Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother's Back? It's Not Rational But Still We Believe It

Who hasn't done this?  If the light stays green till I get there, I'll get that raise.  I said nothing bad ever happens to that backstabber and now he broke his leg.  If I'm really nice, my husband will make dinner.  Well, you get the drift.

It's called magical thinking and we all do it. 

When sports fans wear their lucky shirts on game day, they know it is irrational to think clothing can influence a team’s performance. But they do it anyway.

Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults believe in superstitions that they recognize are unreasonable, according to

Research has found that even when people recognize that their belief does not make sense, they can still allow that irrational belief to influence how they think, feel and behave.

I know when I was waiting for a biopsy report, I tried not stepping on cracks, wishing only good things for people I didn't really like, and seeing if my magic numbers (668) came out in Lotto,all to no avail.  The biopsy was positive, anyway.

Maybe it gives us a little control.   Or a sense of control.

“Even when the conditions are all perfect for detecting an error—when people have the ability and motivation to be rational and when the context draws attention to the error—the magical intuition may still prevail,” says Associate Professor Jane Risen, University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

 Detecting an irrational thought and correcting that error are two separate processes, not one as most dual-system cognitive models assume. This insight explains how people can detect irrational thought and choose not to correct it, a process she describes as “acquiescence.”

Understanding how acquiescence unfolds in magical thinking can help provide insight into how it is that people knowingly behave irrationally in many other areas of life.Certain variables create situations in which intuition is likely to override rational thought. For example, people may acquiesce if they can rationalize their intuition by thinking that a particular situation is special. 

Acquiescence may also be more likely if the costs of ignoring rationality are low relative to the costs of ignoring intuition.  Remember chain letters (or chain emails, today)?  We may acknowledge it is irrational to believe that breaking the chain brings bad luck, but still we forward the letter.  Now who hasn't done that?

Let's face it.  Superstition -- and magical thinking -- are everywhere in our lives, and it's okay.  As long as we realize that that's what it is.  Now I have to go send out that email.


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