The book I was born to doubt

A few weeks ago, a coworker brought a popular book to my attention: The Life You Were Born To Live, by Dan Millman (H.J. Kramer, 1995). The numerological book purports to describe one's personality and emotional challenges/strengths simply by performing calculations based on one's date of birth.

If you think like I do, you'll instantly scoff at the idea as little more than an expensive book full of wordy horoscopes. Yet my coworker pointed out that, although he was usually skeptical, the accuracy of the book in describing his own life, his romantic relationship, and the lives of many of his friends had converted him.

Since I knew that this coworker is not the stereotypical horoscope reader, I decided I should investigate further. I casually commented that I would be interested in learning what the book said about those born on my birth date, but cautioned that I was highly doubtful any such description would be especially accurate (though coincidental accuracy was possible, of course). After some discussion, we decided to experimentally test the merits of the book by the procedure I will now describe.

Test one

My coworker (Adam) and I got together later in the week to conduct the tests. As I previously mentioned, the book basically works by taking a person's birth date and manipulating the digits, which results in one of a number of possible "life paths" (though the book does not call them anything in particular).

I had never (and still have never) looked inside the book and thus I had no familiarity with the system or life paths; my coworker had no clue as to my birth date other than the year. We decided I would create a list of random birth dates, with the exception that one would be my own; I would then give this to my coworker for him to calculate the appropriate life paths.

(As for coming up with "random" dates, I chose to use the dates of my mother, father, brother, and sister, as each of us have a different birth month/day; I changed the years to within one year of my actual birthday.)

I handed Adam the list of dates and left the room while he manipulated the figures and found the appropriate life path entries. He then randomized the order in which he would read the entries. Thus, he did not know which date (and, thus, which entry) was the life path that corresponded to my actual date of birth; as for me, since he randomized the reading order, I did not know which entry corresponded to my birth date. Thus, the test was truly double-blind, as we both lacked a vital element of information during the experiment.

The proposal was simple: Adam would read the life path entries aloud, after which we would each choose which entry best described me. After we had both chosen and explained our choices, we would reveal to each other the "missing" information that would allow us to figure out what entry actually belonged to me — and, therefore, judge the book's accuracy.

If the book was accurate, the entry that belonged to me should have been the one we both (or I, at least) selected as best describing me. Of course, this outcome could have resulted from chance, too, but the likelihood of that would have been 20% — or so we thought.

Adam read through four "life path" descriptions — four instead of five, because two of the birth dates yielded the same life path entry. Therefore, there was actually a 1/4 (25%) chance that the "right" entry would coincidentally describe me best. Of course, if the book is accurate and trustworthy, there should be a relatively high chance of accuracy — near 90% or greater, I would hope (if not 100%, though there is always the issue of interpretation).

I should briefly note, since I haven't yet, that although I am skeptical of horoscopes in general, I am not a priori opposed to the possibility of this book having true predictive power through numerology — so if the evidence did point to that (not just through one test, but through many tests), I would accept that conclusion.

On the edge of your seat yet? Adam read the four life path entries he calculated (and cleverly labeled paths 1, 2, 3 & 4) as I noted the adjectives and phrases used in each description and jotted down whether I thought a path applied to me or not. Adam noted that any strong emotional response — either a strong "that's me!" or a strong "that's not me!" — could indicate an accurate description.

When all was read and done, I felt that path 2 was clearly describing me. Path 3 seemed a "rough fit," and paths 1 and 2 did not seem to describe me. In fact, I was surprised how accurate path 2 sounded, and thought to myself that if path 2 really did correspond with my birth date, I would indeed have to investigate the book much further.

But before I disclosed any of my above thoughts to Adam, he commented on what path he thought most described me. I was quite surprised to learn that his thoughts were identical to mine: he believed 2 very accurately described me, that 3 approximated me, and that 1 and 4 were relatively inaccurate descriptions.

And suddenly came the moment of truth: time to reveal our privileged information. I asked Adam to read the birth date associated with each of the descriptions.

He did so.

The result?

My birth date corresponded with path 4. I felt strangely surprised; the accuracy of the description of path 2 had almost convinced me that the book really had predictive/descriptive power, so to have the rug of numerology rudely pulled out from under me snapped me back into the scientific mindset. I revealed my true birth date to Adam, who too was surprised.

We then took a more in-depth look at the description for the fourth path, as each path's description is actually several pages long (Adam had only constructed a summary of each description when he read aloud). Personally, I did not feel path 4 applied to me except here and there; Adam, on the other hand, found one or two things that he felt did apply to me. Even so, we agreed that the book had not fared well in round one.

Test two

In addition to the general descriptions/predictions of an individual's life challenges and strengths, the book allows two birth dates to be composited to form a "relationship number" that corresponds with a relationship path. These paths supposedly describe/predict the nature of an amicable or romantic relationship.

In my life thus far, I have been involved in three serious, steady romantic relationships. Thus, we decided I would give Adam the birth dates of these three women, along with their initials. Now that Adam knew my real birth date, he could combine these dates with mine to reach three "relationship paths." He would again randomize the reading order and read them to me while I took notes; I would then select which description matched which relationship, and he would then reveal "the truth."

Unfortunately, this test would be less rigorous, as Adam has not known me long enough to be familiar with any of my past relationships; I would be the sole judge of accuracy in the end. (In retrospect, I realize I could have offered brief descriptions of these three relationships that would have allowed Adam a chance to guess as well.) In a way, this test was actually three-in-one, as a truly accurate book should describe all three relationships accurately; on the other hand, a complete dud would fail to get a single one of the relationships right (though there was actually only a 2/6, or 33% chance, of that happening; the most likely result [3/6 or 50% chance] is that it would get one right and the other two wrong [it is impossible to get two right without also getting the third right]; getting all three right had a 1/6, or 16.7% chance).

Adam calculated the composite numbers and read the three descriptions. Again, I carefully noted adjectives and phrases associated with each description, and jotted down ideas about which description belonged to which relationship. The three relationships, as symbolized by the initial letter of the given names of the three girls, were L, S, and K.

Adam read relationship path 1. It didn't take me long to associate the entry with L. He then read relationship path 2, which I found I associated with K. Finally, he read relationship path 3, which I associated with K even more than the second path. In other words:

R1 = L
R2 = K
R3 = K

None of the three paths described my relationship with S; however, to attempt accuracy, I concluded that R2 must apply to S.

After briefly considering and confirming my "answers," I gave Adam the signal to reveal the order. I was astonished by the truth:

R1 = K
R2 = L
R3 = S

In other words, the book performed as badly as possible on test 2, not even getting a single relationship right.

Conclusions

Now, I know what ye Born To Live faithful are saying: the book did get the descriptions right, and I'm just too dumb/prideful/skeptical/blinded/etc. to realize that. Or, alternatively, I simply lacked the faith necessary to "work" the book.

And, honestly, I can't possibly prove that neither of those situations are happening. Regarding the latter, I certainly didn't conduct the experiment with ironclad faith in the book, so if that theory is correct, then no wonder the book didn't predict my life accurately. As for the former, maybe I will someday realize that the book described my life perfectly, and I simply didn't know this during the trials.

But let me, if I may, spring alternative theories for why some (indeed, perhaps many) individuals find the book to be a successful descriptor-predictor of their lives.

First — and this is, of course, common in most horoscopic material — the entries describe and predict attributes, strengths, challenges, etc., that apply to most people. So, while listening to the different life paths and relationship paths in Born To Live, I repeatedly thought, "Who doesn't that apply to?" Sure, nobody will agree with 100% of what's said; still, the lack of specificity gives the book verisimilitude even while decreasing its actual usefulness.

Furthermore, it's not just that the descriptions are broadly brushed and apply to most people; many phrases are fairly ubiquitous in the entries. Again, this overlap reduces reliability and lofts the likelihood of "Hey, that's me!"

Second is the idea that "no matter what, the book is right." What do I mean? Well, Adam told me that since it's possible that the book is describing challenges you haven't yet faced, personality flaws you haven't yet discovered (or mastered), or situations you haven't yet encountered, then even if a description sounds horribly inaccurate, it could still be right. And, as I mentioned earlier, Adam told me that the stronger one's doubt that a description fits him, the more likely that it actually does (and cognitive dissonance is simply interfering with the recognition). So if you believe that "your" description is accurate, the book works! Yet if you disagree with the description, the book still works! This makes it virtually impossible (in less than a lifetime, anyway) to falsify the hypothesis that the book "works."

Another aspect is that the book describes one's areas of personality weakness as having the most potential for strength. In other words, one person's life path might be that he is initially reticent, but eventually, he challenges and conquers this, and become the most gregarious guy on the block. Am I disagreeing that this sometimes happens? No. However, again, this puts the book in the enviable situation of being almost always right because it can either claim that "you may not yet be x, which I described you as, but you're going to be!" or "you may not be y anymore, but as a little child, you were, though you've gotten over that now!"

For example, most people would probably either describe themselves as relatively gregarious (overall), or somewhat more taciturn (or, at least, having struggled with shyness at some point in their lives). (I'm suggesting that perhaps 25% of the population is of the nearly unbreakable "social butterfly" drive, with virtually no fear of casual conversation with strangers or the raucous din of crowded ballrooms; the rest of us wrestle — to varying degrees — with fear of the aforementioned.) If the book states something like, "You initially have trouble overcoming shyness, but later conquer it and become comfortable and outgoing in groups," and if the change from shyness to friendliness could be either anytime in your future or as far back as your forgotten childhood, then it's — once again — nearly impossible to say the book is wrong and very likely you'll think the book is describing/predicting accurately.

My final conclusion is relatively straightforward, and (again) applies to most horoscopic material: the average reader will simply determine his entry, then read it and gauge the accuracy without reference to the other entries. Therefore, if the author can write each entry with breadth instead of depth and fog instead of form, the result is a book full of entries that are all "accurate." But the unsuspecting person who doesn't compare entries will be shocked by the amazing precision of the charade.

And perhaps you disagree with my conclusions on the matter. Yet without doubt, the careful experimentation Adam and I conducted decidedly shed light on the true paucity of this book's predictive power.

But then again, maybe I was just born to be a doubter.

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