By Gordon Rugg
People are usually able to give you reasons for the things that they do. Sometimes those reasons make perfect sense; sometimes they make sense once you understand the background; other times, you’re left wondering what one earth is going on in the person’s head. There’s also the issue of whether those reasons bear any relation to reality, but that’s another story.
This article is about how one apparently pointless superstition can be traced back to a perfectly sensible piece of evidence-based reasoning that subsequently spiralled off into a very different direction. It involves the ancient Roman practice of examining the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry as a way of predicting the future.
So what does this practice have to tell us about how people make decisions today? Actually, quite a lot. It’s a good illustration of some fundamental points that are as important now as they were over two thousand years ago, when this bronze model of a liver was created to help Roman fortune tellers assess the omens before a major decision.