Psychic sport-predicting animals
|Putting the psycho in|
|Men who stare at goats|
|By the powers of tinfoil|
Psychic sport-predicting animals have become one of the regular features of big sporting events such as the FIFA Football World Cup. These animals supposedly have the ability to predict the result of a game. There is a tendency to use animals known for their intelligence such as a goat, parrot, octopus, cat, and pig, although predictions have also been made using ants, a kangaroo, meerkats, and penguins.
Paul the Octopus
Paul the Octopus got many results right at the 2010 World Cup. However, the media reported on several other animals whose predictions proved less successful (such as Mani the parakeet, below), so Paul's accuracy was probably a matter of luck.
Mani the parakeet
It is claimed that Mani, a rose-ringed parakeet, worked for a few years assisting a psychic in Singapore before being called upon to preduct football results. Mani reportedly practiced cartomancy, choosing between two white cards which are placed face down. During the 2010 World Cup, Mani predicted the winners of all 4 quarter finals and one semi-final, but then got the other semi-final and the final wrong (while Paul the Octopus was correct).
Flopsy the Kangaroo
According to Salon, this marsupial at Australia Zoo got 1 game right and 1 game wrong, which is no better than chance.
Boots the Goat
This English micro-pig supposedly predicted the winner of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a Wimbledon winner, and the Brexit referendum result. It makes its choices by selecting apples placed on the ground. It's not clear how many events he failed to predict.
2016 election sharks
In 2016, Trump the shark swam 652 miles while Clinton the shark swam only 510, reflecting the electoral college result (although not the popular vote). It is unknown how many other animals named after Trump were caught by sports fishermen.
2018 FIFA World Cup
The BBC reported on a number of animals. Phoenix the cat reportedly had "mixed results", incorrectly predicting Uruguay to beat France and England to beat Belgium. The BBC also reported on meerkats, leafcutter ants, a goat and penguins.
Achilles the Cat
Another predictor for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a cat who lives in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The cat is also blind, which somehow makes the predictions more impressive even though it shouldn't. Achilles got 3 out of 4 in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Predictions are not carried out in the manner of a double-blind experiment, and the animal's choice may be far from random because of bias. Typical methods of prediction involve the animal being given the choice of two objects or being allowed to wander into one of two places, and the one touched or visited is considered the choice. This allows many opportunities for human beings to influence the result:
- baiting one choice with tastes or smells to make it more appealing, which could be deliberate or accidental. In cases where the animal chooses a bowl of food, one bowl may be fuller.
- encouragement or subtle directing towards one choice, as with the Ideomotor effect that helped the supposedly intelligent horse Clever Hans.
- many animals including cats have a natural preference for one side over the other.
- preference for certain colours.
Hence it can become a test of the animal handler's prediction skills and skill at manipulating the animal.
The media tends to focus on successful predictions, with claims of "10 successful predictions" without any indication of how many unsuccessful predictions were made. Or another report Marcus the pig: "Admittedly Marcus previously picked Belgium, Argentina, Nigeria and Uruguay to reach the semis, but no-one can be right all the time."
Additionally, there is a tendency to only report an animal once several results are correct, while ignoring all the animals who fail to predict any results: "dog gets football score wrong" is hardly an interesting news story. This allows the media to select the animal which has randomly made the best positions from a large field of candidate animals. If you have 64 animals and 6 games you would expect one animal to predict the correct result, because (excluding draws) there are 26=64 possible combinations. You can then promote your animal as having got 6 in a row, and the chances of the next being correct are at least 50%.
This may be an example of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
It often requires interpretation to judge which choice an animal makes. If the animal wanders first to one side, then the other, spectators will have to make a decision of which one the animal actually picked. Inevitably, patriotism and the desire to see the animal succeed will come into play. For instance the BBC reported on Barley the penguin in 2018 who managed to predict England beating Sweden but who "almost headed for the bucket marked Sweden, before changing her mind."
The prediction of a result is generally between two options: team A wins or team B wins. However, many games end in a draw, and this may leave grounds for interpretation.
A misunderstanding of probability may also be involved. The BBC reported on Corbie the Tortoise who managed to predict 3 games correctly and 1 wrong, which carries a probability of 31% (at least 3 out of 4 correct), or nearly 1 in 3. In some cases results may be no better than chance: an animal getting a success rate of 50% is sometimes presented as impressive, as with Flopsy the Kangaroo, or as with Shaheen the Camel where a few good results were followed by several incorrect predictions.
Many of the animals became media celebrities. It is unclear how many people bet on the animals' choices and won or lost money. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist specialising in animal behaviour has suggested that it may lead people to feel more fondly towards animals, but it also turns animals into "objects or commodities", and overall the practice of getting animals to predict sports results is "much more negative than positive".
The animals are often reported in an uncritical or humorous way by otherwise respected news sources and magazines such as the BBC, Daily Telegraph and Salon, and therefore they could be seen to be promoting irrationality and belief in psychic powers, even if a lightly skeptical or humorous approach is taken.
- Psychic Animals Favor Trump In The Election, Huffington Post, 7 Nov 2016
- See the Wikipedia article on Mani the parakeet.
- 5 psychic animals that can predict World Cup winners, Salon, 22 June 2014
- The Human, Animal And Robot Pundits That Predicted The Election Wrong (And Right), Digg, 9 Nov 2016
- World Cup 2018: 'Psychic' animals predict England v Sweden result, BBC, 7 July 2018
- The science behind 'psychic' animals that predict the World Cup, National Geographic Australia, 9 July 2018
- Psychic pig Mystic Marcus predicts World Cup semi-final line-up , Daily Telegraph, 15 June 2018