are octopuses really psychic?

If, like me, you enjoy soccer you’ll have been excitedly following the World Cup games. You will probably have caught some of the other hoop-la – including the ‘news’ coverage of an octopus that purportedly ‘predicted’ the outcome of games involving the German team. Now, I’ve been bemused by the coverage accorded to this cephalopod ‘psychic’ – does the press really think Paul the octopus can predict the outcome of a soccer game? I’d like to be charitable & think it’s just reporters looking for a ‘feel-good’ story, or misunderstanding the nature of probability…

After all, let’s look at what the octopus is doing. Offered 2 flag-bearing boxes (one with the German flag, one with the opponent’s), each containing a mussel, he chooses one of them. For the 6 matches involving the German team he appeared to select the winner of each game, including the one that saw Germany go home & Spain progress to the final of the world cup. (A rather tedious game, I have to say…)

Gasp! Surely this is due to more than chance? Well, no. If you toss a coin & record whether it comes up heads or tails, over (say) 100 tosses you’ll see ‘runs’ of several heads or several tails. But each time you toss, regardless of what’s gone before, there’s a 1 in 2 chance of coming up heads. And that’s probably what we’re seeing here. Offer Paul the same choices, multiple times, & I’d predict that you’d see similar results – sometimes he’d be right, & sometimes wrong, & sometimes there’d be a run of correct ‘choices’. (But no-one’s going to do that, of course, because they don’t see a story in it.) However, humans are pattern-seeking creatures & we seem predisposed to imbue mere coincidence with far more meaning than it actually has. And given the amount of press coverage given to self-proclaimed psychics of the human variety, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised that the octopus, too, has gained his moment of fame.

5 thoughts on “are octopuses really psychic?”

  • herr doktor bimler says:

    German bars being what they are, there were probably at least 64 bars in Berlin alone who used an octopus in a tank to predict the outcome of the first game.
    After that game, there were 32 octopodes who survived to predict the outcome of the second game.
    Eventually we are left with Paul who gets all the headlines.

  • What amazed me more was how prominent the news items on “Paul” were – often placed in between items of actual news. Although I confess I’d rather watch an octopus eat a mussel than a game of soccer anyday, regardless of any perceived paranormal powers!
    Another theory being purported, in the Times of India no less, is that “Paul” is in fact the second coming of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
    I quite like this theory!

  • “decent game of soccer” = oxymoron IMHO. But I’m not biased against soccer in particular, just don’t see the point of watching sport… (I was disowned as a New Zealander when I was overseas!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *