Thursday, July 12, 2012

Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart Vyse

Believing in Magic by Stuart Vyse is a book that, indepthly I might add, describes the sources of belief in superstition and magic as well as some of the psychological principles and theories that explain some of these interesting beliefs. In the book, Vyse describes everything from a profile of the ideal superstitious person to the developmental origins of our superstitions. He describes humans as answer-seeking creatures that try to make order out of the chaos that is our everyday lives. In trying to find the patterns and answers to life’s random events, we develop superstitions to make sense of it all. For example, Vyse describes belief in religion as a response to the uncertainty of life, death, and the afterlife. He also says that superstition and superstitious rituals are ways to for us to maintain the illusion of control that is, “a necessity to life.”  The book goes into detail with several studies that have been performed by notable psychologists, like Jean Piaget and B.F Skinner, which have studied superstitious behavior in both humans and animals and its possible origins.
            My favorite part of the book was actually in the epilogue at the end of the book. The author describes a situation he was in when he was asking people of their superstitions and beliefs for research for his book. When he was finished, the people asked him, “do you have any superstitions or weird beliefs?” The author talks about how uncomfortable he felt in this situation because he in fact does not have any superstitious beliefs. This, to me, shows how widespread superstitious beliefs and rituals go; that the person who doesn’t have a crazy superstition feels like the odd man out in a social situation. Overall, I think this entire course has been about our superstitious beliefs as a culture. Throughout history, these beliefs have been passed down from generation to generation and even the people who “don’t believe” will still perform ritualistic acts, “just to be on the safe side.” Superstitions are a large part of our society, and the majority of people you question will have at least one strange thing they believe; whether that thing is God, a lucky rabbit’s foot, or a lucky hat. People have faith in things because they want to take comfort in the fact that they have a say in what happens in their day, and that everything isn’t just a random event. Those most affected by superstition were college students, athletes, and gamblers. College students will turn to any form of help they can receive when preparing for a big final or giving a major presentation. Baseball players are notorious for being superstitious before heading onto the field. Vyse highlights the five hour long ritual of Wade Boggs, formerly of the Boston Red Sox. A brief description of Bogg’s ritual, along with some other ML B players, can be found here:
            Gamblers are also highly affected  by superstitious beliefs and rituals, believing that machines can be hot and cold, and perform unique rituals before tossing dice in a crap game. It does not seem to matter how ridiculous these beliefs may be (like the Q-Ray’s ability to cure arthritis but balancing ions or Nostradamus’s wild predictions) because in the end all people are looking for is an answer to the uncertain; and that, I feel, was the main theme of this book. In this class, we have talked about the Seek and Ye Shall Find problem, where people sort of see what they want to see. Superstitions play into this problem because often times, when two random events happen in close sequence to each other, as humans we think that whatever we were doing cause those events to happen. This is the reason many superstitions and rituals arise, because we have felt that we controlled the sequence of events by performing a ritual in between them happening. Once again, it is that sense of control that we feel is necessary that causes superstitions. Humans are always going to have an innate sense of wanting to control their environment and rejecting the fact that life is a series of random events. As long as this is, superstitions and rituals are never going to go away.

Here is a list of some common superstitions:

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