How Superstition Works

An interesting example of the relationship between increased age and increased skepticism is found in a study of police officers and the full-moon effect. Many law-enforcement officials, emergency-room workers, and mental-health professionals believe that crimes, accidents, and psychological problems are more numerous during the full moon, the time of lunacy. The full-moon effect has stimulated considerable interest, but after examining all the relevant research, several investigators have failed to find evidence for a relationship between the phases of the moon and any measure of human behavior. In a study of 51 male police officers, Robert Corrigan, Lee Pattison, and David Lester found that 63 percent of the officers believed in the full-moon effect and that younger, less experienced officers were more likely to believe than older officers. Apparently, age and experience fighting crime leads to the moon’s acquittal.

A different conclusion was drawn by British folklorist Gillian Bennett. In her study of retired English women, 77 percent said that premonition was possible, and 43 percent were certain of its reality. Bennett suggested that these older women "salvage a great deal from their lifestyle, and, through their concept of the spiritual/supernatural world, endow their role with something of the holy." Many of Bennett’s women had lost their former roles as wives and mothers and the status that these roles provided. Their relationship with the supernatural helped them retain some of their former stature and sustain connections with loved ones separated by death or distance. Bennett’s findings suggest that, at least among these British women, increasing age may actually lead to greater belief in the supernatural.

The water is further muddied by a study conducted by psychologist Seymour Epstein. Epstein surveyed three groups—children ages 9–12, college students ages 18–22, and adults ages 27–65—about various superstitions and paranormal beliefs. Several of the beliefs in the Epstein study show little variation across the age groups. For example, thought projection and seeing into the future are consistently endorsed by approximately 20 percent of each group. However, some of these beliefs decrease with increasing age (e.g., good and bad magic), and others increase with age (e.g., having good luck charms and superstition). Similarly, although the 1996 Gallup poll of paranormal beliefs showed generally higher endorsement by younger Americans, the 2007 poll indicated that women 50 or older were far more likely to be bothered by a room on the 13th floor than younger women or men of any age. Taken in total, the relationship between age and superstitious or paranormal beliefs appears to be complicated; it is safest to say that, at this time, no general statement can be made about age on magical beliefs.


Claiborne Pell, former U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, was an educated man. Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, he earned an A.B. cum laude from Princeton University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A strong supporter of higher education, he created the Pell Grants program, which provides financial aid to needy college students, and was the principal sponsor of the 1965 law establishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

But in addition to his involvement with traditional academic pursuits, Senator Pell was a supporter of "psychical research." In 1988, he received considerable attention in the press when it was discovered that he had hired "UFO enthusiast" C. B. Scott Jones, at an annual salary of $48,000, as a full-time aide to investigate various paranormal phenomena in the national interest. In addition, Pell attempted to create a federal commission to promote "human potential" research and invited Uri Geller to Washington to demonstrate his professed psychic powers for congressional representatives. In 1990, during the months before the First Iraq War, Pell’s interest in the supernatural surfaced again when it emerged that Jones had written a letter to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney expressing concern that the word Simone appeared when audio- tapes of Cheney’s speeches were played backwards. Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in International Studies from American University, was investigating "reverse-speech therapy" and wrote Cheney out of concern that Simone might be "a code word that would not be in the national interest to be known."

One might suspect that these events would be welcome ammunition for an opposition candidate, but in the hard-fought reelection campaign of 1990, the senator’s interest in psychic research was barely mentioned. Fortunately for Pell, his challenger, former U.S. Representative Claudine Schneider, could not attack this point because she, too, is a believer in ESP and other psychic phenomena.

Finally, in November 1995, after Pell had announced his plan to retire from the Senate, the Central Intelligence Agency disclosed that for over 20 years it had supported a top-secret program, code-named Stargate, aimed at researching the value of psychic remote viewing (the ability to see objects and events that are miles away) for intelligence-gathering purposes. The CIA had spent a total of $20 million on the Stargate program, but when an independent study by the American Institutes for Research evaluated the program, it found that evidence for the validity of remote viewing was lacking, and that even if remote viewing were clearly demonstrated, it would be of doubtful usefulness. When former CIA director Robert Gates was asked why the agency pursued the Stargate program, he cited competition with the Russians, who were engaged in similar research, and pressure from a few unnamed congressmen.

Obviously, education does not make one immune to superstitious or paranormal beliefs. Indeed, most published studies of paranormal belief have used college students as subjects. Yet we might expect that higher education, particularly in the sciences, would lead to increased critical thinking and greater skepticism. The research on this point is somewhat mixed, but there is some evidence that formal education does lead to skepticism. In a study of people working in New York City, Stuart and Lucille Blum found lower superstitious belief in those with more years of education. In 1982, Laura Otis and James Alcock published a study of several types of "extraordinary beliefs" among college students, professors, and members of the general public. In most instances, professors were found to be more skeptical than students; however, students showed the same level of supernatural belief as the general public. In a more recent large-scale study of Finish students, Kia Aarnio and Marjaana Lindeman found that, compared to university students, vocational school students had higher levels of belief in a variety of paranormal phenomena. In addition, there is evidence that certain academic fields are associated with greater skepticism than others. For example, Otis and Alcock found that, among their relatively skeptical professors, English professors were more likely to believe in ghosts, psychic phenomena, and fortunetelling. Similarly, a survey of over a thousand American faculty members on belief in ESP found social and natural scientists to be significantly more skeptical than representatives from the humanities, arts, and education. Among the social sciences, psychologists were the most skeptical. Finally, a study of Harvard undergraduates found stronger belief in astrology, ESP, and UFOs among majors in the humanities and the social and biological sciences than among natural-science majors.

Presented by

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

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