In Defense of Superstition

Matthew Hutson in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 12 12.45Superstition is typically a pejorative term. Belief in things like magic and miracles is thought to be irrational and scientifically retrograde. But as studies have repeatedly shown, some level of belief in the supernatural — often a subtle and unconscious belief — appears to be unavoidable, even among skeptics. One study found that a group of seemingly rational Princeton students nonetheless believed that they had influenced the Super Bowl just by watching it on TV. We are all mystics, to a degree.

The good news is that superstitious thought, or “magical thinking,” even as it misrepresents reality, has its advantages. It offers psychological benefits that logic and science can’t always provide: namely, a sense of control and a sense of meaning.

Consider one “law of magic” that people tend to put stock in: the idea that “luck is in your hands,” that you can affect your fate via superstitious rituals like knocking on wood or carrying a lucky charm. We often rely on such rituals when we are anxious or want to perform well, and though they may not directly have their intended magical effects, these rituals produce an illusion of control and enhance self-confidence, which in turn can improve our performance and thus indirectly affect our fate.

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