Slice of Mind
Do You Believe in Superstitions?
In a famous (and controversial) experiment, Bruce Hood (an U.K.-based developmental psychologist) asked an audience if they’d wear a sweater for £20. Most agreed. He then mentioned the sweater belonged to Fred West, a serial killer who committed at least 12 murders. As expected, most peopled suddenly backed away. Now, the sweater wasn’t actually Fred West’s, however, the case study raises an interesting question: even among those who claim to be secular, when does the supernatural trump reason in our everyday decision-making?
Since antiquity, people have been fascinated by the supernatural. The myths, parables, and beliefs of our ancestors transgressed time and space, making their way into our evolutionary cognitive development.
In the Symposium, Plato mentions that:
“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
When Shakespeare’s Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Hamlet reminds him of the limitation of human knowledge, and challenges his skepticism of the unknown:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous (…) There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”
Some authors even claimed that nature itself can claim qualities of the supernatural. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne notes that the sea is “the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence, (…) the ‘Living Infinite.’”
Psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West divided our thinking into two systems.
System 1 relies on our intuition (acting quickly, without much thought).
System 2 relies on our mental activities (acting more deliberate, demanding concentration and effort).
Now, these systems work together. System 1 works continuously, leaning on System 2 when faced with complex problems. As we rely on System 1 to make most of our everyday decisions, it allows room for biases and error.
Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, explores this concept in detail, concluding that the frantic efforts of the mind lead mostly to irrational behaviours.
Humans are fundamentally irrational beings.
Is your inclination to believe in the supernatural influenced by your upbringing?
Turns out, most likely.
Christopher Whittle notes that:
“We are taught about angels, witches, devils, spirits, monsters, gods, etc. virtually in the cradle. Some of these paranormal believes are secular, some are religious, and the most pernicious are crossover beliefs. [These crossover beliefs, e.g. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, etc.] are attractive to children (free candy and presents), and on that basis they are readily accepted. The devils, ghosts, and monsters are reinforced through Halloween rituals and the mass media. As the child matures, some crossover beliefs are exposed as false. (…) We learn about God and Santa Claus simultaneously; only later are we told that Santa Claus is just a fairy tale and God is real.”
Media plays a large role in our belief of the supernatural. To prove his hypothesis, he conducted a study where he surveyed the audiences of three television programs: The X-Files, ER, and Friends. He found that viewers of the X-Files and ER were more likely to believe in things that were not real.
System 1 may be triggered by your supernatural intuitions
Bruce Hood conducted a study asking fans of the Newcastle United Soccer team to cut up photographs of their partners, and then ones of the team’s players. What they found was participants experiencing higher levels of distress (upwards of 70%) compared to when tearing up images of strangers.
Something just felt wrong about shredding a loved one’s image into pieces. Perhaps it could lead to the unravelling of the relationship? And as for their adored sports team, what if cutting mementos of the players could lead to the team’s loss in the next match? What if it’s a sign of bad luck? Can you undertake that level of emotional burden?
Our lack of understanding of the supernatural could be a cause for our unreasoned behaviour
You feel an inexplicable apprehension putting on a criminal’s sweater because you’re worried that some of the ‘evil’ could perhaps transfer over to you. Of course, engaging our rational, System 2, will tell us that evil can’t possibly be transferred through osmosis. Yet, we still feel uneasy.
“It’s the notion that there’s a physical connection, that somehow their negativity, their essence can transform or almost contaminate the physical world, and that of course is a completely supernatural belief. It’s not an association,” says Hood.
Scientists call it the contact-based contagion phenomenon, or “the belief that individuals or objects can inherit the ’essence’ of a particular source through touch.”
The contagion phenomenon is why, for example, we touch religious artifacts that are known to symbolize good fortune. It’s also why we wouldn’t want to share clothing with a serial killer.
Always challenge your supernatural triggered decision-making
It’s a common belief in Russian culture that if you shake hands while passing through a doorframe, it leads to bad luck and interpersonal conflicts. Imagine you grew up with that belief and then you see a new business partner engage in this very action. Would you subconsciously view them differently?
How about while conducting an interview for a financial role, you notice the candidate placing their purse on the floor. As part of your Brazilian upbringing, you may have been raised believing that doing so leads to economic losses. Do you think simply witnessing that could adversely influence your decision-making related to this applicant’s candidacy? Would you get subconsciously unsettled?
How about launching a new product line on Friday the 13th? Would you?
Actually, always challenge all your decision-making
Take a moment to think about all the superstitions you believe to be true. I know even those who claim full skepticism hold some potentially irrational beliefs.
Think about what you’d do if those situations showed up in your personal or business life.
Consider how they’d influence the ways you view yourself, and others.
Examine your biases and cognitive distortions.
Whenever faced with a decision, however big or small, however complex or simple, first, take a step back and ask yourself: Who’s really in control here?
What are some superstitions you believe in? Do you think they have the potential to impact your decision-making?