The Psychology of Superstition

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Thomas Venema Ouija Board

The ouija board, a boardgame developed by Parker Bros, is said to help contact the supernatural.

No doubt, there are some things that you just can’t explain.  Since the beginning of time, mankind has used the umbrella term “paranormal” to write off such things, claiming that it was the work of deities, spirits and goblins.  Yet even as science has explained more and more of such phenomenae, a belief in the paranormal remains.  According to recent surveys, around 60% of Americans believe in the paranormal, and nearly one in five claim to have actually seen a ghost.  I recently came across an article where psychologists have looked at what it is that causes people to still believe in the paranormal.

There are some easily explainable paranormal experiences, based mostly on faulty activity in the brain.  Reports of objects mysteriously moving on their own seem to be consistent with damage to certain regions of the right hemisphere that are responsible for visual processing.  And certain forms of epilepsy can cause the spooky feeling that you’re being watched.  Meanwhile, out-of-body experiences are now accepted as a neurological phenomena, while certain visual illusions could create mythical creatures.  Therefore, any combination of exhaustion, drugs, alcohol and tricks of the light could lead to ghost sightings.

For a long time, psychologists studying religion have suspected that a belief in the paranormal serves as a shield from the harsher truths of the world.  When something unexpected happens, such as a death or natural disaster, the brain scrambles around to find meaning.  People like to gain objective control of a situation, and start to perceive structure when it isn’t necessarily there.  Humans create belief in things like ghosts and superstitions because they don’t want to believe that the universe is random.

Recently, one researcher asked skeptics and believers in the supernatural to view sample animations of moving shapes.  Those who believed in the paranormal were more likely to see some sort of intention behind the movements, which was reflected in greater brain activity in regions normally associated with “theory of mind”.  The same researcher also found that people who believed in the supernatural are more likely to see hidden faces in everyday photos, and may have weaker cognitive inhibition compared to skeptics, meaning that they can’t as easily quash unwanted thoughts.  Those who believe in the paranormal also tend to be more confident when they make decisions, even when such decisions aren’t based on concrete information.

Interestingly enough, belief in various superstitions has been shown to boost your performance in a range of skills.  For example, studies have shown that bringing your favourite lucky charm to a test or similar event significantly improved skill, since it seemed to increase confidence in their own abilities.  Other studies have revealed how easy it is for us to imagine strange happenings when we’re feeling unsettled.  Even priming someone with a feeling of hope can increase their belief in both conspiracy theories and the supernatural.


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