The Situationist

Archive for March 11th, 2008

The Situation of Magical Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 11, 2008

lennon.jpgMatthew Hutson has an excellent piece in the latest Pscyhology Today looking at the psychological origins of magical thinking. Among other topics, Hutson highlights some research by Situationist contributor Emily Pronin. Here are a few pieces of the article.

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Last year John Lennon went on tour. He visited, among other locations, Oklahoma City, Waco, New Orleans, and Virginia Tech, spreading a message of peace and love at the sites of tragic events. You may not have recognized him, though, covered in scars and cigarette burns. But to hear him, there would have been no mistaking his presence.

On this journey, Lennon assumed the form of a piano, specifically the one on which he composed Imagine. “It gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years,” says Caroline True, the tour director and a colleague of the Steinway’s current owner, singer George Michael. Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone. According to Libra LaGrone, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, “It was like sleeping in your grandpa’s sweatshirt at night. Familiar, beautiful, and personal.”

“I never went anywhere saying this is a magic piano and it’s going to cure your ills,” True says. But she consistently saw even the most skeptical hearts warm to the experience—even in Virginia, where the piano landed just a month after the massacre. “I had no idea an inanimate object could give people so much.”Maybe you’re not a Beatles fan. Maybe you even hate peace and love. But you are wired to find meaning in the world, a predisposition that leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think. . . .

Lennon Piano on tour (AP)Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns—night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.

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“There are many layers of belief,” psychologist Carol Nemeroff says. “And the answer for many people, especially with regard to magic, is, ‘Most of me doesn’t believe but some of me does.'” People will often acknowledge their gut reaction and say it makes no sense to act on it—but do it anyway. Other times, they’ll incorporate superstition into their worldview alongside other explanations. “For example,” says Susan Gelman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, “God puts you in the path of an HIV-positive lover, but biology causes you to contract the virus from his semen.”

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

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1. Anything can be sacred.

To some, John Lennon’s piano is sacred. Most married people consider their wedding rings sacred. Kids with no notion of sanctity will bust a lung wailing over their lost blanky. Personal investment in inanimate objects might delicately be called sentimentality, but what else is it if not magical thinking? There’s some invisible meaning attached to these things: an essence. A wedding ring or a childhood blanket could be replaced by identical or near-identical ones, but those impostors just wouldn’t be the same. What makes something sacred is not its material makeup but its unique history. . . .

In many cases the value of an object comes from who owned it or used it or touched it, an example of “magical contagion.” . . . Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania and Nemeroff contend that magical contagion may emerge from our evolved fear of germs, which, like essences, are invisible, easily transmissible, and have far-reaching consequences. Well before humans had any concept of germ theory, we quarantined the ill and avoided touching dead bodies. The deep intuition that moral or psychological qualities can pass between people, or that an object carries its history with it, could just be an extension of the adaptive tendency to pay close attention to the pathways of illness.But that doesn’t mean we’re good at evaluating sources of contagion. Nemeroff found that people draw the germs of their lovers as less scary-looking than those of enemies, and they say those germs would make them less ill. She also found that undergrads base condom usage on how emotionally safe they feel with a partner more than on objective risk factors for catching STDs.

2. Anything can be cursed.

Essences are not always good. In fact, people show stronger reactions to negative taint than to positive. Mother Teresa cannot fully neutralize the evil in a sweater worn by Hitler, a fact that fits the germ theory of moral contagion: A drop of sewage does more to a bucket of clean water than a drop of clean water does to a bucket of sewage. Traditional cleaning can’t erase bad vibes either. Studies by Rozin and colleagues show that people have a strong aversion to wearing laundered clothes that have been worn by a murderer or even by someone who’s lost a leg in an accident. Magical contagion can also flow in reverse. Many people wouldn’t want an AIDS patient taking over a hospital bed that they had just left, and about a third of undergrads would feel uncomfortable if an enemy possessed their used hairbrush. “This rests on the assumption that there is no separation of space and time,” Nemeroff says. “The hairbrush and I were in contact, we merged. At that mystical level where all is one, acting on it is acting on me.”

3. Mind rules over matter.

Wishing is probably the most ubiquitous kind of magical spell around, the unreasonable expectation that your thoughts have force and energy to act on the world. Who has not resisted certain thoughts for fear of jinxing oneself? Made a wish while blowing out birthday candles? Tried to push a field goal fair mid-flight using nothing but hope and concentration? Emily Pronin and colleagues at Princeton and Harvard convinced undergrads in a study that they had put voodoo curses on fellow subjects. While targeting their thoughts on the other students, hexers pushed pins into voodoo dolls and the “victims” feigned headaches. Some victims had been instructed to behave like jackasses during the study (the “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed” T-shirt was a nice touch), eliciting ill will from pin pushers. Those who dealt with the jerks felt much more responsible for the headaches than the control group did. If you think it, and it happens, then you did it, right? Pronin describes the results as a particular form of seeingMichael Hargrove causality in coincidence, where the “cause” is especially conspicuous because it’s hard to miss what’s going on in your own head.

4. Rituals bring good luck.

Whenever I fly, I place my hands on the fuselage as I step onto the plane. The habit began when I was a kid innocently in awe of flying machines, but over the years as I continued to touch the plane and continued to not die horribly, my brain decided I was keeping the apparatus aloft, and now I do it for peace of mind. To witness the mindless repetition of actions with no proven causal effect, there’s no better laboratory than the athletic field. The anthropologist George Gmelch of Union College in Schenectady has paid close attention to the elaborate dances players do during baseball games. Because performance while hitting and pitching is so unpredictable (compared to fielding), most behavioral tics occur on the mound or at the plate. Mike Hargrove was nicknamed “the human rain delay” because of his obsessive shenanigans while at bat. B.F. Skinner famously showed “superstition” in pigeons by locking them in a box, feeding them at regular intervals, and watching them associate random behaviors with food rewards, eventually building up intricate routines of behavior. When you combine kicking dirt and readjusting your helmet with strikes and home runs, you can see how the batter’s box would quickly become an open-air Skinner box.

We use ritual acts most often when there is little cost to them, when an outcome is uncertain or beyond our control, and when the stakes are high—hence my communion with the fuselage. People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as “illusion of control,” the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it’s not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as “depressive realism,” haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

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6. Karma’s a bitch.

. . . . Belief in a just world puts our minds at ease: Even if things are beyond our control, they happen for a reason. The idea of arbitrary pain and suffering is just too much for many people to bear, and the need for moral order may help explain the popularity of religion; in fact, just-worlders are more religious than others. . . .

7. The world is alive.

To believe that the universe is sympathetic to our wishes is to believe that it has a mind or a soul, however rudimentary. . . . It’s not that we think all matter is fully alive—even babies are surprised when inanimate objects appear to move on their own—it’s that we feel all matter has that potential. . . . Lindeman Marjaana, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki, defines magical thinking as treating the world as if it has mental properties (animism) or expecting the mind to exhibit the properties of the physical world. She found that people who literally endorse phrases such as, “Old furniture knows things about the past,” or, “An evil thought is contaminated,” also believe in things like feng shui (the idea that the arrangement of furniture can channel life energy) and astrology. They are also more likely to be religious and to believe in paranormal agents. [Eugene] Subbotsky says there are benefits to thinking animistically. “It’s much more comfortable to think that your fate is written down in a constellation of stars than that you’re one of a certain group of intelligent animals who are lost in frozen space forever.”

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To read the all of the Hutson’s article (we cut out a lot of interesting sections, including “To name is to rule,” “Magical Thinking: Positive psychology or psychosis lite?” and ” Primed For The Future,” click here. For a sample of previous, related Situationist posts, go to “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!” and “The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s ‘Knuckle Knock,'” “Red Sox Magic,” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Deep Capture – Part IX

Posted by J on March 11, 2008

This is the ninth part of a series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.” The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition.

Previous posts in this series (which are summarized at the bottom of this entry), reviewed a sample of the evidence indicating that pro-commercial dispositionism has been widely accepted as the presumptive starting place for policy analysis. Many administrative regulators, judges, and legal scholars, like most consumers–from cigarette smokers, to investors, to television-news enthusiasts–take dispositionism as the obvious truth. Implicitly, we have also reviewed one of the most common and effective strategies for promoting pro-commercial views. Before explicitly naming that strategy, it may be helpful to return briefly to the Milgram experiments and some variations of the rendition that we described above.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the primary illustrations in this series.)

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With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts. . . . A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

~Stanley Milgram

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After discovering the unexpected power of the situation in his initial experiment, Milgram altered the situation in the hope of making visible some of the previously unseen influences. One of the key factors he varied was the credibility or authority of the person who gave orders to the teacher. In the basic experiment, recall that the person prompting the teacher to continue shocking appeared as a scientist, complete with a white lab coat. He seemed to have considerable knowledge and authority. When Milgram replaced that “experimenter” with an “ordinary man” to give the orders, the percentage of teachers who administered the maximum shock (450 volts) dropped from approximately sixty-five percent to twenty percent. Apparently, the same words were less persuasive or influential when they came from a less credible or authoritative source. In addition, when Milgram replaced the one lab-coated experimenter with two lab-coated authorities who gave contradictory orders, the complete compliance percentage dropped to zero. In that variation, teachers could more easily justify ending the shocking because one person with authority was encouraging them to do so. Those and other variations help make clear that the credibility of the messenger is often more important than the message itself.This underscores an important element of the deep capture hypothesis: the quest to promote certain ideas will include an endeavor to locate, create, and sponsor credible means of conveying those ideas. Often, those with the greatest stake in an idea have, for precisely that reason, questionable credibility when speaking on behalf of the idea. Thus, the search for an effective means of communication often includes a search for trustworthy spokespeople. The public relations firm Burson-Marsteller makes the point in just those terms when it describes its primary strategy as that of “having [one’s] messages . . . communicated through a credible third party” in order to “influenc[e] those who influence a targeted audience.”Berman and Company emphasizes that the “key” to its success “is getting the most credible messengers to carry the strongest messages.” To access such credible messengers, Berman and Company developed what it calls an “academic research network:”

We commission more than a dozen major research projects each year to independent academics at leading research universities, including:
• University of Chicago
• Florida State University
• University of Texas
• Johns Hopkins University
• University of Wisconsin
• Massachusetts Institute of Technology//
• University of North Carolina
• University of California, Los Angeles
• Boston University
• Michigan State University
The credibility of the material produced by these independent researchers is unparalleled among “brand name” trade associations, law firms, or consultants active in the public policy arena.

Berman and Company relies on several other tactics to create favorable, credible third-party messengers for its clients:

Sometimes, the best messengers are line managers from affected employers. We have more than a decade of experience building and maintaining sophisticated grassroots activation systems through which managers can have maximum impact with a minimal investment of time. CEOs of major employers, working in teams managed by Berman and Company, repeatedly deliver powerful messages to key legislators and the White House. Whether drawing industry allies from associations, think tanks, or the private sector, Berman and Company reaches out to potential allies on a daily basis, providing data, information, and refined messages that others use to make their cases–and ours–in the policy arena. Our clients benefit when more allies use our research and repeat our messages. When Berman and Company publishes research from independent academics, we craft our publicity efforts so that the authors’ credibility shines in the legislative spotlight.
Sometimes, uncommon allies can get more attention than “traditional” spokespersons. Our staff has developed strong ties to individuals who are often perceived as “anti-industry” but who agree with focused messages that we seek to publicize.

To aggressively disseminate the credible third-party messages, Berman and Company attempts to “design unique programs for maximum impact in the debate . . . [and to] stick with the issue for as long as it takes to win.” Those programs include creating and maintaining “web sites that constantly elicit the ‘Wow!’ factor from users.”, discussed above, is an example of that creative approach. To “change the debate,” that Web site seeks to expose and resist “the Nanny Culture”–“the growing fraternity of’food cops,’ health care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats, and violent radicals who think they ‘know what’s best for you”‘–“and protect consumer choices.”

The same basic principle was at work in the Galileo story: the Catholic Church dealt with Galileo’s threatening astronomical views by having its own worldview “communicated through” Galileo’s recantation. Likewise, the principle seems to underlie Stigler’s basic shallow capture message: institutions or groups with the requisite power employ the legitimacy of regulators to advance their own interests.

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Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other. Part VI laid out the “deep capture hypothesis” a bit more and began loosely testing it by examining the role that it may have played in the “deregulatory” movement. Part VII provided some illustrative examples of how atypical “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture. Part VIII contrasted different cultures for evidence of commercial interests in promoting dispositionism.

Posted in Deep Capture, Video | 2 Comments »

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