Is the moon making us crazy? [Credit: Stelios Kiousis.]
I admit that New Yorkers are not known for their superior driving ability, but on this one night the drivers seemed especially erratic. People kept cutting me off. One guy sped right through a red light, barely missing a collision with the crossing traffic. And some genius, perhaps British but probably not, forgot that in this country we drive on the right side of the road.
I thought about what made this night particularly favorable for lunatic drivers compared to any other. It wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s or very late at night, so drunk driving didn’t seem to fit. Only when I got out of my car and looked up did I conceive a possible explanation: the full moon.
The legend of the full moon’s effects on human behavior has existed for centuries, popularized by the myth of the werewolf. The words “lunacy” and “lunatic” are derived from the same Latin root that gives us the word “lunar,” as people often attributed intermittent insanity to the phases of the moon. While many people believe the full moon influences behavior, scientific studies have found very little evidence supporting the “Lunar Effect.”
In 1978, University of Miami psychologist Arnold Lieber wrote the book The Lunar Effect: Biological Tides and Human Emotions. He argued that the moon influences day-to-day behavior and concluded that homicides increased during the full moon after analyzing Miami’s crime records. Similar crime studies during that same time period, however, found no such relationship.
Then, in 1986, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada combined the results of about 100 studies and found “no causal relationship between lunar phenomena and human behavior.” They discovered statistical flaws in many of the papers that claimed to find such a link. They even reanalyzed Lieber’s homicide data and found no correlation.
So with all this evidence to the contrary, what makes the full moon lunacy theory still so popular? Perhaps it’s the media, who know people are more likely to read a crime story if some police officer blames it on the moon. Or maybe people just want to hold onto an urban legend that’s been around for hundreds of years.
A more scientific answer may be selective memory. If some bizarre murder or car accident occurs, people are probably more likely to remember it if it happened during the night of a full moon.
After reading up on some studies — including one from the authority on this topic, the University of Saskatchewan — I’ve decided that the full moon was not responsible for my experience on the road that night. Perhaps I selectively forgot the thousands of other times I encountered lunatic motorists. Though I have no scientific evidence to prove it (just years of experience), I’m going with the theory that New Yorkers are just really bad drivers.