Friday, July 19, 2013

A Puzzle of Fortune

Why is fortune-telling tolerated? Gazing into a crystal ball and saying sooths is 24 carat grade-A bunkum down to the tips of its whiskers. It's legalized fraud. Yet for that, it's pretty lightly regulated. No, it's not entirely unegulated, since practitioners still have to obey local licensing requirements, conform to ordinances, dot the ts and cross the js. To avoid crossing legal thresholds for actionable fraud or negligence, they'll often offer an "entertainment purposes only" disclaimer, but that dog only barks in a court of law. Compared to, say, dairy farmers who want to meet consumer demands for unpasteurized milk, state authorities almost completely ignore fortune tellers.

When I thought about this late last night, my best guess was that when it comes to tarot cards and tea leaf readings, there's not that much in the way of BATNA disparity. Sellers are small potatoes and the alternatives to seeking supernatural advice are to, well, keep on truckin'. The wrinkle in that... er... thinkle is the Ouija board. Though the idea behind it can't be fully protected by IP statutes, Hasbro is the big seller. That's right, a big[ish] (market cap 6.01B, NASDAQ) publicly traded corporation is the supply side of the biggest selling piece of supernatural kit on the market. Why isn't "corporate greed" busy exploiting gullible customers in this case?

I think it might have something to do with self-deception. Fortune-telling is flattery without being too overt. It violates equality norms to solicit praise: "hey, tell me how awesome I am" is crass. But "hey, tell me who I was in a previous life... ...oh I was a general in Hannibal's armies? Awesome, bro" is fine. It's pleasant self-deception, a bit of validation that would be obnoxious in another setting, and folks' finely tuned sense of hypocrisy gets its hackles up when that's threatened. That might also be why the farmer norms that dominated for so long wanted to quash the practice: it undermines hierarchical ordering if a peasant thinks himself equal to a lord because some Romany crone with flashing eyes tells him he's got a Great Destiny or whatever.

But I'm still not super convinced that's the story either. I can't generate particularly strong priors here. Other interpretations are welcome. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I'd guess that people think that fortune customers know it is fake, so that means it isn't fraud. The milk they worry that people believe its ok, when its not.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?