A mother at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn. is claiming that her son’s psychic powers saved him because he had panic attacks that took him out of school before the Dec. 14 shooting occurred.
According to reporter Sandra Clark, “Karen Dryer’s worst nightmare started to unravel when her young son Logan Dryer, 5, became so anxiety ridden when he went to kindergarten at Sandy Hook Elementary School that she decided to pull him out of school just two weeks before the deadly massacre.
“Logan started kindergarten in September 2012. He was perfectly fine in September and October, and then in November he started acting strange. I got an email from his teacher saying he was a little weepy and then I started getting phone calls that Logan was crying and wanted to go home. Eventually it got so bad that I took him to the doctor who ran tests, saying that Logan was perfectly healthy.”
Logan’s doctor suggested that he be home-schooled for several weeks, though he and his mother visited the school once a week so he could socialize with friends. During those visits, his mother said, the boy would become visibly upset as if he knew something bad would happen. Karen Dryer came to believe that her son’s concerns and fears revealed his gift of prophecy: “My mother, Milly, who passed away a couple of months ago was very psychic, and I know now without a doubt that my son has the same gift.”
While Dryer’s interpretation of her son’s behavior may be correct, a closer look at the details of the case suggest an alternative explanation. On one level, Dryer’s assumption makes sense: her son’s fear was prophetic.
But that logic is common fallacy with a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of it”). Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that, “B happened after A did, so A must have caused B.” Logan expressed anxiety and fear about school, and two weeks later that school experienced one of the worst shootings in history. It makes sense—except that it’s not necessarily true. It’s like saying “roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise.” Just because the boy expressed fear before the tragedy doesn’t mean he knew it was going to happen.
The case for Logan’s psychic or prophetic powers would be much stronger if he had specified what he was concerned about, but he never said anything about guns, a shooting, a tragic day or date, or anyone being harmed or killed. If the boy’s psychic powers were real — and the information specific enough for the police to act on — he might have been able to save dozens of innocent lives.
There’s another cognitive bias at play, one that psychologists call confirmation bias, also known as remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. The human mind more easily remembers events that seem significant in retrospect, and ignores those that don’t. Thus, for example, Dryer vividly remembers (and attaches special significance to) the times when her son expressed fear associated with the school, but not all the times when he acted the same way (on previous occasions or in other settings not related to school) and nothing happened.
Furthermore Logan Dryer was surely not the only child (nor the only five-year-old) among all the students of Sandy Hook Elementary school who expressed anxiety and fears about going to school in the days and weeks before Dec. 14. The only reason it stands out is that something did happen, so the earlier reactions might appear to be prophetic.
No one is suggesting that Karen Dryer is lying or hoaxing, and she surely sincerely believes that her son has prophetic abilities — just as her mother did. That belief clearly comforts her in these dark days. Hopefully Dryer’s story won’t cause unnecessary grief or guilt for the families of the murdered Sandy Hook children, who may follow her lead and think that the (normal) anxieties their own children expressed in the weeks before the killing were a sign of psychic powers tragically ignored.