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Surprising Science

Are All Superstitions Bad?

Psychologist Bruce Hood argues that superstitious thinking is a natural part of human cognition and should not be so quickly dismissed.
A black cat walks on the pitch during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Elche CF at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 24, 2014. Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Would you wear Fred Rogers’ cardigan? Not that there was a single one; his mother knitted twenty-four over the nearly four-decade run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In 2001, the year the show ended, researchers wanted to know if children between the ages of six and eight thought his sweater emits Rogers’ ‘essence.’ Most believed it does.

Interestingly children between four and five did not agree—there appears to be a developmental stage in which magical thinking commences. What happened when researchers questioned twenty-year-olds is perhaps more meaningful. While most did not wish to wear the cardigan, four out of five believed a piece of Rogers is attached to the garment.

How about Fred West’s cardigan? Any takers? Experimental psychologist Bruce Hood received plenty of flack for even suggesting such a thing. West and his wife killed at least a dozen young women after sexually abusing them. The couple often dismembered the victims and buried them around their property in England. The idea of wearing that man’s sweater proved as repugnant as wearing Rogers’ cardigan was enticing. In both cases essences abound.

Hood uses these examples to make a broader point about human psychology in The Science of Superstition. Rather than dismiss superstition as an archaic remnant of prior ignorance—something Hood argues many atheists do in their quick dismissal of religion—he investigates supernatural beliefs as a necessary foundation for how humans learn and develop.

Children generate knowledge through their own intuitive reasoning about the world around them, which leads them to both natural and supernatural beliefs.

Children assign purpose to objects. For example, a sharp rock is not the natural formation of earth colliding with environmental conditions, but rather to scratch an itch. Suns smile; rain clouds frown. Animals understand human language and intentions.

This supernatural tendency does not quit with puberty. Homeopathy is a fast-growing medical field void of actual medicine, as it relies on the ‘essence’ of a substance. Hood explains,

You would have to drink twenty-five metric tons of water for there to be a remote chance that you had swallowed just one molecule of the original substance.

The notion that prayer works is another example. Though thoughts are neuronal firings restricted to the body of the thinker, an overwhelming majority of people believes they influence physical objects and events. The notion of a soul too requires a suspension of biology and physics.

As forward moving as we sometimes think humans are, data prove the opposite. Hood notes that as of 2007 the UK was experiencing a one-in-three increase in students applying to study alternative medicines, which was the exact drop of those going into anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Such statistics should be alarming. There are many positive benefits of alternative medicines—more interaction and conversation with doctors; potentially less toxicity; the placebo effect—but education in anatomy and physiology are a must for those taking care of bodies.

Yet, Hood writes, denying the supernatural inclinations of cognition is also a mistake. I’d rather take my chances with chemotherapy than ‘essence of the Berlin Wall’ when fighting cancer, but that does not mean mistaking supernaturalism for intelligence is warranted. In this front we have to choose our battles, and certainly many skirmishes need not be waged. As Hood concludes, the law of similarities, which underlies homeopathy (and thoughts on cardigans), is unavoidable.

Supernatural thinking is simply the natural consequence of failing to match our intuitions with the true reality of the world.

Humans maintain a variety of sacred objects and beliefs: the power of an infant blanket, ancient river, and a personal god imbue life with meaning. Our rich imagination would falter if we banished all speculative ideology. The main problem, from my reading of Hood’s book, is twofold:

  • Accruing large sums of money from untested, inadequate cures for serious medical issues.
  • Using supernatural beliefs to oppress or deny the rights of others.
  • Hood suggests that we need some form of mind control to counteract the negative effects of superstitions. A religious belief used to deny access to healthcare is dangerous. Believing a supernatural force underlies the cosmos makes for great mythology (and cinema franchises). Knowing the difference between the two is important, though given the uptick in fake news and rumors affecting elections a cure is not fast coming.

    That’s because separating benign superstitions—everyone eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day?—from ones that result in bigotry and violence is not intuitive. Our actions are greatly influenced by what we believe. Recognizing superstitions for what they are is important. Sadly, many do not realize prohibitions on pork and the notion one race is superior are political tools engrained in the cultural psyche, not divine mandates.

    We often assign superstition to nurturing. If you’re raised in a religious household, chances are your thinking will reflect that. As Hood points out, though, a penchant for the superstitious is biological as well. Denying that is to pretend an essential part of our humanity is purely invented. That too arrives with its own set of dangers. 

    Derek’s next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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