Why We Cling To Superstitions, Even If Our Rational Side Knows They're Not True

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Superstitions can be deemed irrational in our minds, yet many of us still cling to them despite our better knowledge. Pixabay, public domain

You may pride yourself on your strong sense of logic and rationality, that you’re a thinker rather than a feeler. But it’s likely that even with your realistic worldview, you may still believe in certain things that you realize are irrational. That could include your choice to wear a lucky tee on game day, or the persistent voice in your head that reminds you there must be a higher power out there — even if you don’t agree with religion.

Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently examined this phenomenon in a new study, which will be published in Psychology Review. They hoped to better understand why completely smart, down-to-earth, and realistic people often believe in irrational things — and why they allow these superstitions to influence their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

“Traditionally, research on superstition and magical thinking has focused on people’s cognitive shortcomings, but superstitions are not limited to individuals with mental deficits,” the researchers write in the abstract. “Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults have superstitions that are not rational.”

In the study, the researchers describe a notion called acquiescence, or the human tendency to identify irrational thoughts but simultaneously avoid correcting them. It’s during this this type of decision that our sense of intuition, or “magical thinking,” tends to prevail over rational thought.

“Even when the conditions are all perfect for detecting an error — when people have the ability and motivation to be rational and when the context draw attention to the error — the magical intuition may still prevail,” Jane Risen, associate professor at UChicago and an author of the study, said in the press release.

Being able to recognize acquiescence could help people differentiate between intuition and rational thought, and better parse through difficult situations. It could also aid in discerning feelings in situations when people might knowingly act irrationally — and help them fix errors.

Past research has shown that people tend to rely on superstition when they feel they lack control in certain situations. For example, if you didn’t study enough for a big test and you know it, you’ll probably be more likely to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. In such situations, a bit of superstition and hoping for good luck can’t hurt. But Risen believes that learning how to untangle the dual process in acquiescence could be beneficial in situations where following your irrational feelings might be a mistake. And that’s where deciphering between “detection and correction” comes in handy.

Source: Risen J. Believing What We Do Not Believe: Acquiescence to Superstitious Beliefs and Other Powerful Intuitions. Psychology Review. 2015.

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