Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Wishing and Hoping

Benedict Carey reports in today's New York Times that "psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists."

New research, according to Carey, demonstrates that magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.

"These habits, he writes, "have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history."

RSR is willing to grant that religious faith is in some ways more complex than magical thinking, but we also believe the two have more in common than some people would like to believe.

At bottom, we think, is a desire to control events that are, in the end, beyond our control. For those who are able to suspend disbelief, that can be a comfort, and it may also explain the sometimes furious reaction to those who can't quite bring themselves to believe.

This view is reinforced in Carey's article by Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. She says 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,” says Woolley. “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.”

All and all, a fascinating article on how the brain may be wired for belief.


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