Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Power Of Magical Thinking

Believing What We Do Not Believe: Acquiescence to Superstitious Beliefs and Other Powerful Intuitions | PsycNET

How do religious people manage to hold two mutually exclusive view simultaneously?

How for example, does someone like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and passionate advocate for evolution on an old Earth in an older Universe, whose entire academic career depended on his understanding and acceptance of the role of DNA in evolution, still manage to believe he needs to beg forgiveness because he inherited the 'sin' of a founding pair of humans who were made by magic a few thousand years ago?

Why does practically every religious person believe in just their god or small number of gods and that only their holy book is the source of all truth? Why is the absence of any evidence for other gods as convincing to them as the absence of evidence for fairies, unicorns and the Easter Bunny, and yet the same absence of evidence for their own gods is waved aside as having no bearing on the matter? Why is their holy book so reliable when all the others are undoubtedly wrong, even when they've never read them? How does the logic change and become equally valid according to the needs of the believer?

The answer is magical thinking, of course.

To be fair, the problem isn't restricted to religious people. Even the most rational of Atheists can be irrational at times and some superstitions are so culturally ingrained that they aren't even recognised as superstitions. When my son was in a relationship with a Japanese girl she was horrified when she first came to our then house to find the stairs led up from the hall right opposite the front door. "You must move! How can you live in an unlucky house! All your luck will flow down the stairs and out the front door! Why do you build unlucky houses?" Apparently, this would never happen in Japan for much the same reason a lot of hotels don't have a thirteenth floor in USA and even rational people 'just mention' the fact that tomorrow is Friday 13th, "not that I believe in all that nonsense, of course".

This widespread ability is normally referred to as 'compartmentalised thinking', where two different modes of thought are used - one with lower standards of logic for a religion or favourite superstition, and one for everyday life where decisions can have real-world consequences. This is known as the 'dual-system cognitive model'. No one walks across a busy road without looking, believing that the evidence for cars is misleading because they have 'faith' that the road is empty. No one stands too afraid to cross an empty road believing that the absence of evidence for cars is not evidence of absence, and no-one really believes there are bears round the next corner waiting to get them if they step on the cracks. And yet they don't step on the cracks, just in case...

In all those cases, if applied to every-day life, normal life would only be possible with full-time adult supervision, yet these same people can hold exactly the same view of the lack of evidence for gods or the abundant evidence that a holy book is factually wrong, so that protective spells and rituals to placate an evidence-free god are still necessary for self-preservation because an inerrant book full of factual errors says so. Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence and facts are there to confuse.

In fact, many people continue to behave superstitiously, even though they know that their superstition is nonsensical or even wrong.

Now Jane L. Risen, a research psychologist at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, believes she has explained this phenomenon. There are two processes at work, not one single process. The error detection and error correction systems are two separate processes which allows an intuitive overriding of the error correction process. Even though the error is known about it feels intuitively right, so the person acquiesces to intuition as though intuition is somehow a higher authority.

Traditionally, research on superstition and magical thinking has focused on people’s cognitive shortcomings, but superstitions are not limited to individuals with mental deficits. Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults have superstitions that are not rational. Dual process models—such as the corrective model advocated by Kahneman and Frederick (2002, 2005), which suggests that System 1 generates intuitive answers that may or may not be corrected by System 2—are useful for illustrating why superstitious thinking is widespread, why particular beliefs arise, and why they are maintained even though they are not true. However, to understand why superstitious beliefs are maintained even when people know they are not true requires that the model be refined. It must allow for the possibility that people can recognize—in the moment—that their belief does not make sense, but act on it nevertheless. People can detect an error, but choose not to correct it, a process I refer to as acquiescence. The first part of the article will use a dual process model to understand the psychology underlying magical thinking, highlighting features of System 1 that generate magical intuitions and features of the person or situation that prompt System 2 to correct them. The second part of the article will suggest that we can improve the model by decoupling the detection of errors from their correction and recognizing acquiescence as a possible System 2 response. I suggest that refining the theory will prove useful for understanding phenomena outside of the context of magical thinking. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved)

Risen, Jane L.
Believing What We Do Not Believe: Acquiescence to Superstitious Beliefs and Other Powerful Intuitions
Psychological Review, Oct 19 , 2015 DOI 10.1037/rev0000017

This should ring bells with anyone who's been faced with a scientifically illiterate ignoramus telling them that science must be (or definiteky is) all wrong because they find it hard to believe. There is no doubt in their mind that their own intuition is a far greater authority than that of the experts, no matter on what ignorant it is based. Not even using a computer to tell you that over the Internet is evidence that they're wrong.

As well as the two modes of thought, Risen says, “Even when the conditions are all perfect for detecting an error — when people have the ability and motivation to be rational and when the context draws attention to the error — the magical intuition may still prevail."

This can be reinforced if the person can rationalise doing it because the situation is 'special', so the normal rational thought process doesn't apply. For instance, going to church and being part of the in-group is a 'special' situation, as is remaining in a cult group despite the beliefs and behaviour of the cult leadership and/or it's believers being irrational and closed to reason.

So here we have an explanation for the persistence of creationism and fundamentalist religions in a culturally arrogant culture, even one technologically and scientifically advanced and reasonably well educated. So long as intuition is seen to be an overriding authority, simply showing people the errors in their beliefs are not enough. Intuition and personally incredulity cuts in and they acquiesce to its superior authority, even going so far as to see nothing wrong with declaring that facts, no matter how well verified, can ever convince them that their superstition and their ignorant intuition can ever be wrong.

Christianity, which is supposed to teach people humility, depends on a lack of it, and of course they see nothing inconsistent in believing themselves to be humble whilst behaving with supreme arrogance either.

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