Sunday, 30 March 2014

Bigger on the inside

Give me your hand, I said, and The Girl did. For tonight’s lesson, I said, I’m going to read your fortune.

She looked at me sceptically. “I’m pretty sure you can’t.”

Just watch me, I said, and I looked at her hand. The lines on your hand say that you have a very good heart, I told her, but occasionally you let your emotions get the best of you. You’re unusually intelligent and get bored easily. The lines on your hand say that if you wake up tomorrow with confidence and enthusiasm, the planets will grant you a good day. They say that you’re hiding a secret … one you’ve never told anyone …

“That’s private, Daddy,” she said gently, but smiling. “And you already know all my secrets, or can guess them.”

I’ll allow that I know you pretty well, I said, and I suppose that somewhat undermines my example. 

But say I were a stranger, or you were someone else – would you think I had read your mind?

“I’d think it a lucky guess,” said The Girl. “But some people might think you were really reading my fortune.”

It needn’t be a lucky guess, I said. You want me to tell you the secret? I asked, and she nodded.

The secret, I said, is that everything I said would be true of almost everyone. It’s called the Barnum Effect, after circus owner P.T. Barnum in the USA.

“But the same description can’t fit every person,” she said.

Just about, I said, or at least everyone thinks it describes them. Everyone gets bored, a lot. Almost everyone thinks they have a good heart, and lots of people have a secret, like a crush on someone …

“Even grownups?” she said. “They couldn’t – most of them are married already!”

Well, everyone has secrets, anyway, I said, I tiptoeing around that question.

“So don’t ever believe a fortune-teller,” she said.

Not just fortune-tellers, I said. You’ll see this in adverts on the telly – someone will look at the camera and say something like, ‘Are you feeling tired these days? Maybe you should try this new kind of drug,’ or something. That’s the Barnum Effect. You’ll see it in horoscopes too, I said.

“What are horoscopes?” she said.

Little articles that claim to tell you what your fortune will be, I said -- most newspapers carry them.
“In the newspaper?” The Girl said. “Aren’t they supposed to say things that are true?”

They’re supposed to, I said – and some people just consider it a game, or a handy way of making decisions. But a lot of people think it’s real, and it’s not.

My first job at a newspaper was writing the horoscopes, I said. My first night there I was just a teenager, doing what everyone’s job is at first – the things no one else wants to do.   And the editor told me to write the next day’s horoscopes. When I told her I’d never written a horoscope before, she said, “Have you seen a horoscope before?” I nodded, and she said, “Write it like that.”

“So how did you write them?” The Girl asked.

I wrote something that sounded like a horoscope, I said. The stars are in your favour today, if you take the opportunity. Work harder today, and you might get more done. You’ve done something you regret, but it’s not too late to set things right again. I didn’t realise it yet, but I was using the Barnum Effect; the sentences are all so vague that everyone thinks they speak to them.

“So all the grownups I meet …. They all have secrets like that?” The Girl said, and I could tell she was looking at the world differently. “They’ve all done things they regret? They all get lonely sometimes?

That’s right, I said – you’re not alone. We’re all just people, and see only a tiny part of each other. We’re all bigger on the inside.
Photo: The Girl sitting on the turf we cut -- our fuel for the next few winters -- and feeding the chickens. 

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