General, Research, Technology

Superstition from the point of view of science: why do we believe in the supernatural?

Contrary to facts, logic, and common sense, people inall over the world believe in the incredible and supernatural. Many are convinced that they can violate the known laws of physics, work miracles, treat patients with the power of thought and the laying on of hands. But if all kinds of “miracles” are actually a figment of our imagination, why are millions of people around the world convinced of their existence? Are they all mistaken? The first to answer this question in 1890 was the British anthropologist and religious scholar James Fraser. In his 12-volume work The Golden Bough, the scientist systematized material on primitive magic, totemism, mythology, taboos, religious beliefs, etc. Based on the impressive amount of comparative historical data, Frazer deduced the principles of magical thinking that are behind our tendency to believe in the supernatural.

If a black cat crosses your path, then nothing bad will happen.

Anthropologists and religious scholars are well acquainted withnumerous cults and customs of the peoples of antiquity. However, the most interesting is not the very presence of cults and religious beliefs, but how they spread and why they arose in different parts of the world. The spread of myths, magical and religious practices in many cases was due to the interaction between people and the borrowing of the customs of one people from another. But science knows a large number of cults and customs that arose in different parts of the world among nations that did not interact with each other. This suggests that human thinking, especially under the influence of similar circumstances, works in a similar way. Even though the customs and rituals of different nations are very different from each other.

One illustrative example of howand developing religious and magical practices is the cult of cargo (from the English. cargo - cargo). This term refers to a group of religious movements in Melanesia. The appearance of the first cargo cults, researchers recorded in the late XIX beginning of the twentieth centuries. However, classic cargo cults became widespread during the Second World War and after its end. The reason was the US Pacific campaign against Japan, during which a huge amount of weapons, clothing, canned goods and other equally useful things to support the US military was delivered to the islands. The islanders were quite hospitable and willingly helped the military. Watching the actions of soldiers, sailors and pilots during the delivery of goods, the islanders decided that it was these actions that caused the appearance of useful things. After the end of World War II, the military left the islands and cargo delivery was suspended.

Followers of the cult of cargo imitate the actions of the American military

What was the surprise of the public whenthe inhabitants of the islands began to imitate the actions of the military exactly: they applied halves of coconut to their ears, sitting in wooden structures, strongly reminiscent of control rooms. Runways were also erected from wood. Waiting for the arrival of an airplane or ship, the islanders lit torches, simulating landing signals and light from a lighthouse. Subsequently, it turned out that the adherents of the cargo cult believed that foreigners had a special spiritual connection with their ancestors, who gave them all kinds of wealth. In general, the cargo cult clearly illustrates the principles of the work of magical thinking, which is characteristic of the representatives of our species.

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  • 1 Two laws of sympathetic magic
    • 1.1 Law of similarity (or imitation)
    • 1.2 The law of infectiousness (contact magic)
  • 2 Violation of disgust and OCD
  • 3 Who is susceptible to magical thinking?
  • 4 Superstitions and pigeons

Two Laws of Sympathetic Magic; Law of Similarity (or Imitation)

Armed with massive data, JamesFrazer deduced the principles on which magical thinking is based - the two laws of sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is a form of witchcraft, according to which all objects that are similar in appearance, or have been in contact with each other, form a strong magical connection. Frazer called the first principle the law of similarity or imitation. Sounds familiar, right? The basis of the cargo cult, as well as voodoo magic, originates precisely from this principle of sympathetic magic - something like this must be called like. Want to hurt a person? Make a voodoo doll, pierce it with needles and a person will die. If you want clothes, supplies and tents to be delivered to your island - imitate the actions of the military and you will be happy. It is not surprising that the law of similarity is firmly established in modern culture. One of the most striking examples is the famous work of Oscar Wilde's “Portrait of Dorian Gray,” in which, instead of the hero, his own portrait is aging.

Now faced with voodoo magic, you will know how to resist it (spoiler - no way)

The law of infectiousness (contact magic)

The main principle of the law of infectivity is - oneonce in contact, always in contact. Frazer cites the example of Malaysian Aborigines whose main weapons are bow and arrows. So, having shot the enemy, but not killed him, the natives laid their bow and arrows closer to the fire, believing that the “burning” of the fire would go to the arrow and then to the wounded enemy, causing him terrible pain. However, contact magic is best illustrated by the popular treatment of wounds with the so-called weapon ointment, which consisted of fat from wild boars or other animals. The ointment was applied not to the wound, but to the weapon that inflicted this wound. Many were delighted with this treatment, linking it to their own recovery. You may be surprised, but the law of infectiousness works fine today, since homeopathy has replaced the weapon ointment. The very principle of “once in contact - always in contact” explains how the active substance remains active after repeated dilution in water. And if for some reason you did not know that homeopathy is pseudoscience, we recommend that you familiarize yourself with the memorandum of the Commission against pseudoscience under the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences “On the pseudoscience of homeopathy,” which details the evidence that some or illness with the help of sweet balls is impossible, since they do not have an active substance.

The next time the doctor writes you homeopathy, remember that if a person received a medical education, this does not mean that he took it

Violation of disgust and OCD

Frazer suggested that the popularity of magicalthinking lies not in the fact that people think somehow wrong. On the contrary, the scientist was sure that the train of thought was correct, but the action was not. So, even Hippocrates believed that diseases are transmitted from person to person by invisible living beings, because of which he tried not to exchange them with anyone. Today we know that Hippocrates was right, since the existence of a large number of microorganisms that cannot be discerned with the naked eye is proved by science. Moreover, it is known that our mind has a sense of disgust that protects us from epidemics and infections, as well as from eating dirty foods. So, you are unlikely to eat up the leftover food from a plate of a stranger or exchange kisses with a sick flu.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions: in some cases, disgust does not work, and magical thinking takes its place. For example, most Europeans would not have thought of drinking water from the Indian Ganges and especially swimming in it, unlike the locals who consider the river sacred. People bathe in the Ganges River and drink water from it in the hope of receiving healing, while pathogens in large quantities, such as cholera, were found in the water. Another example of an aversion disorder is obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD. People who suffer from OCD can perform a wide variety of rituals, believing that the rituals have a significant impact on their lives. Remember the film “The Aviator,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio? The picture tells about the engineer and pioneer of American aviation Howard Hughes, whose life turned into hell, since he believed that all objects and even people around him were infected with dangerous microbes.

A man bathes in the Ganges river in the early morning. Photo: National Geographic.

However, this is not the only relationship between OCD andreligious practices. Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, talked about the relationship between obsessive-compulsive disorder and religiosity in a lecture on “Biology of religiosity”. Indeed, if you carefully look at the magical and ritual rites of different nations, you will notice that they all perform certain actions in a strict order, and also use sacred objects. For example, Christian rituals such as baptism and communion or the Muslim ritual of namaz require the observance of many scrupulous rules, the slightest violation of which is fraught with ineffective prayers and rituals. The use of ritual objects - icons, candles and censers helps to perform the ceremony, which makes them sacred. In all such actions, there is a connection not only with OCD, but also with the two principles of sympathetic magic.

Who is prone to magical thinking?

And yet, even if you do not consider yourself to beone of the existing religions, this does not mean that you are not subject to magical thinking. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, psychologist Paul Rosin, decided to test how magical thinking affects our daily lives. In one of his early experiments, the Rosin team asked subjects to drink juice, which had previously been dipped in a completely disinfected cockroach. Most refused to drink the juice, knowing that there were no dangerous pathogens in it. Researchers suggested that the other subjects eat a soup in which they themselves spat, but no one wanted to eat such a soup. Also, the subjects preferred not to wear clean clothes of a person who they did not like and did not want to eat chocolate in the form of feces, although they did not refuse chocolate in the usual form.

However, the situation becomes even more interesting whenit comes to marketing techniques. In one of the studies, cookies and a package of feminine sanitary pads were put in the customer’s grocery basket. It turned out that when a box of cookies came in contact with a pack of pads, customers were less likely to eat cookies. Moreover, the more disgust a person felt for feminine sanitary napkins, the less he liked to eat cookies. Absurdity, right? However, as a result of the experiment, marketers were asked to add another branch to the basket to avoid such contacts.
Opponents of GMOs are not absurd either. So, 71% of respondents admitted that they do not understand what it is and still negatively relate to genetically modified products. Seems strange? In fact, this position is another example of magical thinking. According to the law of similarity, deduced by Frazer, a person thinks that if he eats GMOs, he himself will become GMOs.

Actually examples of magical thinking indaily life is a huge amount. As for the causes of its occurrence, James Frazer believed that man always looked for something in common in the laws of nature in order to benefit for himself. And in this lengthy search, a large number of ideas turned out to be correct, while others did not. The British anthropologist called correct ideas science, erroneous - magic. Do you agree with Frazer’s statement? Share your opinion in the comments and with the participants of our Telegram chat.

Superstition and pigeons

In the early 1940s, Americanbehaviorist psychologist Burres Skinner studied animal behavior. When he studied pigeons, he placed hungry birds in a laboratory box - later called the “Skinner's box” - and encouraged food every time they glued a key in the power supply.

A pigeon in Skinner's box pecks a button hoping to get food

Skinner then set up the instrument so that hegave out food randomly. All that was required of the pigeon was just to sit and wait, but the birds did not do so. Together, the bulk of the pigeons developed what Skinner called superstitious behavior. When one of the pigeons accidentally looked over his left shoulder, and the mechanism for dispensing food worked at that moment, the pigeon came up with the idea that if you look through the left shoulder, you can get food and he did it again. If it happened that the mechanism worked again when the pigeon looked over the left shoulder, the bird began to look manic over the left shoulder, as if making sure that it was this action that caused the appearance of food.

And we are no better than pigeons. Creating erroneous causal relationships, we conclude that if a brick fell onto a person’s head after a black cat crossed the road, then the cat is to blame (although the poor animal has nothing to do with it). In the same way, the famous “rain dance” appeared - someone danced once, after which it started to rain, but the man decided that it started to rain because of his special dance. We build the same erroneous causal relationships based on the principles of magical thinking in the event of recovery after contacting healers, homeopaths or priests. The fact is that many diseases tend to pass over time on their own, however, the person who turned to the healer is convinced that his recovery is the merit of the healer.

But not everything is as simple as it seems at firstsight. You and I appeared as a result of millions of years of evolution, during which every skill, every corner of the body and brain of a person was honed. As a result, we knock on a tree, see faces on a cheese sandwich and try to look into the future by looking at tea leaves, because we want to create an illusion of meaning. We are desperate to feel that in this amazingly complex world, a certain organizing force is working for us. It turns out that today many call themselves spiritual, religious and / or superstitious people and do not even suspect that due to the magical thinking inherent in our species and numerous cognitive distortions, they themselves impose supernatural images on reality.

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