April 6, 2012 NY Times
In Defense of Superstition
By MATTHEW HUTSON
SUPERSTITION is typically a pejorative term.
Belief in things like magic and miracles is
thought to be irrational and scientifically
retrograde. But as studies have repeatedly shown,
some level of belief in the supernatural often
a subtle and unconscious belief appears to be
unavoidable, even among skeptics. One study
found that a group of seemingly rational Princeton
students nonetheless believed that they had
influenced the Super Bowl just by watching it
on TV. We are all mystics, to a degree.
The good news is that superstitious thought,
or "magical thinking," even as it misrepresents
reality, has its advantages. It offers psychological
benefits that logic and science can't always provide:
namely, a sense of control and a sense of meaning.
Consider one "law of magic" that people tend to
put stock in: the idea that "luck is in your hands,"
that you can affect your fate via superstitious
rituals like knocking on wood or carrying a lucky
charm. We often rely on such rituals when we are
anxious or want to perform well, and though they
may not directly have their intended magical effects,
these rituals produce an illusion of control and
enhance self-confidence, which in turn can improve
our performance and thus indirectly affect our fate.
For instance, in one study led by the psychologist
Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne, subjects
were handed a golf ball, and half of them were told
that the ball had been lucky so far. Those subjects
with a "lucky" ball drained 35 percent more golf putts
than those with a "regular" ball. In another scenario,
subjects performed better on memory and word games
when armed with a lucky charm. In a more real-world
example of this effect, the anthropologist Richard
Sosis of the University of Connecticut found that in
Israel during the second intifada in the early 2000s,
36 percent of secular women in the town of Tzfat
recited psalms in response to the violence. Compared
with those who did not recite psalms, he found, those
women benefited from reduced anxiety: they felt
more comfortable entering crowds, going shopping and
riding buses a result, he concluded, of their
increased sense of control.
Another law of magic is "everything happens for a
reason" there is no such thing as randomness or
happenstance. This is so-called teleological reasoning,
which assumes intentions and goals behind even evidently
purposeless entities like hurricanes. As social creatures,
we may be biologically tuned to seek evidence of
intentionality in the world, so that we can combat
or collaborate with whoever did what's been done. When
lacking a visible author, we end up crediting an invisible
one God, karma, destiny, whatever.
This illusion, too, turns out to be psychologically
useful. In research led by the psychologist Laura
Kray of the University of California, Berkeley, subjects
reflected on a turning point in their lives. The more
they felt the turning point to have been fated, the more
they believed, "It made me who I am today" and,
"It gave meaning to my life." Belief in destiny helps
render your life a coherent narrative, which infuses
your goals with a greater sense of purpose. This works
even when those turning points are harmful: in a study
led by the psychologist Kenneth Pargament of Bowling
Green State University, students who saw a negative
event as "part of God's plan" showed more growth in
its aftermath. They became more open to new perspectives,
more intimate in their relationships and more persistent
in overcoming challenges.
There are similar laws that govern other popular
superstitions, including the belief that objects
can carry the "essences" of previous owners (which
explains why you might want to own a pen once used by
a favorite writer); the belief that symbolic objects
can summon what they represent (which explains why
you're scared to cut up a photograph of your mother);
and the attribution of consciousness to inanimate
objects (which explains why you yell at the laptop
that deleted your files). In various ways they all
emerge from basic habits of mind, and they all add
structure and meaning to a chaotic and absurd universe.
Which isn't to say magical thinking has no downside.
At its worst, it can lead to obsession, fatalism or
psychosis. But without it, the existential angst of
realizing we're just impermanent clusters of molecules
with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us.
So to believe in magic as, on some deep level, we all
do does not make you stupid, ignorant or crazy. It makes
Matthew Hutson is the author of the forthcoming book "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane."
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