Theory of Superstitious and Magical Beliefs

Lindeman M, Aarnio K. Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model. Journal of Research in Personality 2007;41:731-44.

I recently ran across this paper in the Journal of Research In Personality which had some interesting things to say about how people come to have beliefs in superstitions or paranormal phenomenon. This is relevant to the issue of alternative medicine both directly, since so many alternative approaches rely on vitalism or notions of magical forces (acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, reiki, etc) and also since the mental mechanisms underlying false beliefs in general likely apply to many different categories of belief.

I have said many times that I do not think false beliefs in medicine, even in the wackiest and most ridiculous ideas, have any consistent relationship to how smart people are, and only a tenuous relationship to an individual’s level of education. There are mistakes we all make in thinking that lead us to erroneous conclusions, and there is a whole literature in the field of psychology which examines these. It is clear that such mistakes are built into how we think, into the very structure of our brains, and the reason science works better than the alternative epistemological approaches is because it does a pretty good job of taking our subjective judgments, and their weakness, out of the assessment of efficacy for medical therapies.

This article tries to create a “unified theory” of superstition, and then does some preliminary testing of subjects identified in previous research as unusually skeptical or superstitious. Such research is itself fraught with subjectivity, so I am always a bit suspicious of it, but I find the theorizing an interesting and potentially useful way of looking at the problem of magical beliefs.

The authors contend that research in child development has identified some core beliefs about the world that are intuitive and nearly universal. These beliefs concern physics, psychology, and to a limited extent biology. For example, young children intuitively understand kinematics, the laws which govern the motion of objects through space, and can correctly describe and predict the behavior of billiard balls and other such simple physical objects intuitively, without any conscious or rational knowledge or deliberate instruction in the relevant physics. Likewise, they intuitively understand the concepts of mind, intention, and agency, which allows them to predict the behavior of people and animals pretty well. Finally, they have some intuitive concepts, like the ideas of contagion and healing, related to biology.

These intuitive understandings are retained in adulthood, though they can be modified somewhat by rational knowledge. As grownups, we are able to understand (sometimes, anyway), the mathematics of objects in motion and able to use this knowledge to master more complex examples such as spaceships and missiles, through rational knowledge and thought. But we still pretty much catch and throw balls intuitively, using the same largely innate understanding that first appears in children. The same pattern applies to our understanding of psychology and biology, in which we retain our intuitive knowledge while modifying or supplementing, and maybe sometimes supplanting, it with rational, acquired knowledge.

The authors then suggest that the defining characteristic of superstitious beliefs is confusing the properties intuitively understood to operate in one area, such as psychology, with a different category, such as physics. So, for example, the intuitive understanding that people act in certain ways because of their intentions and beliefs is applied to inanimate objects, and so intention and purpose is ascribed to the behavior of things which do not truly have such features. Thus lightening can strike someone intentionally, as a punishment for bad behavior. Or dice can be made to roll a certain number by the power of thoughts or rituals.

Furthermore, superstitions require that this conflating of intuitive knowledge across distinct categories not be checked adequately by rational thought or knowledge. While we may fear to handle the clothing of someone who is ill, due to an intuitive understanding of the principle of contagion, if we truly belief we can “catch” cancer or a genetic disorder in this way, these beliefs become a superstition if not overridden by our rational knowledge and thought.

The pilot survey study the authors conducted looked at whether skeptical or superstitious people were more or less likely to confound properties across categories in this way, and whether one group was more or less inclined to rely on intuitive or rational knowledge. Not surprisingly, the results showed that skeptics are less likely to confuse properties from different domains and rely less on intuitive knowledge than superstitious people.

As I said, I am a bit suspicious of the objectivity and reliability of such assessments, and I am certainly not qualified to evaluate the authors’ assessment of previous research nor the methods they used in their own study. However, apart from the empirical portion of the paper, I found the theoretical discussion interesting, and I look forward to seeing if it proves useful in examining false beliefs in the area of medicine.

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4 Responses to Theory of Superstitious and Magical Beliefs

  1. Pingback: psychology study using animals | COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

  2. Mike Bukowski says:

    Very interesting. Seems very feasible that this intuitive ability to assign agency to inanimate objects combined with a child’s natural tendency to trust in adults can lead to the establishment of superstition in a culture. Worthy of further study.

  3. Lisa Preston says:

    Critical thinking skills should be taught in grade school, again in college, and certainly again in grad schools (including, of course, med and vet school).
    The lists of errors we fall for in thinking, assessing and forming beliefs is amazing. Less scholarly works can be a good place to start for folks not warm to academic works of logic errors. I loved Freakonomics.

  4. skeptvet says:

    Yes, it is just about ipossible to overdo the teaching of critical thinking, and especially the need to view our own impressions and opinions with as much skepticism as we view those of others. One of my favorite non-academic works on the subject is Tomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think.

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