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The Science Behind Our Stubborn Superstitions

We know they’re irrational but choose to believe them. Why?

| 2 min read

We know they’re irrational but choose to believe them. Why?

We all have those weird superstitions that make us sound totally out of our minds, but we choose to stick with them anyway. In Ancient Britain, women carried around acorns with the belief that they would help keep them looking young  forever. In Turkey, it’s believed that if you chew gum after dark, you’re really chewing the flesh of the dead.

In retrospect, when we really think about these superstitions, it’s pretty obvious that an acorn doesn’t contain the elixir of life and that gum doesn’t turn into dead flesh at night. But chances are we’ll continue to abide by these beliefs anyway. Why? A new study has just started to unearth the reasoning behind our stubborn superstitious beliefs.

SEE ALSO: Do You Believe in Ghosts? This Psychological Phenomenon Explains Why

In a paper from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, professor Jane Risen reports that even when people recognize their nonsensical belief, they can still allow it to influence how they think, feel, and behave. She contends that even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults believe in recognizably unreasonable superstitions.

Do you keep your distance from black cats and handle mirrors with extra caution? Even if you can reason that black cats and broken mirrors won’t leave you with lifelong bad luck, the detection that a belief is irrational and the decision to discard the belief are processed in two separate areas of your brain.

"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," Risen said in a press release.

Instead of the dual-system suggested by most cognitive models of superstitious thinking, Risen argues that detection and correction of an irrational thought are processed separately. Understanding these processes as separate could lead to a better overall understanding of people’s irrational choices.

For behavioral therapies to be effective, they must target the right cognitive processes. Risen suggests that this research may lead to new and improved interventions for successfully altering behaviors.

Superstitions are difficult to shake since we can know that they’re irrational but choose to believe them anyway. Even though some of them are harmless, like insisting that your lucky game day t-shirt helps your team win, it’s important to understand how our brain processes these irrational beliefs since it likely plays into our other irrational choices. Hopefully further research will help us tap into these brain processes and overcome the driving forces behind our most irrational decisions.

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