Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 35.djvu/847

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
821
ORIGIN OF SOME GENERAL ERRORS.

sciousness the ordinary train of associations is formed, and the judgment corresponds with what is correct in most cases. There is, therefore, no precise limit between instinctive actions and conscious thought; for every one can observe in his own mind that thought rests considerably on phenomena of association. An elevated intelligence is, however, distinguished from an inferior one by its richness in associations. The faculty of transposing the elements of one complexus of observations into another, the possibility of making a new combination, and the wealth of associations, are prime factors in determining the degree of intelligence. A large proportion of the mistakes to which we are liable originate in this kind of instinctive succession of associations usually correct and effective, in which associations important to the particular case are wanting. In other words, they arise from the association of the habitual with the omission of the special.

The thought can be illustrated by the citation of a few widespread logical errors. Where lotteries are drawn, the lists of the drawings are earnestly scrutinized by unsuccessful investors, who, if asked why they do so, will reply that, as all the numbers must eventually be drawn an equal number of times, those which have not been drawn for a long time stand the best chance of coming out soon. People often say, when it is raining hard, that it will be made up for by fine weather afterward. A kind of belief exists in a compensating providence that will bring grief after a long run of happiness; and it is illustrated in the legend of the ring of Polycrates. The mental processes leading up to error in these instances start from the premise that all the numbers have the same chance of winning; with which is associated the anthropomorphic idea of distributive justice, taking, in the legend of Polycrates, the form of divine jealousy; our recollections witnessing to a tendency to change; and past experience, teaching that, among a given number of objects, the probability of a particular one being found soon increases in proportion as the others are sorted out and put away; or, as in the filing past of a regiment, our expectation of finding our friend in the next rank grows as companies pass in which he does not appear. All this is true in general. The factor the omission of which in the particular case leads to error is that in the lottery all the numbers are put back into the urn before each drawing, and consequently what has been done has no influence on the probabilities of the present case.

So, when a certain person is spoken of as having "luck" at play; while he may have had unusual success—that is, a high number of favorable chances among all the possible ones—for a day or several days in succession, any association of his "luck" with his personal qualities is mistaken. We usually reason correctly that men succeed in their lives and enterprises whose per-