LIKE many people with an essentially rational world view, I occasionally lapse into superstition.
I have even noticed a vague sense of unease if I can’t find a piece of wood to touch when I need to prevent misfortune (and, no, tapping my own head doesn’t cut it).
New research from the University of Queensland’s psychology school* prompted me to think about what is going on when we indulge in these kinds of superstitious practices.
The researchers conducted a series of small studies in undergraduates to examine how belief in precognition — the ability to tell the future — might interact with feelings of control, or the lack of it.
Their findings suggest such apparently irrational beliefs may actually play a positive psychological role, helping people to re-establish a feeling of control when faced with the loss of it.
The researchers cite the Global Financial Crisis and the events of 11 September 2001 as examples of threats to control. Diagnosis of a life-threatening illness might be another example.
“It is when control is deprived that people cling to the belief that the future is predictable, and under such conditions holding this belief is palliative and functional in that it increases perceptions of control”, the researchers write.
“We propose … that these kinds of beliefs are not an unreasonable response to control deprivation. Indeed, to the extent that belief in precognition increases perceived control, people could be described as becoming functionally irrational by holding this or related beliefs when control is threatened.”
Functional irrationality may seem an odd concept, but perhaps it’s more common than we think.
Superstitious behaviours such as wearing a lucky charm have been found to enhance performance and protect against negative outcomes under stress, these researchers say.
And is that really so different from the placebo effect, which has long played a role in conventional and — especially — alternative medicine?
Many people also find comfort in prayer when faced with serious illness in themselves or somebody close (although a Cochrane Review found intercessory prayer for the sick was not significantly beneficial or harmful).
I’m not suggesting there should be a Medicare rebate for consults with a clairvoyant — far from it — but it does seem worth seeking a better understanding of the ways various beliefs might affect physical or psychological wellbeing.
If beliefs can bring positive effects, they can also pose risks.
The UQ authors suggest, for example, that a person losing their belief in precognition might experience an “even more intense” threat to control.
But without the ability to see into the future, how are we to know?
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
* Those interested in unusual psychological research may like to look at the scholarly papers the Queensland researchers used to boost or undermine their subjects’ belief in precognition. In one, Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem argues there is significant evidence for “time reversal” in a range of psychological effects (apparently people are particularly good at predicting the appearance of an erotic image). A rebuttal of Bem’s claims is published in the same journal.