s case would be, “much stronger”,

    There is no case, that’s the problem here.

  10. baal says

    “earth is hollow and filled with people”
    Hmm, that explains a lot actually. Ed, how do you deal with their excursions to the surface or are the avenues in and out limited? I’m guessing that they trade for cheese from Wisconsin?

    When I was 8-12 or so I thought I could see through walls and that I had a memory of doing so. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I saw a picture in one of my parent’s albums of the room where it happened. Turns out there was an exterior glass door that I didn’t remember. So, in a manner, I did see through “the wall”.

  11. says

    “Yes, and lots of people ‘know without a doubt’ that the moon landing was fake…

    I’ve told you this before, Ed Brayton, but the moon landing was fake. It was faked on the moon.
     

    “…that they’re the reincarnation of Napoleon…”

    They can’t be. I am. Je sooz Napoleon! Vivo le Frince!
     

    “…and that the earth is hollow and filled with people.”

    It’s not filled with people. That’s ridiculous. It’s only got some people. There’s plenty of room left.
     
    Marcus Ranum “Every day we make decisions that spare our lives. I decided not to eat that piece of chicken that looked funny at the salad bar.”
    Loser. I did. It gave me superpowers. Chicken superpowers.
     
    “In a relatively small number of generations we’d all be psychic to some degree, and some of us would be getting very, very psychic indeed.”
    I sense that you’re skeptical.

  12. eric says

    Rationality matters.

    And not just because of some piffling feel-good story the parents tell themselves. If that were all it was, I’d have no problem with it.

    If this kid has a real anxiety condition, it is now likely to go untreated because the parents think its him being psychic. If he doesn’t and is just a regular kid (because most all kids get anxious about school during one time of their life or another), he’s going to end up going through entierly unnecssary missed days, school transfers, etc., etc.. If, god forbid, other people actually start listening to his “feelings,” then this could result in larger numbers of kids staying away from school or panics.

    I don’t really care what people who experience a close call tell themselves for comfort. I worry a lot more about how this could affect the kid’s future.

  13. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    It gave me superpowers. Chicken superpowers. – Modusoperandi

    Oh cluck off!

  14. scienceavenger says

    RE #2 Sastra’s point: One thing the internet should strip us all of is the notion that our memories are in any way perfectly accurate. Take any movie, TV event, or song lyric you haven’t experienced in many years, but think you remember exactly, and look it up. You’ll be amazed how bad your memory is.

  15. grumpyoldfart says

    Her mother was a psychic. She knows how the scam works. I’m guessing this woman is setting up her son as a money maker for the family.

  16. says

    What’s killing me is that the answer is right there in those three little paragraphs. She said it herself! Her mother – the boy’s grandmother – passed away a couple of months ago, and THEN the boy started getting panicky.

    Gee, you think maybe a young kid losing a beloved grandma might just be upset about it and not want to go to school?

  17. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I noticed the same thing, Baal.

    I had a brain fart and thought “pre hoc ergo propter hoc” first, but I did remember my latin before I got to your comment. Feeling like I had something to contribute and then, wham! I run smack into the brick wall of lack-of-originality.

    Oh, well. I’m still gonna drop ante-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc into conversation someday.

  18. cactusren says

    I agree with those commenters who are concerned for this kid. In addition to not getting treatment for possible anxiety issues*, he’s now going to grow up with his mother telling him that he’s psychic. And since kids tend to believe what trusted adults tell them, he’s going to really believe this, at least for a while. I hope for his sake that he tries to test it out rigorously and realizes that his mother is wrong, but that may or may not happen.

    *Though, as has already been pointed out, there are any number of reasons a five-year old who’s grandmother recently died might not want to go to school. I sincerely hope that the reasons for his panic were ephemeral, as he’ll have enough to deal with with his newfound notoriety as a psychic.

  19. mildlymagnificent says

    I distinctly remember my own 5 year old being too anxious and ill to go to school. So I went along with the ‘too sick’ claim and stayed home with her. And it was only on the second day that I found out what was really happening. The little school ‘friends’ were telling the new kid that there were fierce dragons in the girls’ toilets and she was too scared to go in there. So we fixed that and all was well from then on.

    This mother is overlooking the obvious. Death in the family, kids are notorious for teasing and bullying, teachers are sometimes unwittingly negative or discouraging – anything at all, and any combination of such things, can make a child’s life miserable.

    And now this on top of it. The child seriously needs counselling. With what has now happened the poor little mite probably feels responsible in some nebulous way, in much the same way as others do if there are family fights or separations. And his mother’s claims will probably make that worse rather than better.

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