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Superstition, pattern seeking and loss of personal control

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 7, 2008


A couple of days ago I went to see Religulous, the investigative documentary by Bill Maher into why people believe weird things about religion. I enjoyed Maher’s laid back approach much better than the Dawkins-Hitchens style hard nose atheism, unfortunately so popular among some atheist groups. The difference is not one of substance (though Maher claims not to be an atheist, he comes very, very close), but of style. And yet style makes all the difference where belief isn’t just a matter of cold rational analysis, but also of messy human emotions.

Think of Maher as a comedian-turned-social commentator in the style of Jon Stewart (though Maher was doing his Politically Incorrect show on Comedy Central and then ABC before the Daily Show got started. He is now the host of Real Time on HBO). Maher, much like Stewart, takes on the role of a modern day Socrates. He admits he doesn’t know much (though, just as in the case of the Greek philosopher, it’s clear that he actually knows a lot more than his self-important, shallow targets do), and goes around “simply” asking questions. The questions we encounter throughout Religulous, however, are devastating. Posed to rabbi, priests, ministers, Jesus impersonators and just every day folks, they are meant to expose the ignorance that underlies much religious faith, as well as the tendency of some religious “leaders” to take easy advantage of their flock.

After the movie, though, I got into a conversation with my friend Phil (the editor of this blog) about whether religion is a cause or a symptom of society’s maladies. Neither of us went for the simplistic Dawkinsian scenario that religion is the root of all evil, and we probably agreed (I’m not entirely sure, after having shared martinis) that religions are at least co-causes, enablers, if you will, of much human suffering. If we were to somehow eliminate (not by force, of course, but by persuasion) religion from human culture things would likely get better, possibly much better, but we still would be very far from living in an earthly paradise, so to speak.

This is of course related to the questions of where religion comes from and what function, if any, it plays at the social or psychological level, both of which have increasingly been under the scrutiny of science. In my next entry I will deal with a recent study of the sociology of religion, but here I’d like to comment on research addressing its psychology. A paper in Science (3 October 2008) by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky reports on experimental evidence that links lack of control by individuals to their proneness to find patterns where none exist, and to develop superstitious behavior.

Lacking control over one’s circumstances is a well known source of anxiety, a situation that activates the brain’s amygdala, the roots of the fear response. And it is also understood that there is a correlation between unpredictability of events and superstition: for instance, people have studied tribes of fishermen fishing at increasing distances from the land, hence in deeper waters and faced by more unpredictable dangers, and have found that the farther out one goes the more the tribe develops superstitious rituals related to fishing. (A similar phenomenon occurs in sports, where there is a correlation between the unpredictability of one’s role in the game and personal superstition: baseball pitchers, for instance, are particularly prone to it.)

Whitson and Galinsky put their subjects in a variety of experimentally induced situations where they had different degrees of control, to see how they reacted to a variety of perceptual tests. The results were stunning: people who felt little or no control over a given situation were much more prone to see patterns where there were none, make up superstitious scenarios, and invent conspiracy theories to explain their situation! Why on earth should this be? The authors conclude that inventing patterns is a cognitive way to regain psychological (certainly not real) control over events, thereby reducing stress. Interestingly, however, another way to achieve the same result was to allow individuals to contemplate and affirm their values, after which their proclivities toward conspiracies and non-existing patterns regressed toward those of the control subjects. Indeed, Whitson and Galinsky suggest that this may be one reason psychotherapy works: the goal of the therapist is precisely that of allowing the patient to construct a narrative that puts him back in charge of the unfolding of his life, with a focus on his personal guiding principles and values.

The lingering question, of course, is why would making up an imaginary pattern or explanation be effective psychologically. After all, one isn’t about to gain real control over events, only an illusory one. But here perhaps we enter into the area where sociological explanations may be helpful, and I will refer the reader to my next installment on this topic. Meanwhile, tell your friends to go see Religulous, or at the least to sign up for therapy.


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