The Brink of Chaos

The 3oz Rule and Superstitions from Action

The 3oz Rule and Superstitions from Action

A man goes through the security line at the airport. Security looks at him suspiciously and asks him abruptly, is this your bag? He nods and the security guard interrogates him: do you have any liquids or gels in your bag? The man tells him he is bringing back homemade jam from his grandmother for his family. Sorry, this looks like more than 3oz so we’re going to have to throw it away.

We all intuitively know how stupid this rule is, but have we had any major terrorist attacks since they put it in place? So it must be working, right? This is the problem of taking action without experimentation and we are all probably guilty of this.

In the process of improving our lives, we take certain actions and steps to avoid some unpleasantness (getting sick, stuck in traffic, etc). If after taking those actions, the unpleasantness does NOT occur, we keep taking those actions even though they may have had nothing to do with the unpleasantness not occurring.

Suppose there is a 1 in 30 chance of getting sick without taking any action (we of course rarely have real odds and instead only have perceived odds). We don’t ever want to get sick, so we take a special “supplement” called no-sick. We take it for several weeks and we don’t get sick. It must be working, just like the 3oz rule.

But statistically, eventually we will get sick and when that happens, we explain it must
have been a very strong cold that even got through our very effective remedy.  Look at how many days we didn’t get sick while taking no-sick. So for many months or years we take no-sick even though it may just be a bad tasting piece of candy. But it gets worse, if we decide that maybe this medicine isn’t worth it, we stop taking it. Imagine how we would feel if coincidentally we got sick a week later.

This type of superstition is insidious because we feel even worse if what we were trying to prevent happens after we stop taking the superstitious action. TSA does not want to back down on their security theater because what if it really does help in some way? And so we burden ourselves with more rules and more regulations, not because they are helping but because we are afraid to stop.

Picture Credit:  minato

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