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What is this thing called superstition?. Konrad Talmont-Kaminski KLI & UMCS. What do these have in common? - Tarot card reading Triskaidekaphobia Whistling for wind Bad luck from breaking a mirror First footing Water dowsing. That these possibly do not? - Believing in fairies or UFOs

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what is this thing called superstition

What is this thing called superstition?

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

KLI & UMCS

a sample of superstitions
What do these have in common? -

Tarot card reading

Triskaidekaphobia

Whistling for wind

Bad luck from breaking a mirror

First footing

Water dowsing

That these possibly do not? -

Believing in fairies or UFOs

Using Vitamin C against colds

Saying Mass

Wishing people ‘good luck’

Newtonian physics

A sample of superstitions
jahoda definition
Gustav Jahoda, 1956

“the kind of belief and action a reasonable man in present-day Western society would regard as being ‘superstitious’”

A ‘subterfuge’

A place-holder

Relying on intuitions

Awaiting a proper definition

Jahoda definition
definition and explanation
Definition and explanation
  • Phenomenological definition
    • Seemingly easier to obtain
    • May be misleading
  • Definition in terms of underlying processes
    • Requires that superstition be understood
    • More valuable
  • Neither has been agreed upon
  • But numerous suggestions
uncertainty
Uncertainty
  • Superstitions form under conditions of uncertainty
    • Malinowski (1925) on Trobriand islanders
    • Empirical support
      • Vyse (1991) matrix-task study
      • Keinan (1994) on Israelis under SCUD attacks
      • Padgett, Jorgenson (1982) on economic threat in Germany
  • Reason for the link is not well understood
anthropological explanations
Anthropological explanations
  • Motivational - Anxiety reduction (Malinowski 1925)
    • Main thesis in anthropology
  • Alternative explanations
    • Cognitive - Primitive attempts to understand the world (Frazer 1922)
    • Social - Communicating willingness to cooperate (Palmer 1989)
psychological explanations
Psychological explanations
  • Originate with Skinner’s 1948 pigeon study (Skinner 1948)
  • “Operant conditioning is not just for rats and pigeons” (Vyse 1997)
pattern seeking
Pattern seeking
  • Psychologists focus on pattern seeking
  • Pattern seeking explanations:
    • Emotional need to find a pattern - Vyse (1997) seems to accept this at times
    • ‘Finding’ non-existent patterns sometimes less costly - Killeen (1997, 1981) on ‘just in case’ justifications
    • Evolutionary biasing - McKay (2007) applying Haselton’s error management theory
na ve inductivism
Naïve inductivism
  • Danger of a naïve inductivist view of pattern seeking
    • Beck, Forstmeier (2005) on adaptive learning strategies
  • Position is philosophically unacceptable
    • Hume (1748)
    • Goodman (1955)
  • Selective associations are the norm
    • Cook, Mineka (1990) on monkeys learning to fear snakes
  • General idea of relating superstition to pattern seeking not reliant on naïve views of learning
superstition as false belief
Superstition as false belief
  • Superstition as:
    • “a wrong idea about external reality”! (Beck, Forstmeier 2005)
    • “ascription of false causal connection” (Maller, Lundeen 1933)
  • Problem
    • What about non-superstitious false beliefs?
    • A profound difference
supernatural beliefs
Supernatural beliefs
  • Superstitions as involving supernatural beliefs
    • Seemingly attractive approach
    • But highly problematic
  • Problem 1 - distinguishing supernatural beliefs
    • Vague concept
    • Not used by certain societies which distinguish superstition (Martin 2004) or magic (Durkheim 1921)
religion
Religion
  • Problem 2 - difference between religion and superstition
    • Superstition as false religion (Aquinas 1265)
    • Religion as true superstition?
    • Institutionalisation/function of beliefs/practices (Durkheim 1912, Wilson 2002)
    • Difference in espoused aims?
pseudoscience
Pseudoscience
  • Problem 3 - Pseudoscientific superstitions
    • Saher, Lindeman (2005) on alternative medicine and supernatural beliefs
    • Other evidence for post hoc explanations
    • People may opt for supernatural/pseudoscientific explanations of patterns due to unavailability of natural explanations
thus far
Thus far…
  • Superstition linked to uncertainty
  • May be due to ‘just in case’ pattern seeking
  • Not to be identified with false beliefs
  • May not necessarily involve supernatural claims
  • Need to consider the cognitive processes which lead to superstition
cognitive processes
Cognitive processes
  • Cognitive explanations
    • Logical versus pre-logical thinking (Durkheim 1912, Lévy-Bruhl 1910)
    • Childhood versus adult modes of thought (Piaget 1929)
  • Reify superstitious/rational distinction in terms of different modes of thought
  • Problem - Not all pre-logical or childhood thinking results in superstitious beliefs
    • Identification of superstition still problematic
recent cognitive approaches
Recent cognitive approaches
  • Dual-aspect reasoning
    • (Epstein, Pacini, Denes Raj, Heier 1996) on intuitive versus analytical thinking
  • Developmental psychology
    • (Hood, Bloom 2007, Lindeman, Aarnio 2006) on essentialist accounts of childhood intuitive reasoning
weaknesses
Weaknesses
  • Can not identify superstition with a mode of reasoning
    • But provide a richer picture of limited human abilities
  • The modes of reasoning not competing but mutually supportive
    • Modes of reasoning not superseded
    • Later modes reliant upon earlier modes
ecological rationality
Ecological rationality
  • Reasoning needs to fit the specific problems it is applied to (Simon 1956)
  • Superstitions may be the result of a mismatch between the reasoning and the situation it is applied to
thank you

Thank you

konrad@talmont.com

http://deisidaimon.wordpress.com