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Lindeman, M., Aarnio, K. (2007). Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 731-744.

  author = 	 {Lindeman, Marjaana and Aarnio, Kia },
  title = 	 {Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model},
  journal = 	 {Journal of Research in Personality},
  year = 	 {2007},
  volume = 	 {41},
  pages = 	 {731--744}

Author of the summary: Patrick Y. Persaud, 2007, pypersaud@gmail.com

Cite this paper for:

The problem of studying superstitious, paranormal, and magical beliefs.[p2]

Research has shown that more than 40% of Americans believe in supernatural beings and practices. Attempts to clearly define these beliefs have been somewhat lacking, ranging for a so-called “garbage bin filed with various odds and ends that we do not know what to do with” (Nemeroff & Rozen, 2000) to cognitive failings, emotional instability personality traits, demographics and social influence. [p2]

The problem with the above explanations is the lack of clarity in what specifically these beliefs are, and how they are formed. This lack of clarity has made theory formation in this domain slow to develop, and more specifically how these beliefs differ from other false beliefs and from each other. This lack of a clear ontology differentiating superstitious, paranormal, and magical beliefs from each other is a necessary step if the field is to be advanced.[p2]

Past attempts to define what specifically these beliefs are have been problematic at best. The laws of sympathetic magic(Frazer, 1922/1963; Taylor 1871/1970) being the most influential, is not broad enough to account for all three types. While later work which defines such beliefs as cognitive failings, ignorance or invalid causal beliefs have been far too general to be of use.[p2]

Core knowledge and belief formation. [p3]

Developmental psychology states that there are 3 major types of knowledge that determines a child's understanding of the world

  1. Intuitive psychology
  2. Intuitive physics
  3. Intuitive biology

Part of each of these types can be considered core knowledge as they do not need to be learned

Intuitive psychology has at its core the idea that animate objects have intentions and minds which are separate and different from the child’s that inform their actions.

Intuitive physics includes ideas about the world being made of physical objects which exist independently of the observer.

Intuitive biology has as its core such ideas of contamination, food consumption, illness and healing

In addition core knowledge allows a child to differentiate the types of processes and properties that are specific to each type of entity (psychological, physical, and biological. This core knowledge develops quickly in children and by the age of 4 most are already well developed[p3]. These same ideas are present in superstitious beliefs, however the processes and properties are not limited to one specific ontological category.

It is through this that superstitious, paranormal, and magical beliefs become possible. When psychological entities have the properties of physical or biological you get things like telepathy (a mind moving another’s body) and psychokinesis (a mind moving a physical object). When a physical entity has the properties of psychological or biological ones, you get beliefs such as Feng Shui, and psychic contamination (ex. Hitler’s sweater is evil). When biological entities take the properties of intuitive psychology you have beliefs such as the idea that diseases are evil, and that certain animals are lucky.[p4]

This argument while good, is however lacking in that a ontological category mistake may be present but it does not separate superstitious, paranormal and magical beliefs from simple false ones (ex. Whales are fish). Therefore the argument must be amended, in that for a belief to be superstition it must involve core knowledge and are thought to be literally true. [p5]

This definition of superstitious, paranormal and magical beliefs must be understood through the tenets of Dual processing theory (DPT) , which states that every individual has two types of information processing, analytical and intuitive. These two types of processing rely on different databases of knowledge and processes. According to DPT analytical and rational processes do not replace intuitive ones, both continue to grow and develop as an individual matures, thus allowing an individual to hold conflicting beliefs such as the finality of death and the eternal nature of the soul. [p5]

To test this new conceptualization of superstitious beliefs three factors must be assessed:

  1. Differences in the tendency to assign category mistakes between skeptical and superstitious individuals.
  2. The correlation between making categorical mistakes and the use of intuitive thinking.
  3. Testing whether ontological confusion and intuitive thinking are more important correlates to belief formation than previously asserted low rational ability and emotional instability.

Participants were selected from a previous study on superstition with only the top(superstitious) and bottom(skeptical) 10% selected for the present study. Participants were administered questionnaires that tested for ontological confusion (whether a category mistake was literally or metaphorically true, and the intentionality of events). Information on participants beliefs, intuitive and analytical thinking, and emotional stability were taken from previous studies[p6]

[p7] Beliefs were measured by the Revised Paranormal Belief Scale (Tobacyk, 2004)

[p7] Analytical and intuitive thinking were measured by the Rational-Experiential Inventory (Pacini & Epstein, 1999)

[p7] Emotional stability was measured by the Neuroticism subscale of the Finnish version of the NEO Five-Factor Inventory (McCrae & Costa, 1987; Pulver, Alli, Pulkkinen, & Hamalienen, 1995)

“The present study offered a unified conceptual framework where concepts were differentiated from other unfounded beliefs and defined identically as an ontological confusion between core attributes of mental, physical, and biological entities and processes.

The results showed that this new definition was justified, with superstitious individuals being more likely to engage in category confusion and to take beliefs to be literally true. This tendancy, in keeping with Dual processing theory showed that these beliefs were attributable to higher intuitive thinking, with only a minimal correlation to lower analytical thinking. Thus the best measures of distinguishing between skeptical and superstitious individuals would be, first, ontological confusion, and second, intuitive thinking. Neither malfunctioning analytical thinking, nor emotional instability proved to be statistically relevant.

This study holds promise for further research in the fields of Cognitive Psychology, Motivation Theory, and Developmental Psychology.

Summary author's notes:

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