Magical Thinking

This is interesting stuff. As G.K. Chesterton is said to have once said: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything."

"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Now, I completely disagree with the larger point being made here, which is that it's somehow more rational to believe in God/angels/the devil/etc. than in other aspects of the supernatural. Belief in the Holy Ghost, like a belief in haunted houses and generic ghosts, is built on a foundation of faith, not empirical evidence. Metaphysics is metaphysics, regardless of its intellectual history.

That said, it makes perfect sense that people who are regular churchgoers are less likely to believe in alternate (and somewhat less respectable) forms of the supernatural. After all, their metaphysical beliefs are tightly constrained by some ancient sacred texts. They don't need astrology because they've got prayer.

This poll also reminded of a recent study that explored some of the underlying reasons that humans are so prone to "magical thinking". The paper, led by Emily Pronin, consisted of two separate studies, but I'll just discuss the first one, which used a voodoo hex to spook some Harvard summer students. Pronin's experiment was simple: Harvard students were shown a voodoo doll and told that they were part of a study of "physical health symptoms that result from psychological the context of Haitian Voodoo." Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the scientists had recruited a "confederate" as part of their experimental design. The confederate dressed and behaved normally with half of the participants - and very badly with the other half. He arrived late, tossed an extra copy of a consent form toward the trash can, but missed and left it on the floor. While the subjects read the voodoo death article, "he slowly rotated his pen on the tabletop, making a noise just noticeable enough to be grating." In other words, the confederate acted like he deserved a hex.

The test participant was then assigned to play the "witch doctor." The confederate was the "victim" and wrote his name on a slip of paper, which was attached to the voodoo doll. The newly-minted witch doctor and victim were then asked if they had any of 26 physical symptoms. With the witch doctor listening, the victim said that he had no symptoms.

The witch doctor was then left alone and told to think "concrete thoughts" about the victim. When the victim was brought back into the room, the witch doctor, again acting on instructions, stuck five pins into the Voodoo doll. The victim was again once again asked if he had any ailments. He now complained about a headache.

The witch doctor-participants then completed a subtle questionnaire asking whether they felt responsible for the victim's headache. Sure enough, subjects confused their ill-intention with actual causation. "The participants led to generate evil thoughts about their victim were more likely than the neutral-thinking participants to believe that they caused his headache" the researchers reported.

In fact, test subjects who had thought bad things about the deserving victim were, on average, twice as likely to feel they were at least partially responsible for causing the headache than those who had neutral thoughts. What's more, these witch doctors felt no guilt about what they thought they had done. Cronin speculates: "Perhaps participants saw the victim's headache as a just reward for his unpleasant behavior."

What's the moral? Magical thinking is built into our brain at a pretty basic level. Although these Harvard students don't really believe in Voodoo, a few experimental tricks can seduce them into delusion.


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Awesome article. I think your point about how being religious in a mainstream sense doesn't make you "more rational" is a crucially important takeaway message. It's not that mainstream religious beliefs make people less superstitious, it's that those beliefs apparently fill some kind of "belief-shaped hole."

I would like to see a more detailed breakdown regarding the types of paranormal/pseudoscientific beliefs in question. I'm sure that mainstream Christians are much more likely to believe in "paranormal" events like being rescued by guardian angels or that specifically Christian prayer is effective for healing the sick. The issue is not whether or not the events are paranormal but whether or not they conform to an existing worldview; neopagans are probably more likely to believe that their personal "intentions" can affect the world than Christians, but this really isn't any different from asking god for favors in the form of Christian prayer. The way the questions are phrased, as in all psychology experiments, makes a huge difference.

Heh. I flashed on a Law of Conservation of Metaphysics. There is a finite amount of metaphysics each of us can believe and it can neither be created nor destroyed, just distributed differently between different versions of magical thinking.

Devouter Christians simply have more of their metaphysical space spoken for. Under that very fluffy "law," I mean.

I remember reading that a certain amount of magical thinking can be beneficial.
There was also an interesting conjecture that given that for most of human history medicine was more magical than anything else, those who were more suggestible would have benefited more, due to the placebo effect. Over time this could have led to suggestibility being selected for.

Conservation of Metaphysics is an excellent idea Marin. In the same line I'd like to think we only get so much credulity but Conservation of Credulity just doesn't work. I've met too may folks who will believe ANYTHING over and over.

We already have* irrefutable evidence that a Harvard degree and howling ignorant superstition are not mutually exclusive.

*at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC, and in Crawford, Texas.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 23 Sep 2008 #permalink

I wouldn't be so quick to say that that's the moral here. Maybe the subjects felt guilty for taking pleasure in the pain of another person who hadn't maliciously slighted them in any way. Maybe their reports of feeling "responsible" simply represented an inability - albeit, an interesting and potentially explorable inability - to differentiate between feelings of guilt and feelings of responsibility (e.g. "I am responsible for not taking pleasure in the pain of someone who has not tried to hurt me. I took pleasure in his pain, thus violating my responsibility not to. I feel guilty about that. But: all this voodoo stuff has my attention focused on causality, and in theory I tend to associate responsibility with causality pretty overwhelmingly. I must feel responsible for his symptoms.")

It can become a semantic question very quickly.

Nevermind, I missed some stuff on first read.

Chesterton was a hack. One of the really old school rhetorical orators who could turn a phrase that sounds great, but doesn't actually reflect reality. It's just a variant of lying for jesus, just with longer words and a wit that could strip paint at 30 yards.

As for credulity, yeah, we all believe stuff that under closer examination would prove to be false.

What's important is what we use as the Final Arbiter of Truth (FAT). Chesterton and the pious look to the FAT as being god through religion.

The lunatic fringes of society might look to the FAT being von Daniken aliens through am examination of certain bits of archaeology.

I'd hope that sceptics and the rational in general would look to science through proper experimentation as the final arbiter of what is actually true.

When the religious look at the world they don't reject science because of an absence of facts on their behalf, they reject it because they already have a method of divining truth from falsity.

That's why Chesterton is wrong. Believing in god doesn't stop you believing in anything. It only stops you believing in the scientific process, which is, to date, the best way of predicting reality there is.

By Akheloios (not verified) on 23 Sep 2008 #permalink

Immediately after I gave up religion, I found myself at liberty to believe in anything I liked, and still seeking to fill the part of my brain that had been formerly occupied with organized religion, I found myself in a very credible state. I believed in just about everything *except* Christianity.

5 years on, I have given all that nonsense up. It takes a while for the brain to quit reaching for magical possibilities after a long time spent habitually relying upon nonsense. It's just an adjustment period.

Oh, yeah. Isn't this part of the general ability of people to find patterns even when they don't exist?

A while back, RealClimate started using ReCaptcha, and I immediately wondered whether I was imagining an oracular pattern in the words it sometimes presented, or whether it used some Google-like parsing of the words in the posting I'd just written to pick words presented. I still don't know. But the urge to see a pattern in two probably random words and relate it to my own writing immediately above was strong.

The trick is to recognize that this kind of self-delusion routinely happens; the preventative, to some extent, is having had a passing grade in Statistics 101 and remembered the lesson it taught.

I don't really believe what my brain keeps trying to tell me -- that a clever AI oracle behind ReCaptcha is trying to get my attention. Nope. NO chance. Well, hardly any chance.

I always tell people, our ability to see threat lurking in the random patterns of leaves, twigs, shadows, moonlight or sunlight was a survival skill for our ancestors; they saw far more predators lurking than were actually there, but they saw every one that really was. Those who missed even one predator likely thereupon ceased contributing to the gene pool.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 23 Sep 2008 #permalink

How the heck do these results gel with Gallup poll results from the same time period? The Gallup poll asked respondents about 10 paranormal beliefs.

"These results are statistically relevant across lines of 'age, gender, education, race, and region of the country,' according to Gallup. There is, however, some difference between Christians and non-Christians: the former group scores a 75 percent likelihood of belief, while the latter scores 66 percent."

It's possible those non-Christians happen to be people of other religious faiths, but in any case, the 75% for Christians from the Gallup poll doesn't line up with the numbers from the Baylor study. Something's fishy here.

This propaganda originated at Baylor University, described on its own web site as "a private Baptist university". Religious educational institutions have created a lot of really good research on religion, but this isn't an example. This doesn't tell us what Americans believe. It tells us what Baptists believe about themeselves, other denominations, and other Americans.

Evangelical Christian churches strongly discourage their members from buying into other belief systems. This discouragement varies from ministers telling their congregations that they'll go to hell if they belief or practice astrology or other magical practices, to just labeling them "superstition" and saying that Christians don't practice them. This opposition to competing beliefs also extends to science, in the form of Creationism and Intellegent Design. All this poll measures is the degree to which specific denominations discourage their members from participating in beliefs and practices that haven't been explicitly sanctioned by the church.

The first paragraph you quote equates evangelical churches with traditional churches and puts "more liberal Protestant churches" at the non-traditional end of the spectrum. That may have originated with the WSJ writer, and not with the report, but it ignores the fact that all denominations have changed, and all support their form of Christianity with appeals to tradition.

All religions include rituals that are intended to allow participants to alter the world to their own benefit. This includes the practices of religions as various as Vodun and Shinto, and it includes Christian prayer when it is practiced to aid healing, win wars, succeed on the job, etc. It also includes rituals performed to get benefits that don't occur in this life, e.g. to save one's soul. From the Baptist point of view, non-Christian rituals can't have any effect and are therefore superstition, while Baptist-sactioned rituals must be effective because they are what Baptists believe in. If a similar poll had been commissioned by a Buddhist group, we would probably discover that Buddhist are less likely to engage in superstitious beliefs involving creator gods. A Muslim group would find that Islam helps people avoid illogical trinitarian beliefs. And a Jewish poll would probably find that study of the Torah encourages general rational thought.

"What's the moral? Magical thinking is built into our brain at a pretty basic level."

Actually, the Voodoo experiment strikes me as an example of crude pattern recognition. The experimental subjects witnessed their magical actions having an effect. If they had no philosophical or religious commitments to prevent them, it's not surprising that they assumed that what they thought they witnessed really happened. Better evidence of deep seated cognitive processes that bias our thinking is the wide spread belief that the soul, which no one has ever seen, can be saved from damnation, which no one has ever experienced, by a god for whom there is no evidence.

By Ren Galskap (not verified) on 23 Sep 2008 #permalink

My initial thought on the Voodoo experiment, was that I might have felt guilty. Not because I caused his headache via magic, but because he could tell I didn't like him and would have liked to harm him, i.e. a kind of bad-medicine placebo effect. The claim that those who thought they had caused the affliction were not remorseful throws cold water on that interpretation though.

Sure enough, subjects confused their ill-intention with actual causation. "The participants led to generate evil thoughts about their victim were more likely than the neutral-thinking participants to believe that they caused his headache" the researchers reported.

This seems to tie in well with a couple of articles I've come across concerning our free will perception. Citing Wegner and Wheatley (1999), Baumeister (2008) writes that when the thought of an event occurs before it actually happens, we tend to believe we caused it despite the actual reality of the situation. There's also another interesting article that seems to explain this finding on a biological level.

The article (found here), talks about a study that asked participants to report when they were conscious of their will (W) to move before they actually moved (M). As expected, W was sensed before M. But interestingly, brain activity associated with the neural preparation to move (Readiness Potential; RP) happened before awareness of the will to move (i.e., RP-->W-->M).

I suspect there's probably a circular relationship between the three concepts (e.g., a feedback loop from M to RP) that is probably akin to operant conditioning in the brain. If there are an overabundance (or overactivity) of these feedback loops, one could imagine the emergence of thought disturbances like those appearing in schizophrenia (e.g., delusions of reference; vocal/auditory hallucinations that are the persons own internal images being perceived as coming from elsewhere--a causality mixup/feedback loop).

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 23 Sep 2008 #permalink

So the conclusion of the first study can be read as:
I.While fully 100% of strongly religious people believe in the supernatural (by definition), a minimum of 31% of people who are not strongly religious believe in the supernatural.
II. Some supernatural beliefs are mutually exclusive, just as many non-supernatural beliefs are mutually exclusive.

I'd be curious as to what percentage of people who don't believe in god responded positively to other supernatural items in the questionnaire.

It just occured to me to look this up in "Surveying the Religious Landscape", a book by Gearge Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, published in 1999. A chart on page 40 compares the percentage of born-again (evangelical) Americans who believe in various things to the percentage of non-born-again Americans who believe in those things. For the things generally considered superstitions, the following list gives the belief, followed by the percentage of born again Americans who believe it, followed by the percentage of not born again Americans.

Believe in ghosts-28%, 31%
Believe in reincarnation-20%, 24%
Believe in channeling-17%, 9%
Have consulted a fortune teller-16%, 17%
Believe in astrology-26%, 24%

Aside from channeling, there's not much difference between evangelicals and other Americans. Evangelicals were twice as likely to believe in channeling as other Americans.

I don't believe that many US residents have changed their minds in ten years.

By Ren Galskap (not verified) on 24 Sep 2008 #permalink

I thought the article brought to light a great point about Bill Maher; namely his anti-religious stance is brought about as a result of him being anti-authoritian as opposed to overly rational and or skeptical. Contrasting his lack of faith with his belief in the equally unsupported anti-vaccination mumbo jumbo was a great example of this.

By Michael Spear (not verified) on 24 Sep 2008 #permalink

I'd like a look at that questionnaire.

Believing that science will eventually find the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot doesn't sound like faith in the supernatural - it sounds like faith in science.

Similarly, there was this wonderful program on the discovery channel last year that presented archeological findings on an ancient city that they claimed had been the origin of the Atlantas myth. It all sounded totally plausible - a technologically advanced (for the time) seaside city protected by a seawall, and an earthquake that suddenly changed the local topography. (Does this count as "believing in Atlantas?")

I answered a phone survey a few years back on faith and belief, and one of the questions was "did the ancestors of modern humans live at the same time as the dinosaurs". Logically, the answer is obviously yes. But this indicates belief in evolution, not religion.

"Now, I completely disagree with the larger point being made here, which is that it's somehow more rational to believe in God/angels/the devil/etc. than in other aspects of the supernatural. Belief in the Holy Ghost, like a belief in haunted houses and generic ghosts, is built on a foundation of faith, not empirical evidence. Metaphysics is metaphysics, regardless of its intellectual history."

I have to disagree with this statement: teachings of religions need not be just taken on faith. As a child I was taken to church on Sunday and duly took on a belief in God, the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost as do many people as they are raised, but I never tested these beliefs because I never saw them tested or used by my family. As a young adult I decided to try meditation as a way to deal with my mind. My belief system didn't seem to help in this regard. I was not looking for a new belief system or a new religion, I just wanted to try something that was reputed to help with mental stress and so forth. By my experience I would accept or reject whatever teachings I was given. Belief didn't enter into it, being a matter of metaphysics as Jonah postulates, and not testable empirically, or so I thought at the time.

After following instructions and getting results for a couple years, I did become a Buddhist not because I wanted a new belief system but because I had been given instructions that worked for me, and I wanted further instructions. Anything that the Buddha taught, it turned out, could be tested by my experience with the exception of reincarnation. My teacher did not stress this aspect of the teachings and I became a Buddhist without having to believe in anything I couldn't test to confirm empirically.

Tolstoy took much the same approach to the teachings of Christ, being at middle age on the verge of suicide after lots of worldly success. He had renounced the Russian Orthodox church, but after studying philosphy and then reading widely in the world's religions, he took it upon himself to translate Christ's words from the Greek, leaving out all the 'hocus-pocus'(Christ's divinity and miracles)and endeavored to live by Christ's instructions. By Tolstoy's experience, this turned out to be a helpful thing to do.

It seems to me that all religions have this aspect to them that is testable by one's experience and that one does not and even should not accept what is taught on blind faith. I can now look at my experience and find a cosmic aspect of mind that I can line up with 'father', a down to earth aspect in people who embody the cosmic aspect more than others (the son aspect), and a communicative aspect which lines up with descriptions of how the Holy Ghost operates. But to find and follow these practices is time-consuming and for Buddhists and other religions worldwide, most people just want some rules to follow which they accept
based on some sort of belief system. Unfortunately that is what most religions mostly teach.


"My teacher did not stress this aspect of the teachings and I became a Buddhist without having to believe in anything I couldn't test to confirm empirically."

Ohmigod, this is hilarious.....