Feng Shui Myths, Superstitions, Unconscious biases and False Problems

Unfortunately, to feng shui and feng shui enthusiasts, there are many feng shui myths, superstitions, unconscious biases and false problems within the feng shui tradition. Over the last 30+ years, when I’ve been practising feng shui professionally, I’ve received thousands of letters and emails from confused people asking me about feng shui. I could easily write a book based on false problems that feng shui can give the public.

The best way to deal with feng shui myths, superstitions, biases and false problems that feng shui can give you is to apply a very tested scientific method for sorting out what is true and what is false and that is scientific method and research. There is not much scientific research into feng shui and the next best thing is to see if another discipline such as environmental psychology – which I’m trained in – has any answers or can offer some clarity on it. Below is a growing list of feng shui myths, superstitions and false problems and my scientific explanations and answers.

Feng shui superstitions

Feng shui superstitions. Do numbers have the power of your life?

Feng shui astrology
There is no evidence that astrology works. There are also many astrological systems that don’t overlap which gives us a clue that it’s not a science. Anything evidence-based works universally. It looks like different astrological systems (Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Vedic, Western, etc) were developed as an early way of defining human typology or personality types. If ever, any systems seem to correlate to each other is pure, statistical coincidence. And if it seems to work at all – it’s a placebo effect in action or just pure priming effect or confirmation bias (read below).

Compass directions
Traditional feng shui is very keen on directions and how they might affect people’s lives, financially, health-wise, etc. Again, there is no evidence that this is true at all. But some people believe that it works. The way it might work is only because of the placebo effect and confirmation bias. There are only a couple of studies suggesting that people might sleep better when they sleep with their heads pointing towards north since it aligns their bodies with the North pole. Some animals do the same. But there is no evidence that sleeping with your best direction based on your astrological chart makes any difference to your life. And that’s probably for better – most people can’t arrange their beds with their best direction/s anyway and if you’re a couple and belong to different groups ie west and east then you’d have to sleep in different directions (and some people actually do – really?).

Compass directions

Compass directions. Have they got power over your life? You decide.

A missing area in the bagua model
A very misleading and confusing idea is the missing area in the bagua model. It suggests that if your home has not a regular size and some parts look like there are missing from the overall regular plan the property. So for example, if the top left corner (or south-east) of the house is missing, then your wealth corner is missing. If the shape of the house is L shaped, then the relationship area of the house is missing. As interesting and compelling it might look – there is no evidence that this is true. First of all, the bagua model is just a mental construct or model to help people to focus on different aspects of their lives. There is no such thing as wealth corner or relationship corner, etc. It’s completely imaginary. So believing that you have a missing area will only stress you out and give you a false problem. From an environmental psychology perspective, it might be said that some people have a preference for regular shaped spaces – but that’s all. A preference doesn’t mean it will affect everyone in the same way or cause any problems.

Confusing correlation with causation is the fundamental error that most feng shui consultants and enthusiasts fall for.

Toilet in the house
Toilets have a bad reputation in feng shui. Especially, when they’re in the centre of the house of the wealth area of the property. What traditional, classic feng shui falsely suggests is that it will cause problems for the occupants. The biggest problems with classical or traditional feng shui is that it is not based on any scientific enquiry and it confuses correlation with causation. Correlation doesn’t mean causation. But ancient people didn’t have the thinking or logical tools to figure out this simple scientific method. Also, in the ancient days, before the inception of plumbing and central heating – toilets where generally outside of the house for the obvious reasons. But superstitious thinking feng shui doesn’t take into account that things have changed house-wise. A common question I’ve been getting from people with less common sense is: “What do I do with my toilet? The so and so, so-called feng shui author, says on page 57 in her book that toilets are bad in a particular part of the house.” My response is usually, “Do you have any problems related to this issue?” And very often, the enquiring persons says, “No, I haven’t had any problems – until I read this feng shui book.” This is a perfect example of a false problem.

“Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.” Jonathan Swift

Common sense is very clear on this false problem: if you believe that a toilet controls your finances or any aspect of your life – you are the problem.

Numbers and numerology
Numerology and beliefs in the power of numbers are very common in the east and west. If you believe in the apparent power of numbers – there is no easy way to break it to you –you’re deluding yourself if you believe that numbers have any influence over your life. I’ve had met western people in the UK, Portugal, France and Poland who were avoiding the number 4, just because in Chinese culture it is associated with death (in Chinese, the number 4 sounds like the word ‘death’). I had British and European clients who would give up their common sense and reject a perfect house because it has the number 4 in it, ie 44, 24, 14, etc. In the west, people believe that number 13 is an unlucky number. Some superstitious people are eager to point out that 13 = 1+3=4 so it must be true. Obviously, they’ve never heard of apophenia (see below).

Why do some people believe in feng shui myths, superstitions and false problems?

Myths, superstitions and false problems

Myths are traditional and local stories concerning the early history of humanity and basic attempts at explaining a natural or social phenomenon and usually involving supernatural beings or events.

Superstitions are excessively credulous beliefs in and reverence for the supernatural or a widely held but irrational beliefs in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck or fortune or misfortune and practices based on such beliefs. Superstitions are social constructs and they do exist precisely because they are social constructs, and they’re real because people enact on them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re true. One has to admire people’s desire to challenge Jonathan Swift dictum: “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.”

“Superstitions live longer than books.” said John Clare. The Romans made a distinction between religio which is a sensible faith and superstitio which Cicero believed to be “excessivd fear of the gods”. In modern psychology, superstition is linked to mental unrest, obsessive compalsive disorders and the need for a sense of order and control as well as comforting routines – especially in the times of radical uncertainty. For example, walking under the ladder was thought to be unlucky by the Egyptians (who believed that triangles were sacred and walking under a ladder was profane since a ladder can form a shape of triangle with a wall) and Christians who are obsessed with the ladder against Christ’s cross. Obviously, it can be dangerious to walk under the ladder for basic safety, common-sense reasons and this conclusion follows simply Occam’s razor or the law of parsimony.

Aldous Huxley suggested that superstitions in mankind was “the price he has to pay for being intelligent but not, as yet, quite intelligent enough.” Superstitious people have an unconscious ‘negative agency bias’ which is a belief that negative things that happen are caused by external factors. And that’s why people are more frightened by bad luck (must see a second magpie) and do everything to increase their good luck factor.

Superstitions rituals are very common in sport where chance factors play a huge part. For example, Goran Ivanisevic, the tennis player would obsessively repeat all kinds of rituals that proved successful and lucky like wearing the same clothes, talking to the same people and eating the same food, etc – forgetting that these things don’t control his tennis, he does. Superstions are not rooted in a rational belief system but in a supernatural belief system, thereofre it’s very difficult to fight them through reason.

False problems area problems that are conceived based on false assumptions, biases and ill or inadequate understandings of how things work, usually made because of basic ignorance of human psychology and natural laws of physics as well as statistics.

“A desk or table, a chair, paper and pencil” was what Albert Einstein asked in 1933 when he signed up for his new job at the Institue for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA. And then he asked for one more item: “Oh, yes and a large wastebasket, so I can throw away all my mistakes.” If only all feng shui teachers, authors and consultants had large bins for all the feng shui myths, superstitions and false problems, there would be less confusion in this field.

Feng shui (unconscious) biases

The most common unconscious bias people fall for, when it comes to feng shui, is the confirmation bias. It states that people preferentially seek, notice and recall information the confirms their preconceptions, cognitive models, mindsets and beliefs. If only feng shui consultants where aware of their confirmation bias, there would be less confusion and false problems in feng shui.

Confirmation bias has been proposed in the 5th century AD by the Greek philosopher Diagoras of Melos, who once pointed out to the people who believed that were saved from a shipwreck because they were praying to gods to save them – that lots of people died as well, in spite of their prayers but were not likewise commemorated.

Many biases can be overcome if we are aware of them so incorporate some basic checks for them into our ‘slow’ deliberate thinking. Unconscious bias or implicit bias, as well as ‘debiasing’, have been studied extensively (in behaviour science, cognitive psychology, Watson, 1960 and ‘nudge politics’) and there are many tests online. A good book to start exploring your own unconscious biases and to ‘debias’ yourself is: Sway: Unraveling Unconscious Bias by Pragya Agarwal

Unconscious / Implicit Biases 
Availability Giving weight to events you can immediately recall
AnchoringFocusing on one factor, often the first encounter, when making a decision
Clustering illusionSeeing phantom patterns in random events
Cognitive dissonanceNew information contradicting our existing perceptions and beliefs
Confirmation biasPreferentially noticing, seeking and recalling information the confirms your mindsets, cognitive models, preconceptions and beliefs
Congruence biasTesting ideas by seeking evidence that supports rather than refutes them
Disconfirmation biasSpending considerable energy in denigrating arguments that run counter to our existing beliefs
Dunning-Kruger biasThinking we know more than we do and underestimating what you don't know
Endowment effectValuing things more highly simply because they belong to you
Fundamental attribution errorAttributing people's behaviours to their personality, not the situation
Gambler's fallacyBelieving that past random events alter the likelihood of future ones
Hyperbolic discounting Overvaluing what's available now relative to what you can have later
Implicit biasUnconsciously hold attitudes towards others or associate stereotypes with them
In-groups biasOverestimating the abilities and values of your own group relative to others
Loss aversion Caring more about a possible loss of something (money, etc) than caring about the possible win or gain
Negativity biasPaying more attention to bad news and feedback than good
Projection biasAssuming that most people think like you and hold the same beliefs
Status quo biasFavouring decisions that will leave things just as they are

Watch this TED talk about the confirmation bias which can be summarised as follows:

  1. A story is not a fact. It may not be true.
  2. A fact is not data. It may not be representative.
  3. Data is not evidence. It may not be supportive.
  4. Evidence may not be proof. It may not be universal.

And the practical tips for fool-proving yourself to confirmation bias:

  1. Actively seek other viewpoints. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle
  2. Listen to experts but evaluate the evidence (papers published, where and when). “Would you entrust your body to a random man from the street or online blogger to perform a heart operation on you?” 
  3. Pause before sharing anything. The Hippocratic oath says, “First, do no harm”.

Finding the truth in the fake news times and using evidence:

  1. Is it true? Only if yes, is it the fact?
  2. Is it representative? Only if yes, is it data?
  3. Is it supportive? Only if yes, is it evidence?

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people. Hence, the warning: be careful what you say to people, especially if you refer to nonsensical, mythical and superstitious feng shui – they might perceive you as psychotic or losing your mind or not very bright.

Correlation does not imply causation

‘Correlation is not causation’ means that just because two things correlate or appear to correlate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. Correlations between two things can be caused by other factors that affect both of them. These other factors are called confounders. For example, data from seaside towns suggests that the more ice cream is sold there, there more bathers are attacked by sharks. Does it mean that ice cream vendors are to blame? Obviously, the more sensible conclusion is that there is more people on the beach. Confusing correlation with causation or not distinguishing between the two is the fundamental error that most feng shui consultants and enthusiasts fall for. If you don’t understand the causal process, you are susceptible to unconscious bias.

In statistics, even a strong correlation does not imply causation. For example, if your data have a correlation coefficient of +1 or -1, it is critical to note that correlation still does not imply causality. A meaningful nonlinear relationship may exist even if the correlation coefficient is 0.

Darrell Huff, in his classic book, How to lie with Statistics, proves with statistics ‘that storks deliver babies’ (the correlation is real ie that stork nests are more likely to be found on the roofs of family homes.) The book shows that there is plenty of very dodgy statistics around but when you learn how to read statistics and use your rational mind (emotions and feelings can influence your sound judgement) you can get closer to the truth.

There is a mathematical model of ‘doing’ which allows for the distinction between cause and effect (proposed in the early 1930s by Judea Pearl at The University of California). For example, if you ‘do’ by intervening to force pressure to change, then the reading on the barometer will shift. But if you ‘do’ a change in the barometer reading, the pressure doesn’t’ alter as a result. So, an intervention on the cause will change the effect, but the intervention on the effect won’t change the cause.

For example, it’s wrong to state that red wine causes long life. When it only correlates with long life and also when exercise, etc as confounding factors are involved. A factual case from feng shui: a person in the UK has won a lottery after he decided to close the toilet lid, after reading about feng shui tip that closing the toilet lid prevents financial loss. If there was any causation, in this case, everyone who closes the toilet lid (and there are many people doing it, mostly for aesthetic reasons) would be winning the lottery – which obviously is not the case – feel free to test it yourself and report it to me.

Black pussycat

A black pussycat – it’s just a cat but some superstitious people assign it magical powers or simply give away their own power to a small animal. Really?

Debunking feng shui myths, superstitions and false problems
It’s very difficult to debunk feng shui myths because of people’s innate superstitions, biases, magical thinking and lack of commons sense, as well as basic ignorance. Ultimately, people are free to believe in whatever they want to believe. Fortunately, most of my feng shui clients are intelligent enough to see beyond feng shui superstitions and myths and appreciate some universal wisdom of feng shui which is supported by evidence as well as modern feng shui developments in electromagnetic stress and other environmental stressors. Feng shui intelligence is required to see beyond myths, superstitions and false problems.

Uncritical thinking
I remember, when my son, after two years of unsuccessful attempts to capture Santa Claus before Xmas, announced proudly and sadly at the same time, that Santa doesn’t exist. When asked how does he know for sure, he answered, “I’ve googled it!” At that moment, he woke up from mythical dreaming (I call it Sant Claus thinking) to rational thinking. By the way, according to developmental psychology, there is nothing wrong with mythical thinking, which is a natural stage in human development, as long as it doesn’t cloud your perceptions of what is real or true and what is not.

Some people who are into feng shui are very uncritical and lazy when it comes to thinking about feng shui, how it works and what it does. They follow basic, simplistic, black and white magical/mythical thinking because it’s easy and doesn’t require thinking at all. Fortunately, science, psychology and environmental psychology advanced human development beyond mythical, magical and superstitious thinking and it’s now fairly easy to check things and not follow feng shui myths, superstitions and false problems. It’s up to people if they want to give away their power and common sense to feng shui superstitions, myths and false problems.

Choose the evidence-based feng shui consultant

Some feng shui consultants believe in all the above feng shui myths, superstitions and false problems. They usually have anecdotal examples suggesting that astrology works, etc. Unfortunately, most feng shui consultants haven’t been trained in scientific research and base their suggestions on their basic biases and ignorance which can only create further confusion and false problems for their clients. When challenged to offer some evidence about how classical feng shui works, they don’t have any concrete evidence at all.

So, choose a consultant who is a scientist or at least has some basic understanding of how feng shui works from a scientific perspective so you don’t get false problems.

Posted in Feng shui psychology.