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  • Full Dark Amy

Those Pesky Fox Sisters & Cognitive Bias


When we dismiss or reject a particular aspect of history in favor of what fulfills our needs and justifies our beliefs, we end up with a cognitive bias. For example, say something that occurred over a century ago was believed to be profound and supernatural, and within that same century it was also declared a complete hoax. Let's also say the fervor and belief that the initial occurrence created held on so tightly in society that it remains a belief system at present time. Something seems strange and illogical here. Believing something so strongly, and circulating that belief to others capable of believing just as strongly, creates what is known as a cognitive bias termed an Availability Cascade. A formation of belief among individuals that express similar ideas and experiences, causing a collective mindset. As the novel, new idea or situation gains traction, it cascades further and becomes a widespread belief, becoming essentially a self-reinforcing cycle. Something that didn't exist before that time or was obscure and unknown, furthers itself due also to the availability of a present market; a willing, or sometimes gullible public.

The example alluded to above shows the Availability Cascade within the Fox sisters phenomenon; 3 young women who lived during the 19th Century and inadvertently initiated a national spiritualist movement. It's old news at this point what they went and did to their family, friends and eventually paying customers all over the US. Margaretta (Maggie), Kate and Leah Fox, born in the 1830's, came up with a way to trick people into thinking that particular noises were that of the spirits of dead people they were communicating with. Seances, table tipping, talking boards, mediums; America was getting spooky like never before in the mid-to-late 1800's thanks to these women and their growing popularity. It wasn't taboo though, it was exciting, expected, and popular, and drove the idea of spirit communication to a solidified place in society. The girls' various performance tours of knuckle cracking and toe tapping swept the nation in the early stages of it's modern expansion.

It should all have come to an abrupt end with the 1888 declaration from Maggie in New York City's New York World newspaper: "Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. ... This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps." Reason and logic would then cause one think that perhaps communication with spirits is not an actual ability anyone possesses, but the Fox sisters seance scandal didn't end with the exposure of the hoax. The idea had already charted it's course through a society that wasn't going to let it go lightly, even in the face of bold truth.

Modern science still doesn't have an explanation for ghosts, or spirit communication, in the way we expect hard science to provide it. There are no machines that declare without a shadow of a doubt that something formerly undetected is now a quantifiable or qualifiable "ghost", "spirit", or is in any way "paranormal". It's unfortunate, but the lack of information also helps to keep driving belief, and cognitive bias. However, it's modern psychology and neuroscience that gives us more insight into what these experiences and definitions might be, and why we feel compelled to believe falsely, rather than question and pursue authenticity. The rumor of the Fox sisters' conversations with the dead occurred at a time and in an area of NYS that was ripe for a renewed faith. The Western NY region has been subject to multiple religious revivals throughout history. Time and place and society's condition at the time gave the girls the ability to rise to popularity without being questioned on integrity or proof. Popular opinion outweighed skeptical insight into their doings. The possibilities they posed, and the questions seemingly answered with a knock or rap on a surface at an expected time, caused people to want more.

The availability cascade seems unbelievable in that situation now. How could so many people fall victim to such an obvious hoax and theatrical performance of lies? America, hold my beer. Remember anti-vaccers, flat-earthers, global warming denial, even the stupid 1990's razors-in-Halloween-candy panic? These are just a few recent examples. We're not exactly more capable of seeing around this cognitive bias just because we consider ourselves more informed in the 21st Century. Information, or misinformation, causes widespread adherence to and belief in, well, utter bullshit, quite commonly now. While not as dire as global warming, particular dogmas around paranormal investigation have formed and solidified this way as well. The belief that we can contact a "spirit" which was once human, or something that may be an inhuman or "evil" entity, is one that has spread through the paranormal community for decades. It's Western, faith-based origin is transparent, and yet it still permeates mainstream paranormal theory.

Although these beliefs now spread through new and technological means, it remains an adequate comparison to the spiritual movement of the 1800's, and an investigation into our own paranormal creation myths and dogmatic origins. We believe with the help of a collective, popular mindset, (not "collective consciousness", that's different), and drive forward common conceptions and beliefs without understanding the cognitive bias we all operate within. As humans, we are driven to believe, but we need to remain aware in order to ascertain truth and logic that lies at the core of all belief.

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