The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Why Do People Believe in Woo & Superstition?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 20, 2009

I have often wondered why it is that so many otherwise intelligent & educated people that I know buy into some of the weirdest woo that is out there. As famed skeptic Michael Shermer has said, “There are plenty of smart people who believe dumb things for non-smart reasons.” Why? What is it that makes so many of us so susceptible to accepting & believing in various kinds of woo and superstition?

A recent study from Northwestern University researchers may have found an answer, one which would corroborate the views of many skeptics who’ve pondered this question for years: control. The research was outlined at this Chicago Tribune article last October, and here are some key points of the study…

Now a new study by Northwestern University researchers has found that all such superstitions may have a common source: the feeling of a lack of control, which spurs people to concoct false patterns and meaning from the noise of life’s chance events.

The Chicago group found that making experimental subjects remember a time when they lacked control actually changed the way they viewed the world, and created a temporary need to see patterns where none existed.

The study in Friday’s edition of the journal Science represents the first experimental confirmation of a link that psychologists long suspected was behind superstitions, conspiracy theories, rituals and even some aspects of religious belief.

Conspiracy theories may be the most poignant example of the way lack of control can color perceptions and beliefs, said Jennifer Whitson, who co-authored the study with Northwestern professor Adam Galinsky as part of her doctoral thesis at the Kellogg School of Management.

For example, a universe of false conspiracy theories cropped up after the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the notion that the U.S. government masterminded the attacks. Whitson said the loss of power that terrorism can inflict on people helps explain the appeal of such theories.

As I said before, this study verifies the suspicions of many a skeptic. For example, renowned skeptic James “The Amazing One” Randi explains to a college class why it is that he thinks that so many people give the pseudoscience of astrology so much validity, despite the fact that it has been proven to be completely useless…

As Randi has said many times, when it comes to belief in woo & pseudoscience, for many people it’s not so much that they want to believe it, it’s that they need to believe it. And if you attempt to shake someone’s comforting worldview (even unintentionally) that gives them some sense of control, even if that sense of control is false & a complete illusion, they will often react negatively.

So, the next time you are discussing with friends or acquaintances some aspect of woo, take care how you come across with your skepticism. Be skeptical, and make your case, but also remember that you’re dealing with real people who have real emotional needs, some of which are satisfied with belief in woo, and tailor your message accordingly.

One Response to “Why Do People Believe in Woo & Superstition?”

  1. […] right along, Matt Lowry brings us “Why Do People Believe in Woo and Superstition?” Good question. A recent study from Northwestern University researchers may have found an […]

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