16 September 2009

Superstitions stay with us from childhood

Cosmos Online
Superstitious beliefs we hold as adults may be a by-product of the processes we use to make sense of the world around us as children.
Little girl with crossed fingers

Despite what we may have learned as we grew up, some misconceptions often remain with us as adults, says a new study. Credit: iStockphoto

GUILDFORD, U.K.: Superstitious beliefs we hold as adults may be a by-product of the processes we use to make sense of the world around us as children, according to a novel hypothesis.

The research offers an explanation for curious traditions such as crossing fingers or tapping wood, as responses to events that we can’t explain in any other way.

The idea is that we are born with brains that have evolved to make sense of a complex world by seeking patterns and trying to understand the mechanisms responsible for them.

Childhood roots

“In doing so – and this is an intuitive process – children sometimes come up with assumptions and misconceptions that later seem to be the basis of adult supernatural beliefs,” said Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist from the University of Bristol in England.

In effect, these beliefs are a by-product of the reasoning behaviour we develop as children. Despite what we may have learned as we grew up, these misconceptions often remain with us as adults, Hood has found.

To test his hypothesis he looked to our responses to transplanted organs. He found that organ transplant recipients are reluctant to accept organs when they are told that the donors were “morally corrupt” in some way; they were portrayed as murderers for example.

“I think this happens because subconsciously we think there is an inner property to the material world that is responsible for the identity of something,” Hood said.

“Moral contamination”

The study which shows that atheists can sometimes hold superstitious beliefs as strongly as those with religious convictions, is to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Culture and Cognition.

“Adults almost have to fight against these intuitions,” said Hood. “There’s evidence from other labs that when adults are in stressful situations or when they have a degree of compromise to mental function through brain disease, then they revert back to a superstitious way of thinking.”

He is planning further studies that will look at our responses to voodoo and magic. Hood speculates that people who hold superstitious beliefs might be more likely to show less activity in the parts of their brains responsible for overriding emotion.

Some experts, such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, argue that supernatural beliefs come from religious indoctrination and poor education. Instead Hood said that he believes religions capitalise on our inclination to view the world in a particular way which makes supernatural beliefs so universal and compelling.

Marc Hauser, a psychologist and evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, in Boston, U.S., commended Hood’s research for showing us why science is so important for explaining the world around us.

“Though we may forever believe in ghosts, goblins and the beneficent deities, with a dose of skeptical scientific realism… there is hope that sanity will prevail,” he said.

Hood presented a talk on his research last week at the British Science Festival in Guildford, England and covers it in more detail in his new book Supersense: why we believe in the unbelievable.


Follow Cosmos on Twitter!


Sign up to our free newsletter and have "This Week in Cosmos" delivered to your inbox every Monday.

>> More information
Like us on Facebook
Follow @CosmosMagazine
Add Cosmos to your Google+ circles

Get a weekly dose of Cosmos delivered straight to your inbox!

  • The latest in science each week
  • All the updates on our new website launch
  • Exclusive offers and competitions

Enter your name and email address below: