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Science and Superstition

August 11, 2014, 11:00 AM
Science and Superstition
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So, what’s your cherished superstition? Do you knock on wood? Search for the four-leaf clover? Make a wish on a penny? Wear your lucky socks on game day? Are you one of the thousands who went to great lengths to be married on 7-7-07?

Oh, and Happy Friday the 13th, for those who are counting.

Superstition is being studied scientifically. Psychology researchers call it magical thinking and they are looking into why, in this scientific and technological age, we cling to our superstitions.

Dean Radin, PhD., author of Entangled Minds, writes “In the beginning, there were no cell phones or grocery stores and life was hard. Nature was unpredictable and unforgiving. People sought ways to cope with the uncertainties of life by praying that Nature spirits would be kind to them. Magical thinking reigned supreme.”(p. 54)

Not much has changed. Nature is still unpredictable and unforgiving, and life can still be hard. If we keep our fingers crossed, we just might escape disaster.

Magical thinking has been defined as belief in the ability to influence events at a distance with no known physical explanation. Translation: “If I want it badly enough and do just the right thing, it will happen.”

This type of thinking is normal in young children and is part of their egocentric thinking. When we were young, we saw everything that happened as it related to us. We believed that what we wished or expected could affect what really happened. If we wanted very much for something to happen, and it did, we believed-- good outcome or bad--that we caused it. The children’s game of “Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll break your mother’s back” is based on this egocentric pattern of belief.

Presumably, as we have more life experience and more rational understanding of how the world works, we let go of our magical beliefs. We realize that we are not all-powerful and that our mom’s back surgery wasn’t the result of that one crack we missed 40 years ago.

But clearly, we have not let go of our tendency toward magical thinking. What keeps us throwing salt over our shoulders and wearing the lucky shirt way past its laundry date?

One reason is that by continued use of “magic”, we give ourselves a sense of control in a confusing, disempowering and impersonal world. Research in the field supports what we know intuitively: superstitions and magical thinking are observed in circumstances involving stressful and uncertain events. Athletes show superstitious behaviors in sports events and inhabitants of war zones report magical beliefs about their personal safety.

Research of superstitions

Leading the query into why we believe we have magical powers are researchers at Princeton University and Harvard University. "This feeling that your thoughts can somehow control things can be a needed feeling," says Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. Wegner and his fellow researchers* authored the paper "Everyday Magical Powers: The Role of Apparent Mental Causation in the Overestimation of Personal Influence."

They conducted a series of studies that examined whether having thoughts related to an event before it occurs leads people to infer that they caused the event, even when such causation might seem magical.

They examined the effects of individuals’ private thoughts on their perceived influence on external outcomes involving physical health symptoms and athletic performance. Specifically, their first study tested whether a person who had angry thoughts about another person was more likely to believe they actually caused a headache in someone via a “voodoo curse.”

It turns out that participants who were led to generate evil thoughts about their victim were more likely than neutral-thinking participants to believe that they had caused the victim’s --a study accomplice-- headache. (The accomplice didn’t really get a headache.)

In a second study, participants were asked to visualize a basketball player (another confederate/accomplice) having success in shooting baskets or to visualize thoughts irrelevant to the results to the shooter’s success. Sure enough, those who did the “You got it!” visualizations prior to the confederate’s shooting baskets were more likely to believe that they influenced the outcome.

The authors conclude, "A person watching with fingers crossed, while silently reciting a mantra for the team's least reliable free-throw shooter, may feel deserving of some credit when the shot gracefully falls through the net. Generating a thought just prior to its occurrence may be sufficient to induce feelings of authorship for the event."

There were two other studies conducted in real-life athletic events. The conclusions were the same from all four studies: participants were more likely to feel and to believe that they were responsible for the relevant outcome if they had generated prior thoughts related to it. Bottom line: If you think positive or negative thoughts about an outcome, you are more likely to believe that your superstitions really work, no matter how much your rational brain discounts them.

Superstition and stress

The truth is magical thinking can indeed help us cope in times of great distress. Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, wrote this about her husband’s death: “I see now that my insistence on spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana’s husband. The New York Times knew. The Los Angeles Times knew. Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone...I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”

If this is magical thinking, then we all have it in us. We all have playful or soul-saving times when there is a need for it, times when our need to believe in our own magical thinking outstrips our rational understanding of the physical mechanisms of the universe. So, hang on to your treasured magical thinking, especially this Friday the 13th, when you have plenty of social support for thinking a little magically.

*Co-authors for this study are Kimberly McCarthy, Emily Pronin, and Sylvia Rodriguez.

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