Monday, June 29, 2009

Complex of the Week: MCDS

This morning, one of the Quarterback's friends posted as the status on his Facebook profile that he
hopes no more random media icons die today. But would someone please keep an eye on Robert Loggia?
(If you're like the Quarterback, you may want to click on the link to refresh your memory as to who that is, and then say, "Oh, him!").

My friend is suffering from a new disorder I am calling Multiple Celebrity Death Syndrome, or MCDS. And while my tongue is firmly in my cheek in creating a name for it, there is a phenomenon that is being caused by the death of so many celebrities in a relatively short amount of time, most recently Billy Mays.

As human beings, we are programmed to see patterns. Most of the time, this is useful. For example, if we notice that every time we see a tiger, a member of our group dies, it helps us learn to run away from tigers. On a more refined level, if we notice that members of our group are dying, it causes us to look and find out what the cause is so we can avoid it, whatever it may be. From an evolutionary standpoint, that's all good.

The problem is, we're actually pretty bad at figuring out when patterns aren't really patterns. We don't tend to assume that something can happen a bunch of times in a row by chance. For example, if you flip a coin three times and it comes up heads all three times, you are likely to have at least some suspicion that the coin isn't fair. But the chances of that happening at random are 1 in 8. The chances of it coming up the same all three times (without paying attention to heads specifically) are 1 in 4. We just think of that as being somehow "less random" than, say, heads-tails-tails (which also has a 1 in 8 chance).

So Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and Billy Mays all died in the last 5 days, and we see a pattern. Celebrities seem to be dropping like flies. But in fact, people die every day, and some number of them are celebrities. I doubt we've come close to a number of celebrities dying in a short period to make it actually statistically unlikely to be random.

We see this a lot in crisis response, too. Groups of people start to feel "cursed." As my regular readers know, my own district crisis team got battered this past school year. And yes, I did see a pattern, but not one specific to my district or team. I saw a general uptick in critical incidents in the world. I don't even know if that is true.

I suppose it is possible that there is a general uptick in the death rate in the United States right now, and that the celebrities are caught in that wave. I doubt it, mostly because we're not also seeing news stories from coroners nationwide who suddenly are inundated with deaths from the general public. We want to see patterns, and the patterns we see scare us. But really, the recent celebrity deaths are just random, and noticeable because they're well publicized. On the one hand, it's worrying. On the other, we all just have MCDS.

N.B. There definitely has been an uptick in hoaxes reporting the death of various celebrities, including Jeff Goldblum and Miley Cyrus, both of whom are alive and well. It's possible that there aren't any more of those hoaxes than usual, we're just noticing them more because of our MCDS, or it's possible that hoaxters are taking advantage of the situation. At any rate, it's a good time to not believe everything you read!


Meet the Quarterback

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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