I loved magic shows when I was a kid. I remember being absolutely fascinated by mysterious events and the possibility that some of us might possess supernatural powers such as the ability to read minds, get a glimpse of the future, or, perhaps, suddenly port into another dimension. The human mind is a curious one. Although it is well-known that children have a lively imagination, what about adults? You might be surprised to learn that a recent national poll found that over 71% of Americans believe in “miracles”, 42% of Americans believe that “ghosts” exist, 41% think that “extrasensory perception” (e.g., telepathy) is possible and 29% believe in astrology.
Other recent polls have indicated that public belief in things like conspiracy theories or other pseudo-scientific phenomena are equally prevalent. For example, 21% of Americans think the government is hiding aliens, 28% of Americans believe that a mysterious, secret elite power is plotting a New World Order (NWO) and 14% of Americans believe in Bigfoot. Recent psychological research has found a surprising relationship between these types of personal convictions; espousal of conspiracy theories, pseudo-science and belief in the paranormal turn out to be highly correlated with one another. What could explain these findings?
While perhaps belief in say, lizard people and astrology seem relatively unrelated on the surface, so-called “magical thinking” may very well have a common underlying “cognitive style” — that is, the way in which we think about and make sense of the world. In fact, a new study explored this very question and suggests that the answer may indeed lie in the way we think about things, or, more precisely, the way in which we fail to think about things.
Two researchers at the University of Toulouse in France set out to investigate to what extent “cognitive thinking styles” are predictive of believing in the paranormal after experiencing an “uncanny” event. The research team designed a number of clever experiments to test their hypothesis. In the first study, the researchers invited students on campus to participate in an experiment that investigated astrological signs as a predictor of one’s personality. After providing their date of birth, participants received a personality description that matched their astral theme. In reality, each person was given the same 10 “Barnum” statements. These are statements that could ring true for nearly anyone (e.g., “you have a need for people to like you” or “at times you have serious doubts about whether you have made the right decision”). Participants were then asked to evaluate how accurate they thought this description was. Before starting the experiment, participants were also asked to complete a Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) as well as a “Paranormal Belief” questionnaire. The cognitive reflection test is a very short three-item test that essentially measures whether you are more of an intuitive or reflective thinker. Consider the following example; if a baseball and a bat cost $1.10 and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost? The quick and intuitive answer that comes to mind for most people is simply $0.10. Yet, this is also the wrong answer. More reflective thinkers tend to suppress this automatic and intuitive answer and are more suspicious of the first thing that comes to mind. (If you’re curious, the correct answer is: $0.05).
The researchers found that although both intuitive and reflective thinkers somewhat recognized the statements as being descriptive of their personality, reflective thinkers were much less likely to recognize the Barnum statements as correct. This relationship persisted after controlling for any prior differences in paranormal beliefs. The authors speculated that in contrast to reflective minds, intuitive thinkers might be more likely to accept their “uncanny” experience as proof for the existence of supernatural phenomena.
To test this assertion more directly, the researchers conducted another experiment. In the second experiment, a different group of students were studied, but this time they were told that the purpose of the study was to examine telepathy (i.e., mind-reading). The research team hired a fake participant to act as the “mind-reader.” During the experiment, participants were told to randomly pick a card out of a set of five, and then the other participant (the confederate) would “read” their mind by guessing what card they had picked (the experiment was rigged of course). This time, the experimenters asked participants directly whether they thought the event was simply a result of luck, probability or a non-scientific explanation such as extrasensory perception (ESP). Results showed that irrespective of prior convictions, non-reflective thinkers were indeed more likely to endorse ESP as an explanation for their “uncanny” experience whereas reflective thinkers were more likely to see the event as a statistical fluke.
Interestingly, one question the researchers did not answer is why intuitive minds are more likely to engage in such “magical thinking?” Cognitive psychologists have offered one possible explanation; the “conjunction fallacy.” The conjunction fallacy was coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and basically describes a reasoning error where people mistakenly assume that specific conditions are more likely than general ones. For example, consider the following two statements; (A) Linda can predict the future and (B) Linda can predict the future and also read your mind. Logically, the probability of two events occurring together (in “conjunction”) is always less than or equal to the probability of either event occurring alone. In other words, although option B may sound completely plausible due to the misleading “representativeness” of the two events (precognition and mindreading), the laws of probability tell us that the likelihood that Linda can do two separate magical things is always less likely (or equal) to the probability that she can do either one alone.
Recent research has shown that people who espouse paranormal and conspiratorial beliefs are much more susceptible to the conjunction-fallacy. For example, consider the fact that people often endorse multiple (or contradictory) conspiracy theories about the same event, where belief in one conspiracy serves as evidence for belief in another. Yet, the likelihood that two (or many) different conspiratorial explanations about world events are all true at the same time is increasingly unlikely. Similarly, belief in one paranormal phenomenon might quickly lead to the belief that many “magical” things are happening (it can’t merely be coincidence).
You might ask: Why kill the magic? Not everything needs to be explained by science. Yet misinformation of this kind can be harmful. For example, in a recent study, I found that merely exposing people to a 2-minute conspiracy video clip significantly decreases acceptance of science, civic engagement, and overall pro-social inclinations. I call this the “conspiracy-effect”. Although I did not measure cognitive style, non-reflective thinkers may be especially vulnerable to such misinformation. Similarly, the French research team notes that non-reflective individuals may be vulnerable to scams. Indeed, millions of dollars are made every year by people who (falsely) claim that they can read your mind or talk to deceased family members.
Is there any way to protect people from falling prey to such magical thinking? There is some evidence. Research has suggested that these type of intuitive beliefs often interact with emotional processes. Accordingly, a recent study showed that priming people to think more reflectively reduces tendencies to engage in, for example, conspiratorial thinking. It is important to note, however, that neither “intuitive” nor “reflective” thinking alone is always better, as both thinking styles often work together. For example, when overwhelmed by a large number of competing choice options, relying on an instinctive gut feeling can be useful (the “less is more” effect). The real trick is figuring out when to rely a little more on your gut feelings and when to draw a little more on your analytical powers. Although our intuition serves us well in some cases, we may all benefit from a little more reflective thinking before we decide to accept uncanny explanations about the nature of reality.