A post by Anna Ichino.
When I was at High School, I always used the same pen for written tests as I took notes in my classes: after all, it already knew the right answers. When I cycle to work, I always make sure to get over the same ‘lucky crack’ in the road. At the supermarket, I always pick the second item in the row on a shelf. And I read my horoscope every Thursday. I feel slightly ashamed in reporting all these small rituals and superstitious practices that punctuate my everyday life; but I know I’m in good company. Students, athletes, politicians, musicians are all categories of people well-known for the propitiatory rituals and lucky charms they engage with. You may know for instance of David Beckham’s famous pre-game rituals, like stepping in the pitch with the right foot first (to ensure right shots), or wearing a brand-new football outfit at each match. And apparently Beckham’s fans are ready to pay quite some money to possess his ‘old’ outfits – as indeed people do for such things as Lady Diana’s wedding dress, or John Lennon’s hand-written lyrics. As these particular objects seem to mean a lot to us, by the way, so we tend to charge with special meanings some events in the lives of their owners: think of the sort of conspiracy theories circulating about Diana’s car-crash (which, obviously, ‘couldn’t be just an accident’). We also perform a variety of more traditional superstitious actions, like touching wood, crossing fingers, and so on.
What all these otherwise disparate actions have in common is the peculiar kind of thinking that they seem to presuppose. Call it, in a somewhat stipulative way, ‘superstitious’ or ‘magical’ thinking. It’s a kind of thinking which departs in various ways from our natural/scientific view of the world: taking, for instance, action at distance to be possible (‘The stars’ position at my birth influences all the rest of my life), or treating inanimate things as sentient objects (‘My wise pen, who attended all the lectures, will help me in the exam’), and brute physical processes as teleological ones (‘The car crash wasn’t just an accident’)... Most generally: seeing meaning, reasons and intentionality where in fact there seem to be none, or more of them where there seem to be less.
Lots of interesting work has been devoted to characterise more precisely the distinctive contents of this kind of thinking (what sorts of category mistakes it involves; what distinguishes it from other instances of scientifically ungrounded thinking...). But my broad characterization would do for present purposes, since my focus in this post is not much on superstitious/magical contents, but rather on the attitudes that we bear towards such contents – on their functional roles: what kind of mental states superstitious/magical thoughts exactly are? And, whatever they are, how do they interact with other mental states in motivating action?
Here are two options.
(1) The Belief Account. Superstitious/magical thoughts are beliefs, which motivate the relevant actions in conjunction with desires (in a standard Humean fashion: I believe that this ‘wise pen’ will tell me the right answers >> I desire to know the right answers >> I use this pen).
(2) The Imagination Account. Superstitious/magical thoughts are imaginings, which motivate the relevant actions in conjunction with desires (as beliefs do: I imagine that this ‘wise pen’ will tell me the right answers >> I desire to know the right answers >> I use this pen).
(1) is rather standard: we commonly ascribe to each other superstitious ‘beliefs’, ‘beliefs’ in magic, ‘beliefs’ in conspiracy theories. But I will outline some reasons to question these ascriptions – explaining most manifestations of superstitious/magical thinking in terms of imaginings, as (2) suggests: as cases where we seek to satisfy our real desires in imaginative ways.
Differently from paradigmatic beliefs, superstitious/magical thoughts don’t seem to be formed and maintained in response to the evidence available to us. Notably, they seem unresponsive to that kind of ‘inferential evidence’ which makes our beliefs integrated into a (more or less) holistically coherent system. Vice versa, much recent research suggests that such thoughts are formed and maintained in ways very similar to those in which imaginings typically are.
Take first superstitions’ formation. Psychologists and anthropologists describe it as a natural product of our active minds, which are dynamic machines constantly trying to make sense of the information they receive, by filling its gaps coherently and organizing it into meaningful patterns – the most meaningful ones for us generally being patterns related to human agency and intentionality. This active stance is operative already at lower sensory levels – e.g. in our tendency to see faces into inanimate objects; and superstitious thoughts are nothing but a higher-level (and somewhat hypertrophic) manifestation of it. As we tend to ‘perceptually see’ human-like features, so we tend to ‘cognitively see’ hidden meanings, reasons, intentions, and agency. This is why, when we learn that Diana died in a car crash, we are naturally keen to think that someone orchestrated this; and so we are naturally keen to think that ‘apparently irrelevant’ actions such as a cycling over a certain crack conceal deeper meanings. The role of real-world evidence here is basically a causal/triggering role: superstitious thoughts are prompted by evidence, in the associative ways that are characteristic of imaginative prompting. The ‘official evidence’ about Diana’s death, together with feelings of distrust towards established authorities, prompts us to imagine alternative non-official stories; my memory of something good that happened after I cycled on that crack, together with a desire for control upon my life, prompts me to imagine causal connections between that crack and positive events... This is the picture emerging from current psychological accounts, that – although admittedly not talking in terms of ‘imaginative’ prompting – emphasise the key role of evidence-insensitive factors like emotions and desires in the formation of superstitions (see e.g. Wood and Douglas on the role of distrust in conspiracy theorising, or Stuart Vyse on need for control in personal superstitious rituals).
The difference with beliefs (and correspondence to imagination) is even more striking when we consider how superstitious thoughts are maintained: without being revised in the face of contradictory evidence/reasons, even when (that’s a key point!) subjects are fully aware of such contradictions. Superstitious/magical thinking is pervasive among smart, educated people, who openly recognize its groundlessness and inconsistence with many of their ordinary beliefs, without thereby abandoning it – nor, apparently, feeling a pressure to do that. As the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce used to say about his superstitions: ‘Non è vero, ma ci credo!’ (‘They’re not true, yet I believe them!’). Jane Risen recently argued that to explain this paradoxical feature of superstitious/magical thinking we should revise standard models of cognition which conflate error-detection with error-correction, and recognise the psychological reality of what she calls ‘acquiescence’: a process by which ideas that are explicitly understood to be false/ungrounded are nonetheless willingly endorsed and allowed to play action-guiding roles: ‘we detect an error, but choose not to correct it’. But if maintaining superstitions can be a similar matter of deliberate acquiescence, shouldn’t we really recognize that they are imaginings and not beliefs?
One may agree with me on this, but be still sceptical about my Imagination Account (2). Recognizing that superstitious thoughts are imaginings and not beliefs is not tantamount to recognizing that superstitious actions are directly motivated by such imaginings. We may tell a different story:
(3) The Indirect Imagination Account. Superstitious/magical thoughts are imaginings, but they motivate the relevant actions indirectly, via belief-desire pairs (e.g.: the imagining that this ‘wise pen’ will tell me the right answers makes me feel better, reducing my exam-related anxiety >> I come to believe that using this pen, by making that imagining vividly occurrent, will make me feel better >> I desire to feel better >> I use the pen).
This Account (3) – as I argued elsewhere with Greg Currie – may work well for some cases of superstitious/magical actions. But I don’t think it’s plausible for most of them – where the relevant motivating desires arguably are not generic desires for positive emotions, but rather goal-specific desires concerning the particular activities we are performing. This is a point on which I agree with the standard Belief Account: my strongest occurrent desire when I’m sitting the exam and I take my ‘wise pen’ out of the pen-case is not a generic desire to feel good; it’s the desire to do well in the exam! And using that pen is nothing but an imaginative way to fulflil such desire.
Nothing but imaginative, really?! Am I not jumping too quickly from the claim that superstitious thoughts aren’t beliefs to the claim they are just imaginings? A more radical critic may urge me to consider (4):
I’m actually inclined to think that most superstitious/magical actions are explained quite neatly in imaginative terms. So, rather than requiring us to introduce new/different mental categories (whether or not such categories are otherwise motivated), they reveal something surprising on imagination’s motivating powers – which turn out to be much stronger and closer to those of belief than we might have supposed. Of course, this requires more argument. But now I’d love to hear your thoughts!