A charm offensive

Believing in Magic
February 20, 1998

Nowadays no aspect of life is spared the prying eyes of psychologists. In Believing in Magic, Stuart A. Vyse reviews one of their latest activities - the investigation of superstition, a word he finds hard to define. In my view, it means in the narrow sense the belief that an object or activity will affect one's fortune for good or ill by supernatural means when there is no evidence for this belief. In a wider sense, "superstition" is used to mean any false belief for which there is no evidence, for example such psychotherapeutic claims as the efficacy of the primal scream.

Vyse concentrates on the first meaning, ranging from the superstitions of children, "See a pin and pick it up/All day you'll have good luck", through those of the adolescents who carry a rabbit's foot into their examinations, to adults who refuse to fly on Friday the 13th. Although Vyse takes a strictly rational line, he does not regard prayer as a superstition for reasons that are not apparent.

He is good on the causes of superstition. The layman's ignorance of statistics makes him vastly underestimate the probability of chance coincidences, thus supporting a belief in telepathy or dreams foretelling the future. Almost any article may be judged a lucky charm if when using it the owner has done well - for example, by succeeding in an examination while using a particular pen. It was basically for the same reason that Skinner was able to induce superstitious behaviour in his pigeons: his results have since been replicated with children and adults. Other superstitions are socially transmitted, for example not walking under ladders, though that may have originated when a pot of paint descended on some unfortunate's head. Again, it is well established that once a belief is acquired people are reluctant to abandon it, which means that even when the use of a charm is followed by atrocious luck, belief in its value may survive. Finally, people strive too hard to find means to control and predict the world: uncertainty is not easily borne, hence false connections are made.

Superstitions may also exercise a placebo effect by making the believer feel more confident. Vyse argues that this may happen even if the person does not believe in the direct effect of the charm or ritual on their success, but he fails to note that if true, this is another instance of outrageous irrationality: but then there is almost no irrational thought process to which people are not susceptible.

Another helpful feature of some superstitions is that they can reinforce a useful habit. If you believe it will bring bad luck to tie your right shoe lace before the left, you do not have to waste time pondering the problem while dressing, a benefit that has escaped Vyse's notice.

There is no good evidence that superstitious beliefs are increasing, but the broader kind of superstition does seem to be both changing and growing, witness capture and rape by aliens in spacecraft, a rush to imbibe homeopathic medicines and - some would add - multiple personality and recovered memory. Others such as astrology, used as a guide by Ronald Reagan and by many psychotherapists, have simply retained their popularity.

Apart from uncovering the causes of superstition, psychologists have failed to throw new light on them. They do not vary much between the sexes nor at different ages. Vyse believes they tend to occur when a person is anxious over some forthcoming ordeal whose outcome is uncertain. Hence, according to him, they are prevalent in sportsmen before an event, in students before an examination and in actors about to appear on stage. He may well be right, but there is not enough evidence to back him up, and many superstitions, like not walking on cracks in the pavement, are aimed at avoiding much more general ill fortune.

Many of the data Vyse cites were derived from questionnaires given to college students, a highly unrepresentative sample. One sometimes feels that without the captive student (who in the United States is often compelled to act as an experimental subject as a course requirement), psychology would not exist. We do not even know how many people have at least one superstition: it is probably almost everybody, particularly, as Vyse observes, if one includes people who never act on their superstitions but who nonetheless feel a slight twinge at flying on Friday the 13th.

Vyse has done his best with the rather scant material on the topic. It is good that occasionally the voice of reason is heard in the land.

Stuart Sutherland is emeritus professor of experimental psychology, University of Sussex.

Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition

Author - Stuart A. Vyse
ISBN - 0 19 507882 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 257

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