January 24, 2007


This dog is very superstitious.

We will forgoe the opportunity to comment on the President's State of the Union address due to a much cooler New York Times article from yesterday.

The title is "Magical Thinking: Why Do People Cling to Odd Rituals?" by Benedict Carey.

(The connection between magical thinking and the SOTU is purely accidental.)

The writer of the Times article notes that social scientists often consult faith healers, tribal cultures, etc. to study magical or superstitious thinking although "they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists."

In other words, it's way more common than you might think.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In an e-mail message, he said such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

Magical thinking begins to develop in children at around 18 months and diminishes by about age 8. However, it's never too far away and many people who are otherwise very rational and scientific in orientation have residual superstitions.

El Cabrero feels sorry for all such people, having long rid himself of all superstitions but the following:

*Seeing a great blue heron is an omen of good luck. So is seeing praying mantis.

*If one sneezes, one should cross oneself twice each time.

*When about to undertake a difficult but righteous task, it is necessary to play Bob Marley music in order to gain the favor of His Imperial Majesty.

*Names of famous people who had famously bad luck are bad luck.

*Spilled salt really should be thrown over the left shoulder. If one is not sure one has spilled it, spill a little on purpose and then toss.

*A black cat crossing one's path is not necessarily bad luck. For example, it's OK if you know the cat. If the cat is strange, one should again cross oneself.

*It is bad luck to rock an empty rocking chair with one's foot. (I got that from my hillbilly grandmother.)

*Friday the 13th is a lucky day if one is left handed.

That's it. Otherwise I'm totally above such nonsense.

Here's to the Age of Reason!



little ole me said...

Interesting and informative.
Which hillbilly grandmother?
Did her last name begin with a M or a W???

El Cabrero said...

W. That side of the family, her line in particular, represented the wild crazy fierce Scotch-Irish/Celtic line.

. . . me said...

Okay ~ wasn't sure . . . now I know. :-)

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Hmmm. Not many superstitious beliefs in that list. I believe my Irish ancestors had a bunch more.

El Cabrero said...

I may have left a few out, but those are the basics.