THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUPERSTITION

Gustav Jahoda

Penguin, London, 1969.


Although over 30 years old, this short book is a useful guide to something of depressing longevity. Though some of the research referred to is now somewhat dated, the survey of findings in psychology and anthropology is still informative, and is enlivened by occasional anecdotes such as Jahoda's account of his mischief during a seance (p.50). Awaiting a response from the beyond, he shifted in his seat and accidentally kicked the table, which was immediately interpreted as a communication. He decided to experiment, and "quite blatantly" kicked the table for another half an hour without being suspected. He was about to come clean, when the spirit was asked to materialize, and someone perceived a little grey man, thence seen by most of the others present.

A year later, Jahoda spoke to one of them, a person who had come to believe in the occult thereafter. Conscience-stricken, he owned up, only to find that the person refused to believe him, ascribing the confession to a need to explain everything away (reminiscent of the complaint, related by Sagan, about James Randi being "obsessed with reality").

Discussing medicine, Jahoda observes that the urgent practical demands of healing tend to leave medical practices with less thorough theoretical underpinning than would be found in the sciences in general. The study of health is hence more vulnerable to unfounded theories and doctrines promoted by the unscrupulous or the superstitious.

Perception is necessarily selective, and is also subject to fragmentary and incomplete information (p.41). Memory is notoriously shifty: Bartlett asked experimental subjects to recall an unfamiliar folk-tale on successive occasions and observed the distortions produced over time. These alterations were governed by a process of rationalization, whereby unfamiliar or incomprehensible items of the story were gradually adjusted to fit the schemas of the subject (p.42). Bartlett spoke of an "effort after meaning" (p.121), which may lead us, for example, to find certain coincidences meaningful, much in the way that Jung did with the theoretical excesses of synchronicity, discussed here at length (p.112).

A case can be made for superstition's having a valuable role for many people in reducing uncertainty and anxiety (p.134). An evolutionary perspective may throw yet more light on this phenomenon. Konrad Lorenz (p.145) argued that,

"for a living being lacking insight into the relation between causes and effects it must be extremely useful to cling to a behaviour pattern which has once or many times proved to achieve its aim, and to have done so without danger".


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PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEF AND SUPERSTITION



Paul Taylor 2001