Once again, hat tip to Science and Consciousness Review for mention of an article that opens with an astonishing claim:
More than 40% of American people believe in devils, ghosts, and spiritual healing.
- Marjaana Lindeman, Kia Aarnio, Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model , Journal of Research in Personality (2006). [preprint]
The authors then ask two questions:
- Why do otherwise educated people have these irrational beliefs?
- What is the difference between superstitious or magical beliefs and other unfounded beliefs?
Their answer is that superstitious, magical and paranormal beliefs are based on category mistakes involving intuitions about physics, psychology and biology – intuitions that have their psychological origins in the “core knowledge” used during childhood.
In the past, researchers have expected these beliefs to be the result of ’emotional instability’ and ‘low rational thinking’ (i.e. stupidity). Lindeman and Aarnio designed their study to test this against their claim that mismanaged intuitions are the real cause. Their results:
[T]he best measures to distinguish believers from skeptics were ontological confusions, and secondarily intuitive thinking. Neither analytical thinking nor emotional stability could discriminate the groups from each other.
This is in agreement with their earlier work involving gender differences. That research showed women’s thinking – which they say is less analytical and more intuitive than men’s – contributed to women’s adherence to paranormal beliefs.
How fascinating. Innate intuitions are vulnerable to category mistakes that lead people to accept false beliefs.
All this leads me to ask…
- Why do some people confuse intuitive categories while others do not?
- Why are the mistaken intuitions so powerful?
- Is there a way to appeal to other intuitions to defeat the category mistakes?
- Are religious beliefs also the result of category mistakes?
- Is there an evolutionary advantage to making such a category mistake?
- Why don’t researchers make use of the wealth of philosophical literature about the demarcation between science and pseudoscience? None of it makes an appearance in the bibliography of the paper.
In fairness, the researchers are concerned with the psychology of crazy beliefs – my characterization, not theirs. However, they are presenting their work as a theoretical synthesis, and such a construction demands awareness of the relevant philosophy of science.
If I had ‘low rational thinking’, I might believe this omission comes from a disciplinary gestalt among psychologists – who are bitter that their work has often been the target of criticisms that it isn’t genuine science…