British experimental psychologist Hood (Cognitive Development/Univ. of Bristol) argues that superstition is the product of normal mental development.
A high proportion of adults, even those who are scientifically literate, hold beliefs that qualify as superstition, writes the author. For example, people won’t wear a sweater they are told belonged to a mass murderer, and some star athletes insist on repeating actions that have accompanied previous successes, such as always eating chicken before a game. The reason lies in psychology: We insist on finding meaning in the world, treating random events as if some hidden pattern links them. Behaviorist psychology grew out of Pavlov’s and Skinner’s recognition that our minds make such links on their own, writes Hood, but Piaget’s more subtle analysis reveals that our brains have built-in abilities to recognize real patterns, like those displayed by natural phenomena, and that we are already doing so in infancy. A child dropping things is learning about gravity, and we also learn psychology at an early age, drawing inferences on how people respond to events and to our actions. But this useful faculty is also directed at inanimate objects, as when people give their cars names or curse at a computer for failing to do what it’s told. Our mind’s ability to see analogies leads to what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic,” the notion that similar things are somehow connected to one another. (This is the idea behind homeopathic medicine, to cite one example.) Another psychological pattern leads us to associate special properties with certain items, such as a child’s security blanket or the “lucky” items many adults carry with them. Collectors of memorabilia are also indulging in a kind of magical belief, as if something once owned by a famous person possesses that person’s special qualities. Hood persuasively demonstrates that these beliefs originate in normal psychology, the rational patterns our minds use to make sense of our surroundings. Drawing on both laboratory results and everyday experience, he offers a clear perspective on the subject.
Convincing treatment of a sensitive, frequently contentious issue.