Brexit Octopus: Why People Love 'Psychic' Animals

People have always been fascinated by performing animals.

While the world debates the Great Britain's decision to leave the European Union, at least one U.K. celebrity's take is well known.

She is Otto the Octopus, a star at the Manchester Sea Life Centre.

As the results were being tallied, the "Lancashire Evening Post" reported, "Many claim the historic vote is too close to call -- but Otto the psychic octopus is in no doubt. The clairvoyant cephalopod, who lives at Manchester Sea Life Centre, has been using Lego to make predictions in her tank. Two Lego blocks, one with 'Leave' and one with 'Remain' were placed in front of Otto to cast her vote. There was no wavering -- she thinks Britain will remain in the EU after tomorrow's vote."

Given the vote to leave (52 to 48 percent) Otto's accuracy is questionable, but a larger question is why people would seek out an octopus's opinion on the matter -- it's not as if staying in the EU would have led to a larger tank or tastier snacks for the creature. Why do people love psychic animals so much?

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For one thing, most of the prognosticating animals are awfully cute; think of the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, for example. He-or, rather, his various incarnations-have long been loved and celebrated as a whimsical American rodent hero. Of course some of the psychic animals-like Otto-are slimy and hardly cuddly, but are mascots nonetheless. Many of these animals are of course promoted as psychic because it's a fun, inexpensive, and irresistible publicity tool. Millions of people who otherwise would never have heard of the Manchester Sea Life Centre will now know about its resident octopus and her vote.

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Another reason is that people have always been attracted to, and fascinated by, performing animals. Magic historian and actor Ricky Jay devotes a chapter to such animal marvels in his book "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric, and Amazing Entertainers," noting that an 1817 advertisement touted "Toby the Sapient Pig," whose abilities included spelling, reading, playing cards, telling time, and -- perhaps most astonishingly -- reading an audience member's thoughts (hopefully the person wasn't reminiscing about the delicious bacon he had for breakfast).

Those porcine wonders were illusions and tricks, of course, but not all were; a horse exhibited throughout Europe in the 1890s named Clever Hans was said to be able to count, read, and spell. Hans was enormously popular with paying crowds, and seemed a genuine mystery for several years. A skeptical researcher, however, eventually discovered that Hans was responding to unconscious cues from his trainer, who would make subtle movements when Hans had selected the correct answer. It wasn't a hoax or fraud but instead what psychologists call "unconscious cueing."

Fantastic Feats

Animals do in fact have superhuman senses that can appear mysterious or even paranormal. Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell that can track fugitives and detect minute quantities of drugs or explosives (even through heavy masking agents such as perfume or ammonia); birds can migrate using celestial cues; and elephants can detect faint vibrations -- including other elephants' footsteps -- for miles.

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Many people believe that animals can predict earthquakes, and there's some scientific truth to it. Animals may sense unusual vibrations or changes in air pressure coming from one direction that suggest they should move in the opposite direction. If a herd of animals are seen fleeing before an earthquake, all that is needed is for one or two of them to skittishly sense danger and the rest will follow.

Folklore is rife with superstitions and omens based on animal behavior. Perhaps the most famous is that crossing a black cat's path brings bad luck, but there are many others across eras and cultures. Some people believe, for example, that encountering other animals (including bees, crickets, and ladybugs) brings good luck.

Ancient Romans believed that animals could tell the future by spilling their guts-literally. Haruspication, a popular fortune-telling practice, involved disemboweling a recently butchered animal (usually poultry or sheep) and spreading its intestines on the ground to see if the bloody entrails formed any symbols that could be interpreted as omens about a specific question, or the future in general.

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Aside from Otto there are many predicting animals, including a camel named Shaheen, an elephant named Nelly, a dog named Roy Dog-son, and Pele the Psychic Piranha. To be fair, some seemingly psychic animals do predict outcomes at a statistically higher rate than would be expected by chance. But we need not invoke some paranormal powers to account for this, since with enough animals making enough predictions, some will outperform others merely by random chance.

The best-known "psychic" animals are known precisely because they succeed; local prognosticators who perform significantly below chance aren't likely to make the news. And while things didn't work out on the Brexit vote, whether Otto has a future predicting European soccer games may be decided soon.