The secret of superstition

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia (The Philippine Star) - August 23, 2012 - 12:00am

Whenever I receive a chain message or observe some ritualistic prescription on how to change one’s luck or turn the force of nature, I get amused. But more than that, I cannot help but admire the minds of those who craft those messages and rituals. Not for their logic, but for their remarkable ability to defy it. 

Whenever we are faced with things we cannot understand, we humans do not just raise our hands instantly and say “OK, I don’t get this” and move on. Even if some of us eventually succumb to the uncertainty of why some things turn out the way they do, we first try to make our own maps in our minds to fill the uncertainty. For those who rely mostly on reasoning to make sense of things, they experiment whether in labs, in real social settings, or in their heads, and then figure out the most likely cause-and-effect. But there are some who come up with the most elaborate rituals involving steps and materials that are unrelated to the event they are trying to explain. Why do they do this? Scientists did a study and they think that even if these people’s ways have never yielded evidence to say they work, it is still part of the brain’s strategy to make sense of the world around them. 

Cristine Legare and Andre Souza, both from the Department of Psychology in the University of Texas at Austin, were the authors of a study entitled “Evaluating Ritual Efficacy: Evidence from the Supernatural” published in the journal Cognition last April. They presented 162 Brazilian subjects with different versions of simpatias — a common ritual in Brazil that people subscribe to curing certain ailments and even bad luck. In our culture, I guess they could be called “pamahiin” and in organized religion, these are called incantations, whether in the form of prayers, dances or songs. The versions of the simpatias varied in the number of steps involved, the number of repetitions and the time within which a simpatia is conducted. The result was that, the more steps and repetitions and the longer time each simpatia required, the more effective the subjects perceived the simpatia to be even if there was no evidence that it worked. The scientists also tested this on US respondents to see if this finding will apply to another culture. And it did, even if the US, they seem to be much less ritualistic about their superstitions than the Brazilians. 

Like an impenetrable wall of defense, our brains seem to find a way to try to relate actions/events to one another, even if they are not connected at all. We are wired to figure things out even if we end up wrongly attributing the cause of our ailments and misfortunes to certain things. When people do that, they are not defying logic, as I initially thought they were. It is part of their brains’ attempt to be logical even if in the end, it fails since it yields no evidence that the ritual really worked. 

There is nothing wrong with rituals. I think they make our lives richer and they characterize our lives with more than just the ticking of the clock or the energy spent in the performance of an act. Art is a deep well of rituals which I think make our lives worthwhile. Science can construct a violin but it is art that makes music with it. Poetry is I think a ritual, in a sense, since it conveys the spirit of the moment in riddles and swooshes of verses instead of one sentence with the perfect syntax. But superstition, when it becomes a substitute for scientific thinking, is dangerous. To look at your child with a learning disability as a curse of nature or by some deity for an offense your ancestors committed, is not only dangerous but also unkind. To look at floods as the curse of the heavens and not our own doing is not only thoughtless but a cop-out. 

Perhaps this study could make us take another look at our view of superstition. It seems that the longer and more elaborate the rituals involved in a superstition, the more humans think it is effective, regardless of whether it really is. But we also have to remember that what makes you even more human is not your talent for rituals but that you also have the capacity to question your own rituals. So enjoy your rituals and have your beliefs but rejoice even more that you also have the capacity to test them and rethink how they would steer your life.

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