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

Article excerpt

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. …