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RS13 - Superstition, Is It Good For You?

Release date: July 18, 2010

Is it possible that superstition is actually good for you? Well, it turns out that superstition may, at least some of the time, have beneficial effects.  A paper published in 2008 in Science for example, suggests that lacking control over a situation increases people’s propensity to see illusory patterns — the implication being that the latter (a typical component of superstition) ameliorates stress when we feel that things are out of hand.  Also, a recent study published in Psychological Science shows that superstition improves people’s performance on certain tasks, presumably by making them more self-confident than they would be otherwise. Add to this a recent article in Scientific American to the effect that people with Asperger’s syndrome are less likely to project agency onto life’s events (and hence tend to be less superstitious), and suddenly the skeptic might not feel so cocky about being skeptical.

Of course we're not advocating in favor of superstition on the sole ground that it may be psychologically helpful. Still, what happens when something that we devote so much time fighting against turns out not to be entirely bad after all?

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like"

Massimo's pick: The Epistemelinks website

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Reader Comments (4)

Great podcast! I have a comment about the finding that abused people are more likely to follow witchcraft and other new-agey faiths than "standard" religion.

It struck me because I have known several people who fit that description in my life. I would suggest that it's because a) their abusers are usually at least nominal followers of the standard religions. b) They also grew up in the standard religions...and since God didn't stop the abuse, it must be a false faith. c) They are turning toward a faith that offers real benefits in their lives...and witchcraft and new age beliefs do promise to improve your life here and now, not give you "pie in the sky when you die".

August 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJansob

The example of the Sniper's lucky bullet was misrepresented as taking foolhardy chances. A soldier in a deadly realm knows full well that death could come at any minute through no fault of his own. This is not a "feeling." It's a brutal truth. You could just be walking out to the same place you went yesterday and be blown up by a hidden mine that was placed in the night. Coping with deadly random fate is not the same thing as failing to do your job well.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Wooldridge
So when you talk about pigeons and rats in the BF Skinner experment. Doesn't it happen as a habit formation rather than it being a superstition?
July 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDeepali Barapatre
I love the episode opening!

Ridiculous that people superstitiously believe that the "essence" of something has real power.
February 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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