How Superstitions Trigger Actions in a Logical World

A new paper attempts to explain how irrational beliefs cause rational people to perform a variety of actions. For instance, how many sports fans will wear a lucky shirt on game day, believing it will influence a team’s performance? They know the action is irrational, but they do it anyway.

Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults believe in superstitions that they recognize are unreasonable.

Dr. Jane Risen, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, has written a paper to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Review. She discovered that even when people recognize that their belief does not make sense, they can still allow that irrational belief to influence how they think, feel, and behave.

Risen contends that detecting an irrational thought and correcting that error are two separate processes, not one as most dual-system cognitive models assume.

This insight explains how people can detect an irrational thought and choose not to correct it, a process she describes as “acquiescence.”

“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,” said Risen.

Although the suggestion to decouple detection and correction was inspired by the findings from research on superstition and magical thinking, Risen suggests there are broader applications.

Understanding how acquiescence unfolds in magical thinking can help provide insight into how it is that people knowingly behave irrationally in many other areas of life.

For example, certain variables create situations in which intuition is likely to override rational thought. That is, people may acquiesce if they can rationalize their intuition by thinking that a particular situation is special.

Acquiescence may also be more likely if it is easy to ignore rationality and accept intuition, as with people who receive a chain letter; they acknowledge it is irrational to believe that breaking the chain brings bad luck, but still forward the letter.

The research has implications for how people make decisions at home, at work, and in public life. It also suggests how to help people fix their errors.

In summary, the best method to overcome irrational behavior is to effectively change the behavior needed to target the appropriate cognitive process.

This, Risen said, starts by acknowledging that detection of irrational thought, and correction of the actions that may result from the illogical belief, are separate processes.

Source: University of Chicago/EurekAlert