There’s an island in the Pacific Ocean that’s teeny tiny; 25 miles long and 12 miles wide. There are only about six thousand people living on it. It’s covered in palm trees and coconut groves and the people there wear grass skirts, and do ritual dances and they drink kava.
And every February 15th they get out their special bamboo rods and wave them at the sky. And they raise flags, and wave them at the sky. And they stand for hours in specially-built boxes at the end of the strip of land they’ve specifically flattened for this particular day and stare up at the sky. And they put on special ritual headgear that looks an awful lot like what we in the west would call headphones and they wave smaller bamboo sticks at the sky.
And all this sky waving has a purpose: they’re hoping it will bring the mythical god John Frum, King of America and of their island Tanna, to their volcanic home. And he will come with medicines, technologies and riches they haven’t seen in more than 70 years.
How did these rituals arise? To understand this, we have to turn to one of the classic texts in the psychology canon: B.F. Skinner’s Superstition of the Pigeon. But before we set foot in the cage...