Santa Claus = My First Jesus?

2 comments January 23rd, 2007at 11:52pm Posted by Eli

Interesting story in today’s NYT about superstition and magical thinking, which contained this particularly interesting passage:

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”

It’s an intriguing notion, that such childhood superstitions are a form of preparation for organized religion – almost as if they’re exercising some sort of faith muscle. Or, alternatively, that the human brain is hardwired for belief, and religion is the way most people channel it. The story leans towards the latter interpretation.

But as interesting as that is, most of the story is about belief in the power of positive or negative thinking, good omens, and lucky talismans or rituals. It almost sounds like superstition is a form of self-administered placebo.

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 question is why do people create this illusion of magical power?” said the lead author, Emily Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. “I think in part it’s because we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts, they are most salient to us” — and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.

The brain, moreover, has evolved to make snap judgments about causation, and will leap to conclusions well before logic can be applied. In an experiment presented last fall at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, Ben Parris of the University of Exeter in England presented magnetic resonance imaging scans taken from the brains of people watching magic tricks. In one, the magician performed a simple sleight of hand: he placed a coin in his palm, closed his fingers over it, then opened his hand to reveal that the coin was gone.

Dr. Parris and his colleagues found spikes of activity in regions of the left hemisphere of the brain that usually become engaged when people form hypotheses in uncertain situations.

These activations occur so quickly, other researchers say, that they often link two events based on nothing more than coincidence: “I was just thinking about looking up my high school girlfriend when out of the blue she called me,” or, “The day after I began praying for a quick recovery, she emerged from the coma.”

For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can be an antidote, a needed activator, said Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard….

“I deal with students like this all the time and I say, ‘Let’s get you overconfident,’ ” Dr. Wegner said. “This feeling that your thoughts can somehow control things can be a needed feeling” — the polar opposite of the helplessness, he added, that so often accompanies depression.

Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless. Giora Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, sent questionnaires to 174 Israelis after the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the 1991 gulf war. Those who reported the highest level of stress were also the most likely to endorse magical beliefs, like “I have the feeling that the chances of being hit during a missile attack are greater if a person whose house was attacked is present in the sealed room,” or “To be on the safe side, it is best to step into the sealed room right foot first.”

(…)

Those whose magical thoughts can blossom into full-blown delusion and psychosis appear to be a fundamentally different group in their own right, said Mark Lenzenweger, a professor of clinical science, neuroscience and cognitive psychology at Binghamton, part of the State University of New York. “These are people for whom magical thinking is a central part of how they view the world,” not a vague sense of having special powers, he said. “Whereas with most people, if you were to confront them about their magical beliefs, they would back down.”

They’re called Republicans…

Getting back to the title of my post, I’m not being entirely facetious here. They share a holiday, they both have beards, they’re both very generous and love children, and they both died horrible, painful deaths to redeem our sins.

Entry Filed under: Science

2 Comments

  • 1. elmo  |  January 24th, 2007 at 12:12 am

    Theyre called Republicans

    How did I realize as a child what in reality is so complex?

    I like you in black, by the way…

  • 2. Eli  |  January 24th, 2007 at 12:34 am

    Thanks – it’s very slimming.


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