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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. 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, even religion, to this day. No to go all Spock on anyone but, that seems mighty illogical at face value.

Believing something strongly and circulating that belief to others, capable of believing just as strongly, creates a 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, curious, 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. Leah Fox Fish, one of the sisters, created an early "spiritualists society", becoming the precursor to modern Spiritualism. Anyone aware of this historical situation already knows how the Fox family, friends and neighbors, and eventually paying customers all over the United States, were taken in by their seemingly supernatural ability to communicate with the deceased on command. So who were the infamous Fox sisters, for the uninitiated?

Margaret (Maggie), Kate and Leah Fox, born in the 1830's and living in a modest cottage with their parents in Hydesville, NY, had people believing that knockings, rapping and tapping sounds in response to their out-loud questions were that of spirits of the dead responding to them. One spirit in particular they claimed to have identified through the process of questions-and-knockings was that of a man identified through the initials "C.B." He apparently had been buried in the cellar of their family cottage. The subsequent discovery of human bones in the foundation of their home was thus one they could capitalize on easily to back up their own claims. An article from the New York Times stated, "As usual, (Spiritualists) are taking all possible pains to render a real investigation of the affair impossible, and are assuming as true a lot of things much in need of other proof than their own assertions." The remains found were not a complete skeleton and even included several chicken bones. It was proposed that the entire affair may have been a purposeful hoax by a local as well. Through the knocks that began in the upstairs bedroom of the sisters, to eldest Leah conducting impromptu sessions at the table with Kate and Maggie as mediums, they convinced those who witnessed these sessions of their apparent extraordinary abilities. No one had seen this process before, and it intrigued many people who then wanted the girls to contact their own deceased loved ones. In 1848, the market for mediumship was born in a little cabin in the woods of New York.

Seances, table tipping, talking boards, mediums; America was getting spooky like never before in the mid-to-late 1800's thanks to this trio's growing popularity combined with the circumstances of life and culture at the time. The advent of the Civil War and the immense losses of life it resulted in and generally much lower mortality rates, meant that death was closer and more consistently experienced in a person's life than it is now. The girls' performances and nightly table tipping seances swept the nation in the early stages of its modern expansion. The Fox sisters literally went on a national tour in a way never before organized as such. Charlatans, soothsayers and grifters crossed the country and had garnered audiences of the gullible for years before and still do. But the sisters presented a new way to tap into the occult and provide it to an audience that wanted and needed it at the time, and with a method that was highly believable to those willing to put faith behind it.

While Spiritualism took root over the next few decades as a religion complete with hymns and formal services, it could all have come to an abrupt end with a public declaration of fraud from Maggie. On stage at the Academy of Music in New York City in 1888 she confessed to the ways which they'd perpetrated the hoax, with Kate confirming it from the audience. New York World newspaper later stated, "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... This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps." Logic would then cause one to think that perhaps communication with spirits is not an actual ability anyone possessed, but the sisters' seance scandal didn't end with the exposure of the hoax. The idea had already charted its course through a society that wasn't going to let it go lightly, even in the face of bold and countering truth. Even after publically "retiring", Maggie returned to the use of mediumship to earn money later in life.

Science still hasn't provided an explanation for ghosts or spirit communication in the way we want hard science to do so in the 21st Century. There are no repeatable experiments that provide without a shadow of a doubt that something formerly undetectable is a quantifiable or qualifiable ghost. It's unfortunate, but the lack of scientific information also helps to keep driving belief and cognitive bias forward through the cycle it remains locked within. Without a universal answer, we're able to adhere to one that comforts us for the moment, and sits logically (however contrary it is to known information) in our minds.

Modern psychology and neuroscience can give us some insight into what these ghostly experiences mean to people, and why we feel compelled to believe rather than question or pursue authenticity. The early rumors of the Fox sisters' conversations with the dead occurred at a time and in an area of New York State 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 three centuries so often it was called the "Burned-over district", implying the place was afire with spiritual fervor. Time and place, along with societal conditions in the mid-1800's, gave the girls the capacity to rise to popularity without being questioned on their integrity or authenticity. Proof came to the witnesses in what they believed were authentic spirit communication sessions.

Popular opinion continued to outweigh skeptical inquiry into their claims for nearly forty years of shows and performances before the public renouncement. 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 pre and post Civil War, along with a closeness to death and loss (high mortality rates, limited medical resources), made an American society that was not so much gullible, as much as it was 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 public performances of lies?

America, hold my beer.

Aren't we in a world of anti-vaccers, flat-earthers and climate change deniers? Moon landing deniers, Holocaust deniers, extremist groups or dangerous conspiracy groups? Yes we are, and the list of examples could go on. Society is not exactly more capable of seeing around cognitive bias just because we consider ourselves more informed in the 21st Century. That's a bias of our own in thinking we're now inherently smarter due to our own modernity and present existence. Information and misinformation both causes widespread adherence to, and belief in, extremely counter-intuitive and false biases in every period in history. Right now is no exception.

Dogmatic and unquestioned beliefs within paranormal investigation have formed through popular opinion and an availability cascade as well. Although many paranormal beliefs are now conveyed more through technological means, it remains an adequate comparison to the beginning of the Spiritualist Movement of the 1800's. Humans have a capability to believe with the help of a collective, popular mindset, and drive forward concepts, (or misconceptions), without being aware of this cognitive bias we are apt to operate within. We are driven to believe, but we need to remain consciously self-aware in order to ascertain truth and logic that lies at the core of all belief in order to hold onto it, alter it, or let it go appropriately.

I'm not saying the three young women from Hydesville, NY were special, or that they were honest in all their actions, but to play devil's advocate, maybe we can thank the Fox sisters for their accidental work in pre-ITC. The instruments were their own performances and the intent was likely for money and fame, but perhaps we needed a unique and timely hoax to spark an interest in working to identify unbiased and authentic methods of communication in the paranormal. Were the Fox's onto something extraordinary, were they the catalyst for deeper investigation, or just elaborate fraudsters? We'll only ever have opinions on the entire matter. Understanding and staying accountable for one's own cognitive biases requires healthy skepticism and diligent self-checking, which I've found is learned over time and experience, but the road of authenticity is worth every step.

Thanks for reading,

I'm Amy L. Bennett-Bradway, 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 trilogy when I was way too young. Along with my husband, Ryan, we've explored countless haunted locations in the US and abroad in search of the Weird.
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