Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Full Moon Myths Leave Skeptics Howling

• December 16, 2011 • 12:58 PM

Full moons appeal to our imaginations and contribute to our mythologies, but ascribing too much power to them appears to be a continuing form of lunacy.

A stock image of the holiday season is a night scene of Santa and his reindeers silhouetted across a full moon, his sleigh packed with presents ready to be delivered throughout the evening. While this joyous image fits some of our romantic notions of being moonstruck, it contradicts some widely held beliefs about the negative effects of full moons. (And never mind that the odds of experiencing a full moon on Christmas Eve itself are very small: the last one was in 2007 and the next may not appear until 2026.)

A teacher I know, complaining about her students’ boisterous behavior in the classroom, quipped that there must have been a full moon, while tales of rising crimes and emergency room visits during a full moon are common.

Let’s take a look at some of these myths — and don’t forget to bring along your healthy skepticism. Perhaps a good place to start is “Twilight,” so to speak.

At least as far back as ancient Roman and Greek mythology, stories of lycanthropy – the ability of a human to transform into an animal – speak of the role of a full moon in creating werewolves. Given what we now know about the effect of the moon’s force on many aspects of life, such beliefs are understandable. Consider tides and the motion of the Earth in relation to the moon’s gravitational pull. Or the monthly menstrual cycle that some associated with the moon’s cycle: the words “menstruation” and “menses” are based on the Latin word for “month” (mensis) and derived from the Greek “mene,” a female divinity who presided over the months.

A key word that points to some of our contemporary myths: lunatic, derived from the Latin lunaticus. Clearly the lunar connection is evident here; even Aristotle and Pliny the Elder held to the belief that, due to the moisture in the brain and the tidal effects on water, the moon created insanity in many people.

Superstitions also make good use of a full moon. Blowing on a wart nine times in the light of a full moon and placing a knotted string over your shoulder when the moon is full are folk remedies for removing warts. Or maybe just for removing our critical thinking skills!

But a long history of associations with a full moon does not explain our contemporary beliefs in today’s more scientific age. One of the most persistent myths, held even by health care professionals and police officers, is the connection between a full moon and increases in crimes, aggressive behavior, and trauma.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Skeptic's Cafe

SKEPTIC'S CAFE
Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

[/class]

Stories of emergency rooms reaching higher caseloads on full moon nights are common, along with increases in arrests for crimes and assaults. It’s even said that dogs and cats have higher incidences of illness and injury during a full moon.

An obvious way to critically investigate these beliefs is to look at the numbers on emergency rooms and police reports. About 15 years ago, researchers reviewed more than 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded there was no reliable correlation between a full moon and such outcomes as epilepsy, domestic violence, homicides, or psychiatric admissions. Or even lycanthropy.

Nor has the new millennia changed the moon’s power. A more recent study from India found no difference in the number of crimes reported on full moon days compared with non-full moon days.

One explanation for the persistence of the myth of increased crime on full moon days has to do with the amount of light available. Crimes do increase as sunset is delayed, according to another study, yet there was no statistical correlation between lunar cycles and incidents of crime.

In days before outdoor lighting, full moons provided more light to carry on night time activities; people sleep less when it’s brighter, giving people more opportunities to stay outdoors and possibly leading to more injuries, assaults, and other increased activities, including time spent with pets. But our explanations demonstrate the common problem of mixing up causation with correlation and the power of post hoc explanations: the problematic behaviors witnessed must have been caused by the full moon, or so we say post hoc, after the fact.

Selective attention also plays a part in our recollection of events. Attentive to our beliefs in many of these myths, we selectively notice, on full moon nights, stories about crimes, students acting out in class, and other undesirable events. Do we remember the good things that happened that day or the romantic stroll under a full moon? Do we compare how many assaults or misbehaviors occurred a few days before when the moon was not full? And do crimes and injuries increase when the moon is full and it’s too cloudy to notice it?

Although this year you won’t be seeing Santa and his team of reindeers flying across a full moon, when people insist they experienced strange effects, had warts disappear, and witnessed unusually high incidences of injurious activities or a bit of excessive facial hair growth when the moon was full, just give out a hearty “ho, ho, ho.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Peter M. Nardi
Peter M. Nardi, Ph.D, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of "Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.”

More From Peter M. Nardi

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.