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The Fox Sisters & Cognitive Bias

When we dismiss or reject particular information in favor of what fulfills our own needs and justifies our own beliefs, we end up with a cognitive bias. For example, let's say something that occurred over a century ago was believed to be profound and even 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 persisted in society so strongly, that it remains a widely adhered to belief system, to this day. That might seem, at face value, somewhat illogical.

Believing something so strongly, and circulating that belief to others capable of believing just as strongly, creates a particular cognitive bias termed the 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, ready-to-believe, and sometimes gullible public. For a quick reference that comes from the 21st Century, see actress Jenny McCarthy and vaccinations.

The example I mentioned about the new occurrence and a hoax all within one century shows the Availability Cascade within the Fox sisters phenomenon; 3 young women who lived during the 19th Century and inadvertently initiated the National Spiritualist Movement. Anyone aware of this historical situation already knows how first their family, then friends and neighbors and eventually paying customers all over the United States were taken in by their seemingly extraordinary ability to communicate with the deceased.

Margaret (Maggie), Kate and Leah Fox, born in the 1830's and living in a modest cottage in Hydesville, NY, had people believing that particular knockings, rapping and tapping in response to their out-loud questions, were that of the spirits of the dead responding to them. 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 and popular, and drove the idea of spirit communication to a solidified place in society. The girls' performance tours of spirit communication swept the nation in the early stages of its 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 and countering truth.

Modern science still doesn't have an explanation for ghosts, or spirit communication, in the way we expect hard science would provide it. There are no machines, tests, techniques or repeatable experiments that declare without a shadow of a doubt that something formerly undetected is now a quantifiable or qualifiable "ghost", or "spirit". It's unfortunate, but the lack of scientific information also helps to keep driving belief, and cognitive bias forward through that cycle it remains locked within. Without an answer, we are able to adhere to one that comforts us, and sits logically (however contrary it is to known information) in our brains.

It's modern psychology and neuroscience that can give us more insight into what these experiences and ghostly definitions might mean to people, and why we feel compelled to believe, 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 sense of faith. The Western NY region in particular has been subject to multiple religious revivals throughout the past 3 centuries. Time and place and society's condition at the time of the mid-1800's gave the girls the capacity to rise to popularity without being questioned on their integrity or proof. Proof came with the witnesses to what they believed were authentic spirit communication sessions. While anecdotal and subjective at best, that is how the human brain is wired to work.

Popular opinion outweighed skeptical insight into their claims. 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, and to want to believe. Further struggles with the impending American Civil War, along with a closeness to death and loss (high mortality rates, limited medical resources), gave an overall picture of an American society that was not so much gullible, as searching fervently for meaning in the face of astounding grief.

One of these jerks is faking. Totally faking.

The Availability Cascade can make the entire Fox sister's situation look astonishing now. How could so many people fall victim to a hoax and subsequent theatrical performances of lies? America, hold my beer. Do you know any anti-vaccers, flat-earthers, climate change deniers? The list of examples could go on for a while. 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 extremely counter-intuitive and downright false biases, quite commonly.

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 beginning of the Spiritual Movement of the 1800's, and an investigation into our own current paranormal creation myths and dogmatic origins. We believe with the help of a collective, popular mindset, and drive forward concepts and beliefs, (or misconceptions), without understanding the cognitive bias our brains are apt to operate within. As humans, we are driven to believe, but we need to remain highly self-aware in order to ascertain truth and logic that lies at the core of all belief.

Maybe in a way we can all thank the Fox sisters for their pioneering work in ITC, albeit the instruments were themselves. Maybe we needed a ruse and hoax, however real or fake all their seances were, to spark an interest in the work to identify true communication with an unknown Other. Were the Fox's on to something extraordinary, or were they just the catalyst for deeper investigation? Remembering and staying accountable for one's own cognitive biases requires healthy skepticism and diligent self-checking, but the road of authenticity has never been an easy path.

Thanks for reading,

I'm Amy, a writer, multimedia artist, recovering archaeologist and YouTuber from Upstate, New York. I've been invested in all things strange and unusual since my dad gave me the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book trilogy when I was way too young. Along with my other half, Ryan, we've explored some of the most terrifying, famous haunts in the US and abroad in search of the paranormal.
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