How Superstition Works

My own educational history spans both ends of the humanities–sciences continuum and has brought me into contact with both skeptics and believers. As an academic psychologist, I now live among the skeptics, but in the late 1960s I was an English major, earning both a B.A. and an M.A. before leaving school for a stint in the world of work. A graduate-school friend of mine from that early period had some rather bizarre magical beliefs that seemed to stem, at least in part, from his literary studies. He was a rather intense fellow who lived Hemingway and Faulkner rather than just reading them. As a modern-literature specialist, he studied Frazer’s Golden Bough because it was a significant influence on T.S. Eliot and several other writers, and he believed in sympathetic magic. My friend lived in graduate-student housing with his wife and their young son, and one night he told me that he kept all of their nail clippings in a special dish on his bookshelf. While studying late at night, he would chew them up and swallow them. I have often wondered whether this behavior represented an odd, eucharistic sort of eating disorder (he was a Catholic), but he said his intention was to prevent these materials from falling into the wrong hands. He believed that through contagious magic, some malevolent person could use the fingernail clippings to bring harm to his family. By disposing of them in this way, he was protecting his loved ones. I do not recall whether my friend had any special method for getting rid of hair clippings, but if he did, I hope it was not the same as his method for nail clippings.

Aside from this strange practice, my graduate-school friend was perfectly sane. He was one of the department’s top students and a great father and husband—someone who was far more mature than I was then and someone whom I admired. His belief in contagious magic was probably caused by a number of factors, but his relatively greater exposure to literature than to science may have played a role. Paranormal phenomena are almost never encountered in science classes, yet they are quite common in novels, poetry, and plays, even among the classics.

Although research suggests that education plays an antagonistic role in relation to superstition and the paranormal, the results are not clear-cut. Because the investigators could not randomly assign their participants to various educational groups, these studies may tell us less about the effects of higher education than they do about the people who choose to pursue different academic paths. Does study in the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, and geology, for example—lead to a more critical analysis of common superstitions, or do those who are skeptical choose to major in the natural sciences? Probably both hypotheses are true. There is good evidence that certain educational experiences lead to greater skepticism; but people who are more skeptical may also, for whatever reason, be more likely to choose the natural sciences.

Several studies have reported conflicting results. For example, in a study of "traditional beliefs" among West African students, Gustav Jahoda found no effect of college education in general and no effect of science courses specifically. Similarly, Charles Salter and Lewis Routledge studied 98 University of Pennsylvania graduate students and found no differences in paranormal belief across major fields and no reduction in these beliefs with increased years of study. Thus, although there is some evidence that certain educational experiences reduce supernatural belief, the relationship is far from ironclad. Surprising as it may seem, Senator Pell is probably not an unusual case.

This post is adapted from Stuart Vyse's Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

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Stuart Vyse is the Joanne Toor Cummings '50 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College.

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