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    Superstition, Pattern-Seeking And Loss Of Personal Control
    By Massimo Pigliucci | October 7th 2008 10:09 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary

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    A couple of days ago I went to see Religulous, the investigative documentary by Bill Maher into why people believe weird things about religion. I enjoyed Maher’s laid back approach much better than the Dawkins-Hitchens style hard nose atheism, unfortunately so popular among some atheist groups. The difference is not one of substance (though Maher claims not to be an atheist, he comes very, very close), but of style. And yet style makes all the difference where belief isn’t just a matter of cold rational analysis, but also of messy human emotions.

    Think of Maher as a comedian-turned-social commentator in the style of Jon Stewart (though Maher was doing his Politically Incorrect show on Comedy Central and then ABC before the Daily Show got started. He is now the host of Real Time on HBO). Maher, much like Stewart, takes on the role of a modern day Socrates. He admits he doesn’t know much (though, just as in the case of the Greek philosopher, it’s clear that he actually knows a lot more than his self-important, shallow targets do), and goes around “simply” asking questions. The questions we encounter throughout Religulous, however, are devastating. Posed to rabbi, priests, ministers, Jesus impersonators and just every day folks, they are meant to expose the ignorance that underlies much religious faith, as well as the tendency of some religious “leaders” to take easy advantage of their flock.

    After the movie, though, I got into a conversation with my friend Phil about whether religion is a cause or a symptom of society’s maladies. Neither of us went for the simplistic Dawkinsian scenario that religion is the root of all evil, and we probably agreed (I’m not entirely sure, after having shared martinis) that religions are at least co-causes, enablers, if you will, of much human suffering. If we were to somehow eliminate (not by force, of course, but by persuasion) religion from human culture things would likely get better, possibly much better, but we still would be very far from living in an earthly paradise, so to speak.

    This is of course related to the questions of where religion comes from and what function, if any, it plays at the social or psychological level, both of which have increasingly been under the scrutiny of science. In my next entry I will deal with a recent study of the sociology of religion, but here I’d like to comment on research addressing its psychology. A paper in Science (Superstition, Ritual And Conspiracies - Why We Sometimes See What We Want To Believe) by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky reports on experimental evidence that links lack of control by individuals to their proneness to find patterns where none exist, and to develop superstitious behavior.

    Lacking control over one’s circumstances is a well known source of anxiety, a situation that activates the brain’s amygdala, the roots of the fear response. And it is also understood that there is a correlation between unpredictability of events and superstition: for instance, people have studied tribes of fishermen fishing at increasing distances from the land, hence in deeper waters and faced by more unpredictable dangers, and have found that the farther out one goes the more the tribe develops superstitious rituals related to fishing. (A similar phenomenon occurs in sports, where there is a correlation between the unpredictability of one’s role in the game and personal superstition: baseball pitchers, for instance, are particularly prone to it.)

    Whitson and Galinsky put their subjects in a variety of experimentally induced situations where they had different degrees of control, to see how they reacted to a variety of perceptual tests. The results were stunning: people who felt little or no control over a given situation were much more prone to see patterns where there were none, make up superstitious scenarios, and invent conspiracy theories to explain their situation! Why on earth should this be? The authors conclude that inventing patterns is a cognitive way to regain psychological (certainly not real) control over events, thereby reducing stress. Interestingly, however, another way to achieve the same result was to allow individuals to contemplate and affirm their values, after which their proclivities toward conspiracies and non-existing patterns regressed toward those of the control subjects. Indeed, Whitson and Galinsky suggest that this may be one reason psychotherapy works: the goal of the therapist is precisely that of allowing the patient to construct a narrative that puts him back in charge of the unfolding of his life, with a focus on his personal guiding principles and values.

    The lingering question, of course, is why would making up animaginary pattern or explanation be effective psychologically. After all, one isn’t about to gain real control over events, only an illusory one. But here perhaps we enter into the area where sociological explanations may be helpful, and I will refer the reader to my next installment on this topic. Meanwhile, tell your friends to go see Religulous, or at the least to sign up for therapy.

    Comments

    . . . . religions are at least co-causes, enablers, if you will, of much human suffering.

    Isn't that what the book of Genesis says? That after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything went to the dogs (with apologies to our canine companions).

    Neither of us went for the simplistic Dawkinsian scenario that religion is the root of all evil

    Oh c'mon Massimo, there's no need to resort to silly straw men. You know as well as I do that Dawkins has never claimed that religion is the root of ALL evil, and that he tried to get a different name for the documentary.

    and we probably agreed (I’m not entirely sure, after having shared martinis) that religions are at least co-causes, enablers, if you will, of much human suffering. If we were to somehow eliminate (not by force, of course, but by persuasion) religion from human culture things would likely get better, possibly much better, but we still would be very far from living in an earthly paradise, so to speak.

    And that is PRECISELY what Dawkins says.

    I agree with "Anonymous (not verified) | 10/08/08 | 19:58 PM"
    logicman
    "The lingering question, of course, is why would making up an imaginary pattern or explanation be effective psychologically." Perhaps we need to show ourselves as in no way inferior to other humans as theorists? A theory is just a package of ideas created out of personal experience by the application of cognitive skills and prejudice. Perhaps there is a natural tendency to accept an idea that is closer to one's own theorising abilities, and to reject one that is too far from them. For each theorist, the other's theory is simply and almost literally 'too far-fetched'. For example, if had been educated differently, I might accept that the proposal to entomb the MS Estonia in concrete was made due to secret nuclear materials, the ship having been deliberately sunk by spies using explosives. I prefer to think that the bow was torn off by hydrodynamic forces, as borne out by wave dynamics and the retrieved sample's failures, and that the concrete was offered to the victims families as an empathic solution to the problem of ghoulish souvenir-hunting recreational divers. http://www.onnettomuustutkinta.fi/estonia/ Now, did someone mention 'therapy'? :)
    Gerhard Adam
     "After all, one isn’t about to gain real control over events, only an illusory one."
     
    I think that's precisely the point though.  Control doesn't have to be real to bring the mind into focus regarding possible solutions.  Often control is simply being able to categorize information and begin to view it analytically.  Is this control?  Certainly ... since it allows us to organize our thoughts and begin the process of intentional responses to circumstances.

    I personally think that this "organizing process" that the brain engages in is a necessity to avoid being overrun with information that may or may not be relevant to a situation.  Therefore by having a framework with which to evaluate the data, it becomes easier to decide whether it fits or not into one's world view.

    Another aspect of control is ritualized behaviors, where organizing the actions in a specific way is intended to lead to particular outcomes.   Religion has used this mechanism to try and gain divine favor, while science has used this to develop the scientific method.  Both are ultimately ritualized behaviors that are intended to provide guidelines to "control" outcomes.  While many my cringe at my using the scientific method as an example, in truth, it performs this function precisely to avoid scientists from letting emotions or enthusiasm be their only guides.  It structures the scientific process, thereby bringing some degree of control to those that use it.  Similarly, religious beliefs use the same method to try and control their interactions with their diety and the perceived forces arrayed against them.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "If we were to somehow eliminate (not by force, of course, but by persuasion) religion from human culture things would likely get better, possibly much better, but we still would be very far from living in an earthly paradise, so to speak."

    I respectively disagree. Religion serves a useful function in society to this day. Historically, religions have provided order and a set of laws to follow for the groups of people who choose to join those religions, and they still serve this function today. I do not believe humanity is to a point where following "man's law," as governmental and other types of legal structures are collectively referenced, is effective enough to do away with religions. I truly believe that societal ills would get much worse worldwide, not better, if all religions were somehow eliminated in say the next ten years. Perhaps I just don't have as much faith in my fellow man to be as optimistic about their ability to self-regulate as you do in making that statement.

    Yes, some religious people do illegal or even depraved things (like priests with pedophilia), but most people within religions who do such things had those feelings first, and turned to the religion in the hopes of quelling or controlling those urges. Religion does actually work to help some people control negative desires, whether because they have the support of other religious members (fellowship) or because they truly believe they will be held accountable for their actions in an afterlife, or if because the ritual and structure of a religion provides them with some guideline to adhere to on a daily basis that works for them personally. We often hear on the news about those few (relatively speaking) religious people who fail to control themselves, but we do not hear on the news about the millions who succeed in resisting their impulses with the help of their religions. The only way one would likely hear those stories would be to visit churches, temples, or other places of worship and listen to the "testimonials" of the followers there.

    People without religious constraints in their lives do not feel that particular imperative against acting on their urges to help prevent them from engaging in socially unacceptable, destructive behaviors. Aside from their own conscience and without religion, only their fear of legal repercussions keep them from acting on their desires, which does not deter many people (just look at the number of prisons in America for proof). Of course, I am ignoring sociopaths, who have little or no conscience, in this discussion because nothing is likely to deter them long-term. I am simply talking about people who are capable of being influenced by a personal conscience or therapy, religion, or other societal pressures. Therapy may help the wealthy few who can afford to engage in it, or those who live in places with free social assistance, but many individuals worldwide have no access to modern-day therapy, and religion is a ubiquitous "free" social service.

    Are there extremists who take their religious beliefs too far? Yes. Do those radicals justify doing away with all religion at this time? I do not agree that they do. I think stripping societies of this mechanism of societal control is still premature. Humanity, on the whole, is not ready to function successfully without this particular safety net.