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In Defense of Superstition

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  • medit8ionsociety
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 7, 2012
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      April 6, 2012 NY Times
      In Defense of Superstition
      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
      you human.

      Matthew Hutson is the author of the forthcoming book "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane."
      The use of this article is of a non-commercial nature and is for nonprofit educational purposes only, and thus is used under USC 107 Fair Use Statute.
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