Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Lose Money at Gambling? Sue For Bad Feng Shui!

You have to admire the cajones on this guy. Not only does he skip the country with a 2 million dollar gambling debt, he threatens to sue the casino for bad Feng Shui. (Yes, really.) What, the craps table wasn't aligned with magnetic north for you, princess? No, it's even dumber than that:

Yuan [the gambler] claims that the Venetian "dug a one-meter-square hole" into the wall of his suite (the presidential suite) and covered it with a black cloth. This is apparently bad feng shui, in addition to being weird, but the Venetian wasn't done. Next, it put two white towels in front of Yuan's suite, and "turned on two large fans facing his room without notifying him." After learning of these ominous portents, Yuan claims, his luck changed and he went from being up $400,000 to losing two million.

Something bad happened, and you noticed some other object or event in your immediate physical environment? Well obviously there's a direct causal relationship! It must have been the towels. It can't be that you just noticed those towels first when you went back to your hotel room after blowing your money and associated them with the loss. You undisciplined dumbass.

In entirely related behavior: the psychologist B.F. Skinner noticed that, when he put pigeons in a cage that a) randomly provided food pellets (not because they pecked on a certain spot or behaved a certain way) and b) didn't give them enough, they got crazy: that is, they developed elaborate rituals of head and body movements that the pigeons, apparently, believed were connected to pellet delivery. Why always such complicated gyrations? The more elaborate, the harder it is for the stimulus-response pattern to undergo extinction. You might expect that the same phenomenon might occur in other animals - for example, in primates who think if they jump around and shout a certain way while wearing feathers and masks, that it will rain and make the crops grow.

This same principle also works in other primates who have PhDs in math and work on Wall Street and have a complicated formula for picking stocks, believing they'll always get rich because they've only been tested in an updraft (these primates are called quants and are an endangered species after our recent financial K/T boundary; hence Warren Buffett's admonition never to invest in a company whose business plan can't be drawn on a cocktail napkin). Bond trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about this same effect in Fooled by Randomness and admits that even as a hard-headed financial contrarian who depends on his ability to outthink other humans by circumventing his own heuristics, he has on occasion developed his own pigeon rain dances. And your brilliant blogger must confess that once, while climbing solo in the Cascades, I got nervous and decided that I wouldn't swear while in sight of the mountain. Why? Someone I'd met on Mt. Hood told me he'd climbed Everest and stayed in base camp with the Sherpas for the whole season, and that to a person, every single casualty on the mountain that year had been people who cursed freely, apparently a big taboo to the Sherpa. In retrospect, probably not airtight data, but in principle still possible; it's the causal link that is necessarily B.S. Swearing doesn't make mountains buck you off. But we get nervous or excited, and our klugey old fight-or-flight systems take over more head space and we start making weird associations, oddly enough, exactly when we need to keep our heads clear. Thanks to evolution our heads are packed with legacy systems that make GM look cutting-edge.

So, Mr. Yuan, take it from Skinner: the white towels didn't make you lose money, and elaborate arrangements of objects and body movements can't make rain or food pellets or stock prices or people fall.


Dan said...

Bad Feng Shui was responsible for TMI and Chernobyl.

Michael Caton said...

And this also solves the mystery of mass extinctions. Bad plate tectonic feng shui! You get a little bit too mucha that yang in the yang and BLAMMO, KT boundary!