Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Report: Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart Vyse

       Stuart Vyse’s novel, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, is an in-depth analysis of the basis of superstition as well as how individuals become superstitious. Winner of the William James Award, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition does a great job in giving an overview of the psychological basis of superstition as well as explaining superstitious belief as it appears in society. Vyse utilizes various examples of superstition in the form of athletes like Wade Boggs, Bjorn Borg, Wayne Gretzky, individuals like Nancy Reagan, or in the form of Harvard University students who rub John Harvard’s statue’s foot for good luck before taking an exam. Vyse does an excellent job of using the foundations of psychology to help explain the basis of superstition. Throughout the novel, Vyse makes mentions of superstition being due to a variety of different things such as childhood upbringing, being a part of various social groups, conformity, coincidental situations, or simply because superstition helps individuals to have some control over uncontrollable circumstances.    
            For me personally, I truly enjoyed reading about the ways Vyse thought were helpful in dealing with superstitious belief at the end of his novel. For example, Vyse believed that by promoting critical thinking and the use of empirical data, it would promote a better understanding of where ideas come from and whether those ideas or beliefs are valid. Other actions that can be taken to reduce superstitious belief include promoting scientific education, teach decision analysis to avoid using availability heuristics or cognitive biases, or helping to showcase scientists in a better light than for example, a scientist like Victor Frankenstein. As a skeptic myself of superstition, it was nice to learn about the psychological aspect of how superstition occurs. For example, I thought it was interesting that the availability heuristic plays a major role in how people will inherently choose information heard about superstition or the paranormal over the mathematical and scientific explanation (Vyse, 124).  Another example is the socialization of superstition. In this case, Vyse makes the statement, “Children believe what they are told (Vyse, 155).” As someone who is around children for volunteer work I can see just how impressionable children are. If they hear anything superstitious or paranormal they are more than likely to believe in it since they lack the skepticism of adults. Again, this is just one of the many examples Vyse uses to explain how superstition comes about in an individual’s life.  
            As mentioned before, Vyse’s novel does a great analysis of ways to promote rational systems of thinking. This brought me back to the class lecture on the ways of thinking where there were three types of thinkers. Clearly, Vyse is advocating for a more fair-minded critical thinker in order to do away with useless ideas and promote a more realistic future. I believe that it is important to be cognizant of superstitions and how they are not concrete, factual ways of looking at different situations. I believe that Vyse’s take on being aware of how some of the social issues of superstition is also indicative of how society can be greatly affected by superstition. Vyse poses the question, “Superstition in modest doses may not create problems in individuals, but does the general atmosphere of uncritical acceptance create a danger for the larger society (Vyse, 209)?” Like Vyse, I too agree with the fact that when a majority of people blindly believe in something, it can be detrimental to society. It is the power of science and reason that is important for us to be able to advance as a society. When a large number of individuals advocate for the health benefits of mystical healing powers like reiki, we begin to move backwards and not forwards. We should not rely on holistic forms of medicine like reiki. Our society should think critically and rationally and see that they should rely more on evidence backed medicine. As Vyse mentions, “If superstition and the paranormal become integral parts of belief about our world and human nature, we are in danger of being mired in useless preoccupations… (Vyse, 211). I believe it is important that we think critically in order to promote good ideas and discard those that are not.

            After reading this novel, I’ve learned a lot about how superstition manifests itself in individuals, as well as why it appears in society. I thought this book was very interesting, especially for someone who is both skeptical but acknowledging of various superstitions. As Vyse mentions in the novel, superstitions are not something that we are born with, they are things that we learn from others, or come about due to coincidental circumstances such as hitting a base three times with a bat and then coincidentally hitting a home run. This novel definitely prompts me to be a more fair-minded thinker in order to help leave behind irrational, non-empirical processes, and help pursue evidence backed advances for society.

Below I've added a video that I've made to act as an additional source of information about the book report. The video focuses on some of the debunking of superstitions that follows some of Vyse's topics in his book. The show I host is somewhat satirical called, "Dang Not Real" or DNR.

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