Can a scientific mind believe in superstition?

Superstitious thinking

Table of Contents

1. What is superstition?

2. Superstition and belief in control

3. Superstition and personality traits

4. Superstition and the math of cognition

5. Superstition and the psychological power of chance

6. Superstition and spurious correlations

7. Superstition and its persistence

8. Superstition and heuristics

9. Superstition and bogus control

10. Superstition and Barnum Effect

11. Superstition and placebo effect

12. Superstition and logical mistakes

13. Superstition and Spiritual Constitution

1. What is superstition?

There are a number of definitions of the term "superstition". The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines it as “a belief or idea based on non-reason or knowledge, certain things, circumstances or events, procedures and the like. would have a threatening meaning. ”In order not to limit the definition to a threat alone, the following 1956 in the Encyclopedia Britannica Formulated definition of the psychiatrist Judd Marmor better: "Beliefs or practices that are actually unfounded and do not correspond to the level of knowledge that the society to which one belongs has reached."

Of course, uncertainty, threat or even fear are an essential prerequisite for the development of superstitions. Nevertheless, the superstition of players (in gambling or sports), for example, can be interpreted better with hope of winning than with fear of defeat, since a player who is really afraid of defeat will probably avoid the game entirely. However, some superstitious beliefs, such as the fear of walking under a ladder, are actually motivated by the fear of avoiding negative consequences.

Superstitious reactions and conservative attitudes caused by fear can be assumed to have their origin in a general aversion of people to insecurities of any kind. The most basic of all fears is arguably the fear of death. And so one could see in this particular form of fear the basis for rigid adherence to religious dogmas or, according to Jerome Tobacyk (Tobacyk 1984, p. 31), the background for belief in the supernatural.

2. Superstition and belief in control

Some people go through life in the belief that they are helplessly exposed to events and see themselves not as a subject, but as an object (external conviction of control) in good and bad events. Others believe that they can shape their own fate and take responsibility for success and failure (internal conviction of control).

Through these relationships between beliefs in control and susceptibility to outside influence, one might well conclude that a superstitious person is someone with an external belief in control, someone who attributes the events of his life to mysterious, uncontrollable forces. Proof of this is provided by a 1983 study by Tobacyk and Milford on paranormal perception (psi-ability, witchcraft, superstitious beliefs, clairvoyance, spiritualism) by students at Louisiana Tech University. The two researchers determined the students' control beliefs and discovered that the students, for whom the control belief was more external, believed more in psychic phenomena than the other students.

3. Superstition and personality traits

The discovery of a connection between superstition and neurotic behavior (Epstein examined personality, feelings and superstitious thinking in 1991 with various measuring techniques and discovered a number of additional traits of superstitious people; see Epstein 1991) suggests that those who cling to a typical superstition, Show signs of personal instability. The other personality traits associated with superstition were similarly negative (depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of ego strength).

Overall, Epstein's research paints the picture of a superstitious person who, compared to his more rational fellow citizens, is more passive, isolated, fearful and psychologically unstable. Epstein sees superstition as something people resort to when they don't know how to cope with critical life events (Epstein 1992, p. 106). According to Epstein, superstitious thinking arises when people are overwhelmed by a mental functional weakness and grow up under conditions that favor feelings of hopelessness.

4. Superstition and the math of cognition

Since human thinking is not without its weaknesses, we tend to act irrationally rather than rationally in a number of situations. We draw wrong conclusions, judge biased and overlook important information. Since the 1950s, cognitive psychologists have discovered many of these “mental” weaknesses that lead to superstitious thinking and behavior. Superstitious thinking in particular arises from a misunderstanding of coincidences and probabilities, from errors in logical conclusions and from cognitive “shortcuts” that come at the expense of accuracy.

Wherever there is uncertainty in our life, we apply basic mathematical concepts such as greater than ( >), less than (<) and equal (=), as well as informal probability calculations, be it in the form of analyzes of quantitative information (e.g. stock market reports) or simple assessments and assessments. Thus, a large part of our everyday thoughts consists of quantitative assessments and decisions, very often as participants in economic life. In many cases, such thinking is perfectly rational and our rule-based judgments are extremely reasonable. But sometimes reason gets out of hand and we end up with mathematical errors and mistakes in the principles of probability. We also make mistakes when the environment of a problem affects our thinking or makes it one-sided.

5. Superstition and the psychological power of chance

Problems with the math of probability are the number one cause of inappropriate importance being attached to random events. But psychological factors also influence our assessments of random events, whereby the circumstances of the occurrence can increase our surprise and thus strengthen our superstition.

Even non-psychologists know that our memory is selective. Those who are lonely and afflicted by lovesickness like to think about the joys of a past relationship and those who are in the middle of an unhappy relationship think only about the conflicts and not about them

Fun. The magical quality of coincidences affects our memory one-sidedly, so that in everyday life we ​​tend to remember the events that can be meaningfully connected, but forget those that contradict our sense of agreement, even if they are quite similar to the others are. For example, is one surprised to meet someone who has the same unusual last name as the teacher; that one had in the first year of school, then one no longer thinks of the many people with other names that one has met in the meantime. The one-sided memory leads us to believe that this must be more than a coincidence (Hintzman, Asher, Stern 1978, Kallai 1985).

6. Superstition and spurious correlations

Superstitious acts such as consulting astrologers or wearing certain garments believed to be magical are done in part because it is believed that it will have a positive effect on the course of events. One believes in a relationship (correlation) between one's own actions and future events and so the everyday perception of correlations becomes prone to biases. Often times, we do not see all of the meaningful information and focus our attention on events that seem to confirm the existence of a correlation. Cognitive psychologists have found that in many cases we are prone to spurious correlations - a bias that leads us to see relationships between things that don't exist.

The first cause of this is one-sided attention (Baron 1994). In one experiment, a group of nurses were asked to evaluate 100 cards that

each received extracts from the patient's medical history (Smeldslund 1963). The aim was to determine whether a particular symptom was related to a particular disease. In reality, this connection did not exist and those who exhibited the symptom were as likely to get sick as the chances of not getting sick. Conversely, half of those who did not show the symptom also fell ill. Still, 85% of the nurses claimed a relationship between the two. Further tests showed that the number of yes / yes cases (symptom / illness) was the decisive factor. If the number in this field was quite large, then the test participants were convinced of a connection between the two events - regardless of the numbers given in the other fields. From this it could be deduced that we only pay attention to things that happen together and thus see a correlation where none exists.

The second form of spurious correlation occurs when preconceived notions affect our motivation and we are not impartial in assessing situations. This is impressively demonstrated by a study of clinical psychologists who use projective tests such as the person painting test and the Rorschach paint blot test. Scientists asked clinical psychologists to examine a set of tests to find out whether a particular patient reaction was related to a mental state. Psychologists tended to see a connection between a test reaction and a diagnosis when they were already convinced of such a relationship. One explanation for the unbroken popularity of projective tests (which, according to most scientific findings, are limited or worthless) is the spurious correlation: clinical psychologists believe test results are related to patient diagnoses and then perceive what they believe (Chapman, LJ , and Chapman, JP, the results are what you think they are in: Psychology Today, November 1971). Spurious correlations play an important role in the persistence of many magical ideas (Chapman 1967). In the hope of overcoming the unpredictability of life, superstitious people are often highly motivated to look for something that "works". In doing so, they usually pay too much attention to a positive and hoped-for outcome to the application of a superstition and ignore the other cases.

7. Superstition and its persistence

The use of a good luck item sometimes works and sometimes it doesn't. On other occasions happy things happen even without magical help. If superstition persists in these changeable circumstances, it is often explained by selective attention and a preconceived belief in its effects. Superstitious ideas often persist in a very stubborn way, even when all the evidence speaks against it. The American philosopher Charles Pierce calls this least recommended course of action for understanding that Methods of perseverance - sticking to familiar ideas just because they are familiar and pleasant. People, including scientists, are reluctant to give up these familiar, often superstitious ideas.

One of the most impressive examples of maintaining a belief despite conflicting information was explained by Leon Festinger with the help of the theory of cognitive dissonance. Together with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, he published the book in 1956 When prophecy fails ( Festinger, Riecken, Schachter 1956). It is the report of a small sect that had predicted the end of the world by flooding on a certain date. The leaders of the sect claimed that their followers would be saved by spacemen who would appear just before the apocalypse. When the flood did not occur on the day announced, many cult members believed their leaders even more instead of doubting them. Because they were very involved in this community, they found it easier to alleviate cognitive dissonance by reinforcing their own convictions rather than admitting that they were wrong. In reality, exactly the same happened with the Jehovah's Witnesses, which despite several announced doomsday events (most recently for 1975) still exist and, despite the many failed prophecies, have even increased their membership to this day.

8. Superstition and heuristics

Fear of flying is widespread, even among those who know that planes are one of the safest modes of transport, as opposed to cars. Although driving a car is statistically much more dangerous, autophobias are quite rare, because images of plane crashes are more spectacularly presented in the media and the death toll usually runs into the hundreds. Since memories of spectacular airplane crashes are much more readily available (availability heuristics), they have a stronger influence on the thoughts and feelings associated with flying.

Whenever the information we receive is one-sided, the availability heuristic influences our thinking and thus our judgment. For information on superstition, parapsychological and supernatural, scientific and mathematical explanations are not always quickly and easily available and would also completely overwhelm many people intellectually. Thus, the mind often seeks the cause of explanation for events in “luck”, “fate” or “coincidence”. Unfortunately, the mass media supplies us with more superstitious and supernatural theories than we need, while we learn little about scientific and mathematical knowledge and explanations.

9. Superstition and bogus control

Economists analyze risky decisions like buying a lottery ticket with the term Expected value and multiply the amount to be won by the probability of winning it. Many lottery players rely on a variety of personal strategies when typing the numbers and the trade of lottery consultants, book authors and tip systems is flourishing. Much of the appeal of such methods is due to the sense of control they convey.

When pure games of chance require certain actions from the player, the psychological boundary between chance and skill soon blurs and the dice throwers and lottery players begin to believe in magic or their own supernatural abilities. In a sham inspection research, Ellen Langer and Jane Roth found that misunderstanding chance can lead people to believe that chance is influencing it (Langer, E.J., and Roth, J. 1975).

Yale University students had to predict the results of 30 coin tosses in two series. Both series of coin tosses received 15 wins and 15 losses on the predictions, but the wins for one series occurred at the beginning of the toss and the other at the end. Langer and Roth discovered that the students who got it right the first time they flipped a coin were far more likely to believe their predictions than those who were less successful at the beginning - even though both groups had the same total number of successes. Langer and Roth concluded from this that the students assessed their ability to predict at the beginning of the toss of the coin and then, despite unsuccessfulness at the end of the test run, stuck to their original conception and possibly believed they had psychic abilities.

The all-encompassing human desire for control is an important motivation for superstitious behavior, which gives a sense of control over the uncontrollable. Further evidence that illusory control has personal psychological value came from several laboratory studies that showed that when players were under stress, they preferred games that conveyed the illusion of control (Friedland, Keinan, Regev, 1992). Scientists gave test subjects the choice of predicting dice results before rolling or guessing after they were rolled (the results were not apparent to the test subjects). The subjects tended to only guess the results afterwards. However, when they were stressed by threatening them with an electric shock for every wrong guess, most preferred to predict the outcome before throwing the dice - a choice that arguably gave a greater sense of control.

This finding supports the view that superstitious behavior is an appropriate adaptation to a combination of stress and lack of objective control. When we are under pressure and unable to help ourselves, the sense of control that superstition imparts can be a positive illusion. Research on sham control leads to a general finding about us humans: we must have the feeling that we understand, predict or influence things and happenings in and around us, that is, we are in control (cognized control).

13. Superstition and Barnum Effect

The personality descriptions in horoscopes are usually quite ambiguous and not very specific: Some of your goals are a little unrealistic.Sometimes you are extroverted, sociable and sociable, while at other times you are introverted and reserved.You often have doubts as to whether you made the right decision or did the right thing ... Most people would say that personality profiles like the one above are perfectly correct to be told that it was created especially for them by professionals. The psychologist Paul Mehl called this the “Barnum Effect”, after the famous maxim of the circus director “Something for everyone” (Mehl 1956).

Various studies have examined the Barnum effect on belief in astrology. In one case, the investigators posing as astrologers designed horoscopes for two groups of subjects (Snyder and Shenkel 1975). Before announcing the results, the "astrologers" asked the members of one group

Year, month and day of their birth. The other group was only asked for the year and month. The participants in both groups received the same handwritten horoscope, which of course was not created individually, but from statements from the bestseller Astrology as clear as day was composed by Linda Goodman (Goodman 1969). Consistent with the Barnum Effect, members of both groups believed that the horoscope was an accurate description of their personality, but those who were also asked to give the date of their birth thought it was even more accurate than the others. The request for specific information about oneself nurtured the illusion that a very personal description of the person concerned would be created.

WDR television (WDR, Quarks) successfully repeated this attempt in 1997. As Eclipse Astro Research Group Disguised, the editorial team sent more than 200 interested people a horoscope instead of a personal horoscope for the murderer Fritz Haarmann, who was born on October 25th, 1879 at 6 p.m. in Hanover. 74% of the participants found their character “correctly described”, another 15 percent even cheered: “Perfect, everything is correct”.

14. Superstition and placebo effect

The placebo effect is caused by the expectation of a reaction (Kirsch, 1985). Anyone who is convinced that a drug or therapeutic treatment improves their physical or mental well-being is susceptible to the placebo effect. For example, in one trial, students reported feeling more alert and tense after drinking decaf coffee, which they believed was caffeinated. The deceived coffee drinkers even showed severe changes in blood pressure (Kirsch and Weixel, 1988). The placebo effect plays a decisive role in the belief in spiritual healing and in any scientifically unproven therapy such as homeopathy. If the statements and persuasiveness of a healer produce positive effects in the patient, it can actually lead to significant healing successes.

However, numerous cases have become known of people who gave up conventional medicine in favor of scientifically unsound healing methods and even paid with their lives for the decision. The most spectacular case is the cancer death (2004) of 10-year-old Dominik Feld, whose parents are against chemotherapy and for a scientifically very controversial vitamin preparation treatment according to Dr. Mathias Rath decided. Even after Dominik's death, his parents were convinced, due to the resulting cognitive dissonance, that he had not died of cancer, but of “medical malpractice”.

15. Superstition and logical mistakes

Once a superstition is anchored in the consciousness through the socialization of the person concerned or through operant conditioning, then it is nourished again and again through biased or logically incorrect thinking. When faced with information that appears reliable but contradicts a cherished belief or way of thinking, questioning our beliefs would be the rational response. However, no one likes to admit that they were wrong, and the closer this misconception is to our self-esteem, the harder it will be to give it up. If we have previously acted out of conviction (e.g. practiced a superstition), then changing this superstition can create an unpleasant discord between previous actions and the new knowledge (cognitive dissonance). You may even continue to deceive yourself instead of giving up your old faith (Baron, 1994).

Many of the flaws that keep superstitions alive perform precisely this function. If one ascribes what appears to be a fortunate chance to the effectiveness of a talisman, then that misunderstanding of probability may simply be caused by a lack of mathematical expertise, but this helps the special importance attached to chance, superstition (in the power of the talisman ) to maintain or strengthen.

16. Superstition and Spiritual Constitution

Superstition often arises from mistakes in thinking, but these are errors (pseudo-control, misunderstanding of chance and probability) that we all commit again and again. A superstition that has its origin in the weaknesses of human thinking is normal and mostly not a sign of intellectual damage or deficits. Mistakes in reasoning due to superstition are a natural trait of humans, but they sometimes affect our ability to think and act effectively, disrupting the problem-solving process and impairing our cognitive abilities.


The psychology of superstition, Stuart A. Vyse, Birkhäuser 1999

What you won't find in astrology books, Klaudia Einhorn,