The Origin of Superstition, Magical Thinking, and Paranormal Beliefs: An Integrative Model

By Lindeman, Marjaana; Aarnio, Kia | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Origin of Superstition, Magical Thinking, and Paranormal Beliefs: An Integrative Model


Lindeman, Marjaana, Aarnio, Kia, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN HIS ALWAYS QUIRKY BUT USUALLY insightful look into the human condition, comedian Woody Alien once remarked: "There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is how far it is from midtown and how late is it open?" (1)

In point of fact, the majority of people accept as a given that an unseen world of paranormal powers exists, and all that remains is for us to discover the details of its workings. Superstition and magical thinking are the core cognitions that drive belief in the paranormal. Over 40% of Americans, for example, believe in devils, ghosts, and spiritual healing. (2) Most social scientists do not bother trying to understand why people believe in the paranormal, while many psychologists have characterized superstitious and magical thinking as a problem for which there is no ready explanation, (3) or as "a label for a residual category--a garbage bin filled with various odds and ends that we do not otherwise know what to do with." (4)

Skeptics, of course, have not ignored superstitions and magical beliefs, and there exist today several international magazines, regular conferences, and dozens of excellent books that attempt to both explain the paranormal as well as understand why people believe in it. Explanations have ranged from personality traits, psychological motivation, and flawed cognition, to emotional instability, demographics, and social influences. (5) From the purely scientific perspective of experimental psychology, however, our overall understanding of this area has yet to be adequately described and explained. This paper presents a new and integrative model that explains superstition, magical thinking, and paranormal beliefs.

The Need for a Conceptual Model

One of the primary problems facing a scientist studying superstition, magical thinking, and paranormal beliefs is defining what precisely the field entails. There is little agreement on how these terms should be defined, outside of simply providing specific examples of each, and it is not clear how (or if), the constructs of "superstition," "magical thinking," and "paranormal (supernatural)" beliefs differ from each other, or how they differ from obviously false beliefs (e.g., "whales are fish"). Consequently, there is a strong need for a conceptual model that clarifies the meaning of magical, paranormal, and superstitious beliefs, and explains why rational Western people still believe in things that seem so irrational. This study provides an initial step in this direction. Here we will offer new theoretical propositions, which will define the constructs and offer criteria for their application. We will also analyze whether our definition can be empirically justified.

Among the most influential definitions of magical thinking are the laws of sympathetic magic outlined in the early days of anthropology. (6) The law of contagion holds that things that have once been in contact with each other continue to act upon each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The law of similarity holds that superficial resemblance indicates, or causes, deep resemblance. During the last two decades, researchers have conducted a series of path-breaking studies that revealed how these laws manifest themselves among well-educated Western adults. (7) However, the laws of sympathetic magic are neither intended nor sufficient to cover all superstitious, magical and paranormal beliefs. Moreover, as the researchers themselves note, the distinction between the laws of magical thinking and reality--for example between magical contagion and microbial contamination and between magical similarity and vaccination--can be subtle and ambiguous. (8)

Other authors have defined superstitious and magical beliefs more widely as false cognitions--for example as limitations in cognitive processing, (9) beliefs that are barely articulated, (10) tenets founded on ignorance, (11) and as causal beliefs that by conventional standards are invalid.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Origin of Superstition, Magical Thinking, and Paranormal Beliefs: An Integrative Model
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?