Posts Tagged ‘déjà vu’

SUPERSTITIONS

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

SUPERSTITIONS:

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Prologue:

I was traveling from Yanbu to Jeddah by plane and it was my first experience with Saudi Airline. Just before takeoff, as plane was standstill, I heard “Allāhu Akbar (الل أكبر)” [god is greatest] thrice and then plane took off. I never heard similar thing in Indian airlines planes praying Hindu Gods. Is Indian Airlines plane less safe than Saudi Airlines plane simply because a prayer is not recited before takeoff?  Has superstition become pervasive in contemporary culture?  Did you know that insects could be tried for criminal acts in pre-industrial Europe, that the dead could be executed, that statues could be subjected to public humiliation, or that it was widely accepted that corpses could return to life? What made reasonable educated men and women behave in ways that seem utterly nonsensical to us today? Strange histories present a serious account of some of the most extraordinary occurrences of European history. Throughout the ages, people have held ideas and events that have taken place which has baffled later societies. Religious disbelievers were thought deserving of death, insects were occasionally excommunicated, studying the biology of angels was a legitimate activity, and the pursuit of personal happiness was considered rather misguided as a life strategy. When science came along, it shattered people’s illusions and self-created fantasy worlds. Dr. Abraham T Kovoor said that “he who does not allow his miracles to be investigated is a crook, he who does not have the courage to investigate a miracle is gullible, and he who is prepared to believe without verification is a fool”. I am neither gullible nor fool, so I decided to write on superstitions. Mathematicians, as a rule, aren’t a superstitious lot, nor are they prone to mathematically irrational behavior.

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A black cat crossing your path is said to bring bad luck. Do you get nervous when a black cat walks in front of you? Do you avoid walking under ladders? If you broke a mirror would you expect to get 7 years’ bad luck? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions then you are clearly a superstitious person. Humans seem to be a rather superstitious lot — whatever the subject, people are able to develop superstitions around it. People wear lucky clothing, carry lucky objects, and think that they have lucky numbers or days. A belief in superstition and the ability to control luck is widespread phenomenon. How do such superstitious beliefs develop and what causes them to be reinforced?

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Superstitions cause those of us who would normally use common sense and rational thinking to act on that shred of doubt that lies in the back of each of our minds. One example of a superstition that has become common practice (and is also illegal to interfere with in some places) is that once it has begun, a funeral procession should never be interrupted or crossed. The result in breaking this custom can not only get you into trouble with the local police, but it is said that the soul of the deceased would be allowed to escape and transform into a hostile entity who could then direct his or her anger toward those gathered to honor the person’s memory. You are not really willing to risk trouble with the police, let alone being the cause of an angry spirit wreaking havoc on the mourners. So, like many others you choose to act on that little shred of doubt and go along with the superstition. It is, after all, much easier than chancing the alternative…isn’t it? Common sense and rational thinking, both tell us that’s ridiculous. Nothing like that could ever really happen. But, that little voice inside our heads that asks us “what if?” makes us choose to follow our little customs…just in case. This is one superstition that evidently carries a lot of clout considering it is enforced by the law.

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Belief in superstition is extremely common in today’s modern society. Whether it is religious or secular notions of paranormal activities, most people hold some form of belief that goes beyond the current natural understandings of the world. We have to look at the children’s everyday reasoning for origin of such beliefs. Many aspects of adult belief appear in development during early childhood. While its influence may disappear with education and increased rational control, it may never entirely go away, especially if culture supports such beliefs. Moreover it may become more apparent at times when our ability to exercise rational control is weakened by stress, illness or diminished mental agility. Believing in the superstition also appears to offer comfort and control when we feel under threat. Superstitious beliefs have historically been attributed to the lingering influence of childhood understandings about the world (see Rozin & Nemeroff, 1990). There is knowledge that you get by experience (including what you have seen and discovered for yourself and anything you have been shown scientific proof of): this is called forensic knowledge. And then there are the things that you know to be true because people have told you. Most people get their earliest ideas of what is true from their parents. A little later we learn from teachers, and perhaps priests. If we get as far as high school we might see some actual scientific demonstrations, but even at high school, most of what we learn we accept because a teacher told us. None of us have time to discover everything for ourselves. You have never seen a lion kill a zebra – but you know they do. Most of what we know is what we have been told by people we rely on. Superstitions carry on from generation to generation based on this logic.

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Definition of superstition:

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Superstition is a belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any physical process linking the two events; a false conception of causality that contradicts natural science (e.g. astrology, omens, witchcraft, etc). It is an irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome. It is a belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance. It is a belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behavior in some magical or mystical way. It is a belief in sign of things to come which is contrasted with fact, reality, science and truth. Some defined superstition as the belief in a casual relationship between an action, object, or ritual and an unrelated outcome. Such superstitious behavior can include actions like wearing a lucky jersey or using good luck charms.

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Superstition (Latin superstitio, literally “standing over”; derived perhaps from standing in awe; used in Latin as an unreasonable or excessive belief in fear or magic, especially foreign or fantastical ideas, and thus came to mean a “cult” in the Roman empire) is a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge. The word itself comes from two Latin words. The first being “super” which means above and the second “stare” which means to stand. In the times of the Romans, those men who were lucky enough to have survived hand-to-hand combat were named “superstites”. This meant that they were lucky enough to be standing above others who had been killed in battle. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to supposedly irrational beliefs of others, and its precise meaning is therefore subjective. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the irrational belief that future events can be influenced or foretold by specific, unrelated behaviors or occurrences. To medieval scholars the word was applied to any beliefs outside of or in opposition to Christianity; today it is applied to conceptions without foundation in, or in contravention of, scientific knowledge and logical thought.

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Superstition is a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like. It is an irrational belief usually founded on ignorance or fear and characterized by obsessive reverence for omens, charms, etc Those who use the term imply that they have certain knowledge or superior evidence for their own scientific, philosophical, or religious convictions. An ambiguous word, it probably cannot be used except subjectively. With this qualification in mind, superstitions may be classified roughly as religious, cultural, and personal.

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Superstitions receive considerable attention in several fields including popular psychology (Shermer 1998; Vyse 2000; Wheen 2004), philosophy (Scheibe & Sarbin 1965), abnormal psychology (Devenport 1979; Brugger et al. 1994; Shaner 1999; Nayha 2002) and medicine (Hira et al. 1998; Diamond 2001), which typically frame superstitions as irrational mistakes in cognition.

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Superstition is an irrational belief or practice resulting from ignorance or fear of the unknown. The validity of superstitions is based on belief in the power of magic and witchcraft and in such invisible forces as spirits and demons. A common superstition in the Middle Ages was that the devil could enter a person during that unguarded moment when that person was sneezing; this could be avoided if anyone present immediately appealed to the name of God. The tradition of saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes still remains today. We have all seen plenty of superstitions. There are the superstitions that a rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover brings good luck. There are superstitions that breaking a mirror or seeing a black cat bring bad luck.

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According to Webster’s dictionary, superstition is any belief that is inconsistent with the known laws of science or with what is considered true and rational; especially such a belief in omens, the supernatural, etc. Halloween is traditionally the time when common superstitions, folklore, myths and omens carry more weight to those who believe. Superstition origins go back thousands of years ago. Beliefs include good luck charms, amulets, bad luck, fortunes, cures, portents, omens, predictions, fortunes and spells. Bad fallacies far outweigh the good, especially around Halloween when myths run rampant. When it comes right down to it, many people still believe that omens can predict our destiny and misfortune — particularly for the worse. Since the dawn of history people have used charms and spells to try to control their environment, and forms of divination to try to foresee the otherwise unpredictable chances of life. Many of these techniques were called “superstitious” by educated elite.
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For centuries religious believers used “superstition” as a term of abuse to denounce another religion that they thought inferior, or to criticize their fellow-believers for practicing their faith “wrongly.” From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, scholars argued over what ‘superstition’ was, how to identify it, and how to persuade people to avoid it. Learned believers in demons and witchcraft, in their treatises and sermons, tried to make ‘rational’ sense of popular superstitions by blaming them on the deceptive tricks of seductive demons. Every major movement in Christian thought, from rival schools of medieval theology through to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, added new twists to the debates over superstition. Protestants saw Catholics as superstitious, and vice versa. Enlightened philosophers mocked traditional cults as superstitions. Eventually, the learned lost their worry about popular belief, and turned instead to chronicling and preserving ‘superstitious’ customs as folklore and ethnic heritage.

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How do superstitions get started?
The growth of superstition came out of ancient times, before higher education and scientific reason took hold in logical minds. As it was then, so it is now that the ignorance of not knowing how something works or happens causes some people to assume there had to have been some divine intervention rather than something of natural origin. Examples of such inexplicable natural occurrences would be:
Thunder
Lightening
Earthquakes
Tornados
Tidal waves
Hurricanes
Fires

Of course, each of these natural phenomena has long since been explained away by scientific reason. But, imagine living in times before such knowledge existed. It isn’t hard at all to understand where superstitions developed from and that people believed these natural disasters were caused by an angry, supreme being of some sort. Superstitions began long ago with primitive man, who was looking for answers to natural phenomena such as lightning, thunder, eclipses, birth and death. Since he lacked knowledge of the laws of nature, he developed a belief in unseen spirits. He observed the animals and their seemingly sixth sense when it came to awareness of danger and imagined that spirits were whispering secret warnings to them. And since his daily existence was full of so many hardships, he assumed the world was populated with more vengeful spirits than with beneficent ones. That would explain why most superstitious beliefs involve ways to protect ourselves from evil. To protect himself in such an uncertain world, ancient man adopted various superstitious rituals in an effort to impose human will on chaos. Over a period of time, superstitious beliefs have rooted themselves firmly in our society, so much so that it is virtually impossible for the person to ignore them. They have made a place for themselves in all the walks of life, including politics and sports. Politicians resorting to the astrological predictions are not at all rare. On the other hand, examples of superstitions in sports include cricketers carrying a colored handkerchief in their pocket, or soccer players putting their right foot first when they enter the field. Such superstitious practices are found all over the world.

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Superstitions began centuries ago when our ancestors tried to explain mysterious circumstances or events as best as they could with the knowledge they had. For instance, before the development of science explained such strange things as why mirrors show our reflections or why shadows appear when it’s sunny, ancient people reasoned that a shadow or reflection was part of their soul. If someone broke something onto which the shadow or reflection appeared, people believed that their soul was harmed. Therefore, when a person broke a mirror it was considered unlucky or harmful. Today we know that reflections and shadows are not part of our souls, but if someone still believes it is bad luck to break a mirror, they are said to be superstitious. So a superstition is a belief or practice that people cling to even after new knowledge or facts prove that these silly beliefs are untrue.

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For many centuries it was believed that eclipses of the sun and moon were prophetic of pestilence or famine, and that comets foretold the death of kings, or the destruction of nations, the coming of war or plague. All strange appearances in the heavens — the Northern Lights, circles about the moon, sun dogs, and falling stars — filled our intelligent ancestors with terror. They fell upon their knees — did their best with sacrifice and prayer to avoid the threatened disaster. Their faces were ashen with fear as they closed their eyes and cried to the heavens for help. The clergy, who were as familiar with God then as the orthodox preachers are now, knew exactly the meaning of eclipses and sun dogs and Northern Lights; knew that God’s patience was nearly exhausted; that he was then whetting the sword of his wrath, and that the people could save themselves only by obeying the priests, by counting their beads and doubling their subscriptions. Earthquakes and cyclones filled the coffers of the church. In the midst of disasters the miser, with trembling hands, opened his purse. In the gloom of eclipses thieves and robbers divided their booty with God, and poor, honest, ignorant girls, remembering that they had forgotten to say a prayer, gave their little earnings to soften the heart of God. Now we know that all these signs and wonders in the heavens have nothing to do with the fate of kings, nations or individuals; that they had no more reference to human beings than to colonies of ants, hives of bees or the eggs of insects. We now know that the signs and eclipses, the comets, and the falling stars, would have been just the same if not a human being had been upon the earth. We know now that eclipses come at certain times and that their coming can be exactly foretold.

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First documented superstitious belief:

Archeologists believe it was Neanderthal man who produced the first superstitious (and spiritual) beliefs as far back as 50,000 years ago. They were apparently the first humans to bury their dead rather than just abandoning them. They obviously believed in an afterlife as they buried their loved ones with ritual funerals and interred the bodies with food, weapons and fire charcoals for use in the afterlife.

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The true origin of superstition is to be found in early man’s effort to explain Nature and his own existence; in the desire to propitiate Fate and invite Fortune; in the wish to avoid evils he could not understand and in the unavoidable attempt to pry into the future. From these sources alone must have sprung that system of crude notions and practices still obtaining among savage nations; and although in more advanced nations the crude system gave place to attractive mythology, the moving power was still the same; man’s interpretation of the world was equal to his ability to understand its mysteries no more, no less. For this reason the superstitions which, to use a Darwinian word, persist, are of special interest, as showing a psychological habit of some importance. The first note in all superstitions is that of ignorance. Ignorance exists in several varieties, and one of them has to do not with the future, but with the well-established present; in other words, an accepted doctrine may be based on a misinterpretation of the facts. As Trenchard remarks in his Natural History of Superstition, “Man’s curiosity is in excess of his capacity to interpret Nature and life.” Thus early man attributed a living spirit to everything–to his fellows, to the lower animals, to the trees, the mountains, and the rivers. Probably these conclusions were as good as his intelligence would allow, but they became the mental stock-in-trade of all races, and were handed down from one generation to another, constituting a barrier to be broken down before newer and truer ideas of life could prevail. And the same contention applies equally to the superstition of the moment. Allied with ignorance is fear, which is the second element calling for notice. Fear, too, has its varieties, some of them both natural and justifiable. It is irrational fear which forms the bogey of superstition. The misfortune of early man was to have experiences more numerous and subtle than he could understand; to his power of analysis they were altogether unyielding; and yet his unrestrained imagination demanded a working theory of some kind, and he got one, grounded in ignorance and fear. An earthquake is a phenomenon calculated to strike terror into the heart of all but the strongest man; no wonder then that the primitive mind invented all sorts of ideas about spirits of the under world, and ascribed to gloomy caverns the possession of dragons and other fearsome enemies of the race. The thunder, the lightning and the tempest; the blight which spoiled the sources of food; the sudden attack of mysterious sickness, and a hundred other fatalities were to him more than merely natural forces busily employed in working out their natural destiny; they were powers to be appeased. That is the third note of the superstitious mind; its effort to appease intelligent and semi-intelligent forces by suitable beliefs, rites, ceremonies, and penances. Whenever ignorance and fear bring about a sense of danger, a way has to be found, a way to escape. Superstitions provided a way to escape by appeasing hidden forces.

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Superstitions are beliefs or practices for which there appears to be no rational substance. It is a term designated to these beliefs that result from ignorance and fear of the unknown. Those who use the term imply that they have certain knowledge or superior evidence for their scientific, philosophical, or religious convictions. An ambiguous word, it probably cannot be used except subjectively. Ignorance of natural causes leads to the belief that certain striking phenomena express the will or the anger of some invisible overruling power, and the objects in which such phenomena appear are forthwith deified. Also many superstitious practices are due to an exaggerated notion or a false interpretation of natural events, so that effects are sought which are beyond the efficiency of physical causes. Curiosity also with regard to things that are hidden or are still in the future plays a considerable part, example, in the various kinds of divination. With this qualification in mind, superstitions may be classified roughly as religious, cultural and personal. Superstitions have come a long way in history and have been evolved in this process. Every known civilization that ever existed on the planet had something common in them; these were the myths and superstitions that were a crucial part of their cultures. All religious beliefs and practices may seem superstitious to the person without religion. Superstitions that belong to the cultural tradition are enormous in their variety. Nearly all persons, in nearly times, have held, seriously, irrational beliefs concerning methods of warding off ill or bringing good, foretelling the future, and healing & preventing sickness & accidents. Even people who claim they have no superstitions are likely to do a few things they cannot explain.

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Superstitions are born out of one or all of the following circumstances:
Ignorance
Custom
Fear

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Superstitions are contagious:

One reason must be sought in the fact that superstition has always been contagious. This is amusingly set forth by Bagehot in his Physics and Politics, although probably India contains more mysteries than he allowed:-”In Eothen there is a capital description of how every sort of European resident in the East–even the shrewd merchant and the ‘post-captain with his bright, wakeful eye of command’–comes soon to believe in witchcraft, and to assure you in confidence that ‘there is really something in it;’ he has never seen anything convincing himself, but he has seen those who have seen those who have seen those who have seen; in fact he has lived in an atmosphere of infectious belief, and he has inhaled it.”  If this is true now, it must have been more profoundly true in past centuries. The presence everywhere of the same superstition, though in different forms, is a testimony to the power of contagious fears. Children brought up in the atmosphere of credulity do not often rise above it. White in his Selborne observes:-”It is the hardest thing in the world to shake off superstitious prejudices; they are sucked in as it were with our mother’s milk; and, growing up with us at a time when they take the fastest hold and make the most lasting impressions, become so interwoven with our very constitutions, that the strongest sense is required to disengage ourselves from them. No wonder, therefore, that the lower people retain them their whole lives through, since their minds are not invigorated by a liberal education, and therefore not enabled to make any efforts adequate to the occasion”.

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Superstitions vis-à-vis miracles:

Whether miracles and superstitions are two sides of the same coin or different coins altogether need to be discussed.

First, what is superstition?

1. To believe in spite of evidence or without evidence.

2. To account for one mystery by another.

3. To believe that the world is governed by chance or caprice.

4. To disregard the true relation between cause and effect.

5. To put thought, intention and design back of nature.

6. To believe that mind created and controls matter.

7. To believe in force apart from substance, or in substance apart from force.

8. To believe in miracles, spells and charms, in dreams and prophecies.

9. To believe in the supernatural.

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What is miracle?

An act performed by a master of nature without reference to the facts in nature. This is the only honest definition of a miracle. If a man could make a perfect circle, the diameter of which was exactly one-half the circumference, that would be a miracle in geometry. If a man could make two plus two equal to five, that would be a miracle in arithmetic. If a man could make a stone, falling in the air, pass through a space of ten feet the first second, twenty-five feet the second second, and five feet the third second, that would be a miracle in physics. If a man could put together hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen and produce pure gold, that would be a miracle in chemistry. If a minister were to prove his creed, that would be a theological miracle. If Congress by law would make fifty cents worth of silver worth a dollar, that would be a financial miracle. To make a square triangle would be a most wonderful miracle. To cause a mirror to reflect the faces of persons who stand behind it, instead of those who stand in front, would be a miracle. To make echo answer a question would be a miracle. In other words, to do anything contrary to or without regard to the facts in nature is to perform a miracle. We believe that all things act and are acted upon in accordance with their nature; that under like conditions the results will always be substantially the same; that like ever has and ever will produce like. Miracles are not simply impossible, but they are unthinkable by any man capable of thinking. A rational, intelligent and scientific man cannot believe that a miracle ever was, or ever will be performed. Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows. So in a nutshell, to believe in miracle is superstitious but all superstitions are not miracles.

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Superstition and magic spell:

Superstitions differ from magic spells in that the former are generally passive if/then constructs while the latter contain formulae, recipes, petitions, prayers, and enchantments for effecting future outcomes by means of supernatural, symbolic, and perhaps non-causal activities. People who otherwise accept scientific de-mystification of the supernal world and do not consider themselves to be occultists or practitioners of magic, still may consider that it is “better to be safe than be sorry” and observe or transmit some or many of the superstitions endemic to their cultures.

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Paranormal:

Paranormal is a general term that designates experiences that lie outside “the range of normal experience or scientific explanation” or that indicates phenomena understood to be outside of science’s current ability to explain or measure. The definition implies that the scientific explanation of the world around us is the ‘normal’ part of the word and ‘para’ makes up the above, beyond, beside, contrary, or against part of the meaning. Thousands of stories relating to paranormal phenomena are found in popular culture, folklore, and the recollections of individual subjects. Notable paranormal beliefs include those that pertain to ghosts, extraterrestrial life, unidentified flying objects, and cryptids. From the scientific point of view, belief in paranormal is superstitious.

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Superstition vis-à-vis luck:

No discussion on superstition can be held without mentioning luck.

So what is luck anyway?

Luck is a sign of imperfection in life.

The more you achieve perfection, the less you need luck. The more you are imperfect, the more you need luck. One example is sufficient. Out of millions of buyer’s of lottery, only one wins a jackpot. We call him lucky. Why? Because out of millions of lottery sold, only one had winning number and that man got it just by chance. What was the chance? One in million. So remaining 999,999 people were not lucky but their money went to this lucky man. In other words, million people contributed little money each to make this lucky man rich overnight. We are so imperfect. Instead, if all money was invested in stock market and if that stock has grown markedly, probably all million people would have benefited albeit not becoming rich overnight. Now if that lucky man is superstitious, he would believe that since he was wearing a green shirt at the time of buying a lottery, he won. So whenever he buys lottery, he makes sure that he wears green shirt no matter whether he wins lottery again. He may never win a jackpot again but he will wear green shirt every time he buys lottery. This is how luck is correlated with superstition.

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Another example, flipping a coin at the start of a sporting event may determine who goes first. If you win the toss, you are lucky. Again we are so imperfect. If we knew all variables in flipping coin e.g. force used by person flipping coin, weight of coin, gravity, air resistance, atmospheric pressure, levelness of land on which coin falls etc; and if we knew how all variables would interact with each other, we could scientifically predict how coin will fall and on which side. But since we are ignorant and imperfect, we create luck and give credit/discredit to luck. Now if a cricket captain is superstitious and has won the toss and had red handkerchief in pocket, he will believe that red handkerchief made him lucky to win the toss. So every time at the toss of coin, that cricket captain will keep red handkerchief in pocket. This is how luck is correlated with superstition.

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Luck refers to that which happens to a person beyond that person’s control. This view incorporates phenomena that are chance happenings, a person’s place of birth for example, but where there is no uncertainty involved, or where the uncertainty is irrelevant. Of course, luck will always exist whenever there is uncertainty associated with lack of control. Within this framework one can differentiate between three different types of luck:

1. Constitutional luck, that is, luck with factors that cannot be changed. Place of birth and genetic constitution are typical examples.

2. Circumstantial luck – with factors that are haphazardly brought on. Accidents and epidemics are typical examples.

3. Ignorance luck, that is, luck with factors one does not know about but can be identified only in hindsight. Typical example is already discussed above –a person winning jackpot believes that green shirt is responsible to bring luck to him.

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Luck or fortuity is good fortune which occurs beyond one’s control, without regard to one’s will, intention, or desired result. There are at least two senses people usually mean when they use the term, the prescriptive sense and the descriptive sense. In the prescriptive sense, luck is the supernatural and deterministic concept that there are forces (e.g. gods or spirits) which prescribe that certain events occur very much the way the laws of physics will prescribe that certain events occur. It is the prescriptive sense that people mean when they state that they “do not believe in luck”. In the descriptive sense, luck is merely a name we give to events after they occur which we find to be fortuitous and perhaps improbable.

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A rationalist approach to luck includes the application of the rules of probability and an avoidance of unscientific beliefs. The rationalist feels the belief in luck is a result of poor reasoning or wishful thinking. To a rationalist, a believer in luck who asserts that something has influenced his or her luck commits the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” logical fallacy: that because two events are connected sequentially, they are connected causally as well. There is also a series of spiritual or supernatural beliefs regarding fortune. These beliefs vary widely from one to another, but most agree that luck can be influenced through spiritual means by performing certain rituals or by avoiding certain circumstances. A game may depend on luck rather than skill or effort. Many countries have a national lottery. Individual views of the chance of winning, and what it might mean to win, are largely expressed by statements about luck. “Leaving it to chance” is a way of resolving issues. Most cultures consider some numbers to be lucky or unlucky.

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What causes Good Luck?

From centuries people have believed in good fortune and widely agree that luck can be influenced through spiritual means by performing certain rituals or by avoiding certain circumstances. One such activity is prayer, a religious practice in which this belief is particularly strong. Many cultures and religions worldwide place a strong emphasis on a person’s ability to influence their fortune by ritualistic means, sometimes involving sacrifice, omens or spells. Others associate luck with a strong sense of superstition, that is, a belief that certain taboo or blessed actions will influence how fortune favors them for the future. List of Good Luck Superstitions includes:

•If you sneeze it means someone is missing you.

• If your right hand itches, you will earn money.

• If you find a four-leaf clover, you will have good luck.

• If you see a horseshoe which was lost, you will have good luck.

• If you throw rice on a new bride and groom, they will have so many children.

• If you dream about a white cat, you will have good luck.

• If your right ear itches, someone is speaking well of you.

• You can hang up garlic in your house for good luck.

• If you put a mirror just across the door, before you will have good luck.

• If you put the sugar into the cup first, the tea, you will have good luck.

•If you step on your shadow, it brings you luck.

• If you blow out all the candles on your birthday cake in one blow, you will get whatever you want.

• A lock of hair from a baby’s first haircut should be kept for good luck.

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What causes Bad Luck?

To begin with, we have to admit that sometimes events are just random, or at least with causes beyond our ability to understand at the moment. Blaming and making excuses are ways to avoid taking responsibility for one’s own life. It is a common trait among majority of the people. Many people point out the activities and the circumstances for their bad luck, but they cannot see what their own contribution to their situation is. Blaming and excuse makes a terrible approach to life. It eventually makes looking for causes outside the control of oneself automatic. It is difficult for such a person to ever recognize the personal changes they need to make. But the habit of concentrating on who or what is to blame doesn’t motivate a person to do what is necessary. List of Bad Luck Superstitions includes:

• If you break a mirror, it will bring you seven years of bad luck.

• If you walk under a ladder, you will have bad luck.

• If a dog howls at night, death is near.

• If you drop a dishcloth, you will have bad luck.

• If you eat from the pot, it will rain at your wedding ceremony.

• It is bad luck to see an owl in the sunlight.

• If a bat flies into your house it is bad luck.

•Many people believe Friday 13th is an unlucky day.

• If a black cat crosses your path you will have bad luck.

• It is bad luck to open an umbrella in the house.

• If you break a mirror you will have 7 years of bad luck.

• If you walk under a ladder, you will have bad luck.

• It is bad luck to let milk boil over.

•Cutting your nails after sunset will bring bad luck.

• If you dream about a dog, you will have a lot of enemies.

•You have to get out of the bed on the same side you got in on or you will have bad luck.

•It is unlucky to rock an empty rocking chair

•f you open an umbrella indoors, it brings you bad luck.

•If your left hand itches, you will lose money.

• If you sleep with your feet towards the door, a nightwalker will steal your soul.

• If you whistle at night, a nightwalker will come to your home.

• When a cat sneezes three times indoors, it will rain in 24 hours.

• If an owl hoots in your garden, it brings you bad luck.

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How to increase luck:

There are ways of increasing one’s luck. One trick is to simply stay optimistic. A way how to do this is to keep a journal everyday and write down everything that happened and hypothesize all the good that will come out of it. Do not look for bad things. Try not to even think about them. Eventually, this will begin happening automatically. As soon as something happens, the thoughts of good will automatically pop up. This will increase confidence and optimism. Also, hanging around optimist people can help, some of their outlooks may rub off. My view is that best way to avoid luck is to strive for perfection in whatever field you work. Please work hard honestly, sincerely and without corruption, and you will find that you do not need luck.

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Luck vis-à-vis human error:

Human error is inevitable because human error is directly proportional to human performance variability, greater the variability, more chance of error and vice versa. Luck is a sign of imperfections in life and therefore luck & human error are two sides of the same coin [read my article on human error]. One example is sufficient. You are walking on a street and a car is coming on the same street. Would you be knocked down by that car?  If that car driver makes a mistake, the car may hit you. Now look at the scenario from another perspective. You would be unlucky if that car hit you as there are so many people walking on the same street at the same time and only you were hurt. So human error and luck are the two sides of the same coin of life; the life which is uncertain, variable and imperfect; and it is so because we do not know all variables and how these variables would act & interact according to which law governing them. By this logic, God is defined as an entity who knows all variables of the universe and knows how these variables would act & interact following laws prescribed for them in such a way that creates current existence and accurately predicts future existence. I personally believe that such an entity does not exist.

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Superstition vis-à-vis human error:

Since luck & human error are connected, and since luck & superstitions are connected, superstitions would be connected to human errors. So a brief review of errors is warranted. Errors are of types I and II: Type I error, also known as “false positive” occurs when we are observing a difference when in truth there is none, thus indicating a test of poor specificity. Type II error, also known as “false negative” is the error of failing to observe a difference when in truth there is one, thus indicating a test of poor sensitivity. For example: in justice system, Type I errors means an innocent person goes to jail and Type II errors means a guilty person is set free. People find type II errors disturbing but not as horrifying as type I errors. A type I error means that not only has an innocent person been sent to jail but the truly guilty person has gone free. In a sense, a type I error in a trial is twice as bad as a type II error. Needless to say, the justice system ought to put lot of emphasis on avoiding type I errors.

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A null hypothesis states that X does not cause Y. If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis also means that the burden of proof is on the person asserting a positive claim, not on the skeptics to disprove it. The principle of positive evidence states that you must have positive evidence in favor of your theory and not just negative evidence against rival theories.

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We can look at the decision logic to believe in superstition based on a balancing act between Type I error (superstition) and Type II error (ignorance). If superstition is indeed true and you reject it, it is Type I error. If superstition is indeed false and you accept it, it is Type II error. I already discussed earlier that Type I error is worse than Type II error. Whenever people take action, they need to decide the probability of mistake they are willing to accept. When people try to lower their superstitions (a lower α), they will have to increase the possibility of ignorance (a higher β). Therefore, it might make sense to lower the chance of ignorance and accept a higher degree of superstition. For instance, you will avoid picking up an unlucky number (higher α) just in case it is true (lower β). It is noteworthy to mention that this is consistent with the heuristic decision making process – when one needs to make a quick decision, his or her brain will take a mental short-cut and adopt a safer route. A classic example is that if you hear something that sounds like a tiger in a forest, you will just run instead of assessing the probabilities of every possible outcome because if it is indeed tiger, you will be killed and if it is not tiger and you ran away, no harm is done anyway. Better safe than sorry (vide infra).

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Superstition may be seen in various contexts, for example; as error, as subconscious, as conditioned response, as social phenomenon, as mode of thinking, as uncertainty, as habit, as luck controller, as coincidental association etc (vide infra).

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Prevalence of superstitions:

Lucky charms statistics show that three out of four people carry good-luck charms, whether they admit it or not. Most students say they perform better on tests when they wear lucky socks, special jewelry, or some other lucky charm. In 1998, the researchers in U.K. sent out a questionnaire asking respondents to write down any superstitions they knew, in order to assess the current repertoire; researchers made clear that they were not asking what respondents believed, only what they knew of. Ten spaces were provided, and respondents were told they could add more items if they wished. The first 215 replies received showed this was indeed the case; few of the items reported were uncommon, and many appeared time and again. It seemed unlikely that further results will change the basic pattern. The following summary gives the number of times the ‘Top Ten’ items were mentioned, the percentage (of 215) this represents, and the date of the first known reference to the belief in Britain, taken from Opie and Tatem.

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1. 178 83% Unlucky to walk under a ladder (1787)
2. 144 67% Lucky/Unlucky to meet black cat (1620)
(More respondents said ‘lucky’ than ‘unlucky’; several commented ‘don’t know which’)
3. 117 54% Unlucky to break a mirror (1777)
(Most specified ‘seven years’ bad luck’)
4. 102 47% Unlucky to see one magpie, lucky to see two, etc. (c.1780)
5. 94 44% Unlucky to spill salt (1584?)
(Most mentioned throwing a pinch over the shoulder to counteract bad luck)
6. 85 39% Unlucky to open umbrella indoors (1883)
7. 78 36% Thirteen unlucky/Friday the thirteenth unlucky (1711/1913)
(These related items were given in about equal numbers; some gave both)
8. 76 35% Unlucky to put shoes on table (1869)
(Most specified new shoes)
9. 45 21% Unlucky to pass someone on the stairs (1865)
10. 34 16% Lucky to touch wood (1877)

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A recent Gallup Poll found that 53% of Americans were at least ‘a little’ superstitious and a further 25% admitted they were ‘very superstitious’.

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Another survey revealed the UK’s top superstitions and the percentage of people endorsing each of them:

1: Touching wood – 86%
2: Crossing fingers – 64%
3: Walking under a ladder – 49%
4: Breaking a mirror – 34%
5: Worried about the number 13 – 25%
6: Carrying a lucky charm – 24%

These are surprisingly high figures, and indicate that superstition is alive and well in modern day Britain. Indeed, amazingly, 86% of Brits said that they carried out at least one of these superstitious behaviors. Even scientists are not immune from superstition – for example, 15% of people with a science background said that they feared the number 13.

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As far as largest democracy India is concerned, 90% people believe in astrology and many mainstream TV channel telecast astrological prediction daily. Of course, astrology is a superstition but India also hosts plenty of superstitions right from praying for rain every year to witchcraft. Superstitions exist in every country, every religion, every culture and every civilization.

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Superstitions and gender:

Generally speaking, women are more superstitious than men. Women are significantly more superstitious than men: 51% of women said that they were very/somewhat superstitious compared to just 29% of men. When it came to individual superstitions, far more women than men cross their fingers (women: 75% v/s men: 50%), and touch wood (women: 83% v/s men: 61%). These findings replicate other research concerned with belief and gender, and may be due to women having lower self-esteem and less perceived control over their lives, than men. Women may also experience more anxiety, or at least, more women than men seek help for anxiety problems. Although personality variables are not a strong factor in developing superstition, there is some evidence that if you are more anxious than the average person you’re slightly more likely to be superstitious. Our locus of control can also be a factor contributing to whether or not we are superstitious. If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that you are in charge of everything; you are the master of your fate and you can make things happen. If you have an external locus of control, you’re sort of buffeted by life, and things happen to you instead of the other way around. People with external locus of control are more likely to be superstitious, possibly as a way of getting more power over their lives. Part of the reason why women are more superstitious than men is that women feel, even in today’s modern society, that they have less control over their fate than men do. There is also another factor. This has a lot to do with the lack of education among women especially in developing country like India.

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Age and superstitions:

People become less superstitious as they age: 59% of people aged 11-15 said they were superstitious, compared to 44% of people aged between 31-40 and just 35% of the over 50s. These findings do not suggest that superstitious behavior and beliefs will be consigned to the past. Instead, they are strongly held by the younger members of society.

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Even without adequate definition, one can identify some of the patterns, formulas, and basic principles controlling modern superstitions.

(a) They aim to ‘accentuate the positive/eliminate the negative’: do this for good luck, avoid that to prevent bad luck.

(b) Luck can be influenced, but not completely controlled.

(c) Do not transgress category boundaries, for example wild flowers or open umbrellas (outdoor items) should not be indoors.

(d) To seem too confident about the future is ‘tempting fate’ and attracts retribution—‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch’.

(e) Some days or times are lucky or (more usually) unlucky; they vary in frequency (midnight, Friday, Friday the thirteenth, Holy Innocents Day), and can be individual—‘Tuesday is always my lucky day’.

(f) Something that begins well (or badly) will probably continue that way.

(g) As in magic, things once physically linked retain a link even when separated (birds using your hair in their nests will give you a headache).

(h) Evil forces exist and are actively working to harm you; these may be impersonal, or concentrated in humans (witches, ill-wishers) or other beings (devils, fairies).

(i) Certain things, words, or actions have powerfully negative effects, and must be avoided or counteracted (taboo).

(j) Anything sudden, unexpected, or unusual can be seen as an omen, usually of misfortune. However, many superstitions do not fit these categories, and individuals can invent their own (e.g. ‘Must get back to bed before the toilet stops flushing’).

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All civilizations have their respective superstitions. While some believe in ghosts and sorcery others resort to numerology and spirits. The number 13 is considered very unlucky by the western world because of legends of Christ linked with it. Many a time it is just the psychology that affects us. When one is increasingly made to believe that a particular thing is not right, the mental science of the person tend to make them believe so. The eastern world has its own share of superstitions. Hooting of owls and howling of dogs augurs impending death. Also the sites of a priest or sneezing before commencing for a journey are considered very ominous. Experiments are definitely on to find out whether man has a soul that leaves him after his death. The existence of ghosts and their mystic powers are still to be proved. One cannot however reject superstitions that have a scientific backing to then. For instance application of sandalwood on the forehead may be a superstitious activity but sandalwood also keeps the forehead cool and soothes the brain. In today’s scientific world it is necessary that we do not blindly follow all the superstitions that are handed over to us by our ancestors. We are modern both in terms of outlook & age and we must have a judicious approach and look for more logical reasons behind every superstition before accepting it. Only then will we be able to give up the beliefs that have no rationality in today’s life. It is only this way that we can lead a life befitting the citizens of the modern era.

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Superstition paradigm:


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Positive and negative superstitions:

Black cats can bring bad luck. If you break a mirror, you will have bad luck and the number13 is unlucky. All of these items refer to beliefs that can be classified as negative superstitions. That is, they all reflect the notion that certain behaviors (e.g., breaking a mirror) or omens (e.g., seeing a black cat) are magically associated with unlucky and potentially harmful consequences. Given that this is the case, it is perhaps not surprising that, as noted above, scores on this sub-scale correlate with a range of measures reflecting poor psychological adjustment. However, not all superstitious beliefs fall into this category. Some, such as carrying a charm to bring good luck, touching wood and crossing fingers, reflect a desire to bring about beneficial consequences by actively courting good luck or at least avoiding bad luck. Such positive superstitions may serve different psychological functions to negative superstitions. Indeed, as is the case with other forms of so-called ’positive illusions’ (Taylor, 1989), beliefs in these types of superstitions may actually be psychologically adaptive rather than maladaptive. A study found that the psychological correlates of superstitious belief vary depending on whether the belief is in positive or negative superstitions.

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Origin of some of the superstition:

Breaking a Mirror:

Our ancestors began this superstition, because they thought the image in a mirror, contained our actual soul. Thus, a broken mirror represented the soul being pulled from your body and being trapped in all the shattered pieces. The reason the bad luck lasted for seven years, was because the Romans believed that after seven years, the body was physically renewed and the soul could once again return whole.

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The Number Thirteen:

There are many different theories about the origin of 13 being considered an unlucky number. The earliest come from ancient religious beliefs. At Valhalla, the home of the Gods, if you had twelve guests at a feast, and a thirteenth turned up uninvited; he was thought to be “The God of Deceit”. Many Christians believed it started with witches’ covens having 12 members, making 13 only when the devil appeared at satanic ceremonies (although, prior to Christianity, 13 was considered a sacred number, representing the 13 moons of the year). For Christians, 13 was also the number at the Last Supper, when Judas betrayed Jesus.

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Friday the 13th:


Friday the 13th is a date considered to be bad luck in western superstition. One theory states that it is a modern amalgamation of two older superstitions: that thirteen is an unlucky number and that Friday is an unlucky day. Friday has been an inauspicious day for a very long time, and in many varied cultures. It has been held to be both unlucky and as a day when evil influences are at work. It is claimed that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on a Friday. Noah’s flood started on a Friday and Christ was crucified on a Friday. There is the belief that stems from the order given by King Philip IV, on Friday, October 13, 1307, to round up the Knights Templar and kill or torture them.

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Walking Under a Ladder:

If you walk under a ladder you supposedly break a spiritual triangle (the Holy Trinity) that will leave you vulnerable to the devil. In the days before the gallows, criminals were hung from the top rung of a ladder and their spirits were believed to linger underneath. Thus, to walk beneath an open ladder, was to pass through the triangle of evil ghosts and spirits.

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Spilling Salt:

At one time salt was a rare commodity and thought to have magical powers. It has long been useful as a preservative, in medicine, and is also used in magic, ritual, and superstition to purify, bless things, and drive away evil. It was unfortunate to spill salt and was said to predict future family troubles and death.

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Black Cats:


Black cats have long been believed to be a supernatural omen, since the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, when cats were thought to be connected to evil. Since then, it is considered bad luck if a black cat crosses your path. Ironically, a black cat walking towards you is considered lucky, while one walking away is said to be stealing your luck.

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Sneezing:

The saying of “God bless you” after someone sneezed arose out of the belief that in the instant after expelling air from the nose, the Devil would attempt to jump into the sneezer’s body. By quickly saying the blessing, a friend could help prevent a person from becoming possessed. Although not as widely known was the similar custom of one holding a hand over his/her mouth when yawning so that the Devil or any other evil spirit would be prevented from getting into the person’s body.

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Rabbit’s Foot:

These lucky charms are thought to ward off bad luck and bring good luck. You must carry the rabbit’s foot on a chain around your neck, or in your left back pocket. The older it gets the more good luck it brings.

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Opening an umbrella indoors:

It’s not very practical to open an umbrella indoors, and forcing the opened contraption out of any doorway can prove difficult. In ancient times, when umbrellas were used to guard from the sun, it was thought that opening one inside would anger the sun god. Take the safer, easier route and just open it outdoors.

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Cross your fingers:

Crossing the pointer and middle fingers of one hand signifies a desire or hope for a certain outcome or can be used when someone tells a lie, somehow absolving the teller from the consequences. It is thought that crossing one’s fingers in the sign of the Christian faith can prevent evil spirits from destroying one’s choice of good fortune.

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Even in the 21st century, number 13 is considered unlucky; here are a few examples how superstitious we still are:

* In Scotland there is no gate 13, instead there is a gate 12B.

* Some airline jets skip row 13, going straight from 12 to 14.

* Some tall buildings have resorted to skipping the 13th floor, either by numbering it 14 or 12a.

* Some streets do not have a house number 13.

* In some motor sports, as an example formula 1, there is no number 13 car.

* Microsoft plans to skip Office 13 for being “an unlucky number” going directly to Office 14.

*The creators of the online game “Kingdom of Loathing avoid the number 13 in all their programming.

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Common superstitions:

*If you see a shooting star it will bring you good luck.

*An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

*To find a four-leaf clover is to find good luck.

*Our fate is written in the stars.

*To make a happy marriage, the bride must wear: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

*The wedding veil protects the bride from the evil eye.

*You must get out of bed on the same side you got in on or you will have bad luck.

*Don’t eat chicken on New Year’s Day or you will be scratching for money but if you eat pork you will be fattened with prosperity/money.

*People believe that when you visit someone you should leave through the same door you came in or otherwise it is bad luck.

*If you step on a crack you will break your mother’s back.

*If it rains on your wedding day you will be showered with good luck.

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Common superstitions in India:

*The “Vaastu” as a guide for floor plans of a house is a superstitious system.

*Right eye twitching is good for men; left eye twitching is good for women.

*If there is itching on the right palm (left for female) you can get some money or favors.

*Never sweep the house during night time or Lakshmi (fortune) will not enter your house.

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Auspicious wedding date:

A number of cultures, including the Chinese and Hindu cultures, favor particular auspicious dates for weddings. Auspicious days may also be chosen for the dates of betrothals. Dates for a particular couple’s wedding may often be determined with the help of a traditional fortune-teller.

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Classification of superstitions:

As discussed earlier, superstitions can be classified as personal, cultural and religious. There are other classifications also.

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Logical classification:

1. Causality or the Perceived Causality:

It’s human nature to look for patterns and explanations, even if they are known to be totally unrelated. Derren Brown, a famous magician in the UK, presented a TV episode that showed people trying to find patterns based on a completely random event: a goldfish swimming in a bowl. This is called ‘associative learning’ (learning from coincidence), a variation of the famous experiment by B.F. Skinner on superstition and random events (vide infra). Indeed, people often have cognitive bias; attributing unfavourable events to bad luck while favourable outcomes to their own abilities.

2. Cultural Norm:

It is widely known that cultural norms affect business and economic decisions. Sometimes people act as if they are superstitious because of their respect for the local culture, leading to a phenomenon called ‘dissonance reduction’. This partly explains why a non-Asian CEO of a company operating in China would hire a Feng Shui master to help design the company’s headquarters or find a lucky date for an Initial Public Offering. These kinds of seemingly “irrational” actions further legitimize Feng Shui and this makes more people adopt this practice. But not all superstitious beliefs are completely baseless. The use of Feng Shui can improve a residence’s comfort attributes, including orientation, air flow, and ambiance.

3. Safety Bet:

Blaise Pascal, the inventor of probability theory from his card game business, became a devoted Christian, after reasoning that accepting Christianity was a safety bet: “if you believe in God and He does not exist, when you die you have nothing to lose. However, if you do not believe in God and He does exist, then you will be damned.” Therefore, rationality requires you to maximize your expected utility and wager (i.e. betting) for God.

4. Vanity:

A rare and super-lucky object tends to command a high price. If the owner can readily show off this object, they can definitively express their economic and social status, as demonstrated by our illustrative case of license-plate auction in Hong Kong. This case is interesting because a license plate, unlike the car, does not offer any directly consumable services (e.g. comfort and travel). Hence, the high price paid for a license plate with a particular combination of numbers mirrors a market valuation driven by superstition and vanity. Also, people are willing to pay a lot to get some “lucky” sounding numbers for safe ride.

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Harm-benefit classification:

A simple classification divides superstitions into four categories which are:

1. Superstitions that cause harm to people:

The most extreme example in India is the belief that tantrics can cure people of snakebite. If the snake was non poisonous or did not get an opportunity to inject its full dose of venom, naturally the tantric’s cure works. Otherwise, it fails without exception. These are superstitions that need to be fought first. Curiously, this belief is not as easy to fight as it would first seem. The success rate for tantrics, for all snakebite cases brought to them, is about the same as (and possibly more than), the success rate of doctors with poisonous snakes. There are reasons for this: The tantric assumes that all snakes are poisonous. He gains credit or discredit for all cases brought to him. Since non-poisonous snakebites generally outnumber the poisonous ones, the tantric has a more than fair chance of being successful. The doctor, on the other hand, sends the patient home without any fuss, if he finds that the bite was by a non poisonous snake. His successes and failures get counted only for poisonous snake bites, where his success rate is not very high. About ten thousand people die of snakebite in India every year. Many of them can be saved, if they go to a doctor quickly, instead of going to a tantric.

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2. Superstitions that do no harm and but accrue no benefit either:

In the second category, fall many religious beliefs. I feel that such beliefs should not be aggressively shot down, as the result may be quite the opposite of what is desired. How does it matter if someone insists on sleeping in an East-West direction rather than the North-South direction, or shaves his head off when a parent dies? Resistance to superstitions in this category often leads to reactive claims and social strife.

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3. Superstitions that benefit people:

The third category might seem like a paradox to most rationalists. In many places in India, there are sacred groves- virgin patches of tropical forest, where even the most powerful dare not pluck a leaf, for fear of retribution. The grove is supposed to belong to the guardian deity and it is sacrilege to even think of stealing from it. Today, many of these forests have been declared protected by the Forest Dept. But even today, protection primarily comes, not from Forest Dept personnel, but from the old beliefs. Also, superstitions boost confidence of many athletes & actors and thereby improve their performance (vide infra).

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4. Superstitions that have roots in common sense, but may not be relevant in today’s world, because of changed circumstances:

In India, there is a widespread belief that it is inauspicious to travel on amaavasyaa or New Moon day. Before the advent of electricity, such a belief would be plain common sense. It would be problematic to be stuck at night on a lonely road, with no moonlight to light up the way. It is a natural extension of this idea into a belief, that no religious or social ceremony should be performed on the New Moon day. People would not want their friends and relations to do any traveling on New Moon day, to attend such a ceremony.

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As discussed earlier, superstitions can be personal, cultural and religious. Personal superstitions are different from culturally transmitted superstitions. E.g. Number 7 is lucky in the UK, but number 9 is lucky in Thailand. Maybe people adopt cultural superstitions because they provide a sense of control. According to Whitson & Galinsky – people who are given a reduced sense of control are more likely to develop superstitions (vide infra).

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Superstitions as customs:

Customs and Superstitions have been part of everyday life for hundreds of years. Every country has its’ own particular festivals and customs which set the pattern for the year. Many races hand down their history through stories, songs, legends, customs and superstitions. Custom often is another key part of the development of superstition. When one practices certain acts over and over, the constant repetition becomes an unconscious act. For example, avoiding walking under ladders, throwing salt over your left shoulder after spilling the shaker, or possibly you have some type of good luck charm that you just automatically place in your pocket before heading out your front door to begin your day. Many of us practice customary superstitions without even realizing it. That doesn’t make us gullible or ridiculous; it just makes us humans who are generally creatures of habit…or superstition. Culture and heritage as well as time continuity and change offer students the opportunity to explore both their past and the past of others to establish a link through time.

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Right Hand:

Since early times children have been encouraged to write with their right hands, those who preferred their left hands were thought to be clumsy, awkward or even ‘ill-omened.’ The right hand was thought to be stronger than the left, the right foot the preferred foot to put on the floor, when getting out of the right side of bed in the morning; the right sock and right shoe to be put on first, the right foot being that which is the ‘best foot to put forward’. The right hand has always been used to place on the Bible to affirm an oath of allegiance.

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Sneezing:

Sneezing used to be thought of as a time of great danger; in ancient times it was thought to indicate ill – omens, the presence of evil spirits, a soul leaving the body, or an indication of the plague. Saying ‘God bless you’ was a method of protection against evil forces. Many superstitions surround sneezing, it is thought that three sneezes in a row predict good luck; the number three has been associated with good fortune for many centuries.

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Yawning:

Yawning, without covering the mouth, has been thought to be rude since primitive times. Before advent of modern methods of oral hygiene, covering the mouth whilst yawning was a method of disguising bad breath. Man’s spirit was identified with his breath, the mouth being the point of entry and exit, to cover the mouth was the method by which the spirit was prevented from leaving the body. Leaving the mouth open was thought to be an invitation to evil spirits. Hindu people used to snap their fingers in front of their open mouths to chase away the ‘evil one’. In some European countries the sign of the cross is made in front of the face for the same reason.

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Superstitions as habits:

Legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff used to slap his goalkeeper in the stomach before each match. Tennis ace Serena Williams always bounces her ball five times before her first serve. Jennifer Aniston, it is reported, touches the outside of any plane she flies in with her right foot before boarding. From touching wood for good luck, to walking around ladders to avoid bad luck, we all have little routines or superstitions, which make little sense when you stop to think about them. And they are not always done to bring us luck. We wait until just after the kettle has boiled to pour the water for a cup of tea, rather than pouring just before it boils. I do not know why we feel the need to do this, I am sure it cannot make a difference to the drink. So, why do we repeat such curious habits? Behind the seemingly irrational acts of kettle boiling, ball bouncing or stomach slapping lies something that tells us about what makes animals succeed in their continuing evolutionary struggles (vide infra).

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Ritual and superstition:

The definition of “ritual” as it applies to habitual behavior is a pattern of behavior that regularly occurs in a defined manner. The definition of “superstition” as it applies to habitual behavior is an act based on a belief not based on knowledge or reason. So, although superstitious behavior can be ritualistic, not all ritualistic behavior is superstitious. After all, not all rituals or beliefs are superstitions. The dividing line is whether you give some kind of magical significance to the ritual.  A ritual for a tennis player could be focusing on the racket strings between points; a superstition for a tennis player could be always entering a tennis court from the north side. In other words, a ritual can help an athlete to stay centered, whereas a superstition can unnerve an athlete when the athlete cannot perform the habitual behavior associated with the superstition. These rituals provide a level of comfort and a way for someone to control a situation. One of the things the great athletes do, is they try to keep their environment consistent. One of the philosophy of sports is that your environment either enables you to win, or enables you to lose. I views rituals as a way to block out “psychological noise” in the environment. Rituals may even be a distraction paradox. Katz said that by distracting themselves with straws, with fingernail clippings, or something else, athletes are actually finding ways to tune out the larger distractions that may come with the game.

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There is a clear psychological value to establishing a routine — coaches often tell players that if they don’t have a pre-game ritual they should try to establish one simply because it focuses your mind in a mantra-like way to keep the anxiety away. That’s quite rational. It becomes a superstition when it moves over to magical thinking. So when you step on the line three times before you go out onto the field, it is ritual but when you think that it is must for winning a game, then it has gone beyond the ritual aspect of it and has moved on to some incantation — a magical feature. The difference between a ritual and a superstition is in the expected outcome. If you believe that performing your morning ritual or your pre-game routine can alter the outcome, then it’s a superstition. If you just do it to calm yourself before taking a plunge into an important event, the ritual continues as a ritual. The interesting thing is that while routines have a psychological benefit, so do superstitions.

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You might be wondering if certain superstitious behaviors — such as like counting the number of times you tap a ball — are really a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD often have compulsions to do rituals over and over again, often interfering with everyday life. A good example is Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie As Good As It Gets, who skips cracks in the sidewalk and eats at the same table in the same restaurant every day, with an inability to cope with any change in routine. While some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious behavior (and the two aren’t mutually exclusive), most of the evidence would indicate there is no connection between the two. Psychiatrists don’t think of anxiety disorders [such as OCD] as superstitious thinking. They think of it as irrational thinking, and most of their patients understand that.

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Athletes of all sorts practice pre-game rituals religiously. These rituals supply the confidence they need to ensure they will be able to play, run, or throw how they wants. Self-confidence is holding the belief that you have the ability to execute the necessary skills and have the physical fitness to come out of a performance successfully. This is essential to an athlete’s success.  How a player feels can make all the difference; even more than an athlete’s ability. This is why pre-game rituals and “superstitions” really are not bogus in sports. In fact, they sometimes have the power to improve or hurt an individual’s or a team’s performance (vide infra). Competitions and big performances of any kind (from musical shows to chess tournaments to basketball games) can cause the participant a lot of stress. The pressure to do well can cause an individual’s heart rate to increase, muscles to tense up, cold sweats to break out, and concentration to decrease. A competitor does need a certain amount of physical and emotional stimulation in advance, but too much can lead to anxiety. Rituals are a way of tweaking our bodies, moving our physical and psychological apparatus to the level that we know is the best level for our performance. Ritual helps you get to that best point.

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Superstitions vis-à-vis supernatural through rational thinking:

Supernatural is a force which is a part of the outside world. Some people believe in spirits, demons, omens and goblins. They believe in miracles, curses, and many other things which have no meaning or existence. Superstition and belief in the supernatural seem to go hand in hand. Indeed, there appears to be (at the very least) a mutually supportive relationship between the two. On the one hand, supernatural beliefs create a context in which particular superstitious practices may be thought to be effective or necessary. Thus, if one believes in evil spirits, the way is open to thinking that there are ways of protecting against them or getting them to do ones biding. To put it another way, supernatural beliefs will include or entail beliefs about supernatural causal connections that may be used to one’s possible advantage. On the other hand, the seeming effectiveness of superstitious practices requires supernatural explanations, such as are offered by supernatural beliefs. This can be seen in the case of lucky talismans: it would be difficult to give a naturalist explanation for why rabbit feet ‘bring’ luck given that luck is not a category that exists outside the context of our needs or wants. Given the apparent connection between supernatural and superstitious beliefs, it becomes interesting to consider whether we can even talk about superstitious beliefs that do not at least entail supernatural ones. Consider the belief that there is a causal connection between wearing a particular shirt and doing well on mathematics exams. This belief is open to either a natural or a supernatural explanation. A natural explanation might be that the person in question feels more comfortable while wearing it or, to chose a less positive possibility, that they have crib-sheets inside the sleeves. The supernatural explanation might be that the shirt once belonged to a great mathematician and still carries something of that genius with it. Only in the case that the explanation given is a supernatural one can we talk about a superstitious belief. Similarly for practices, it only seems appropriate to call them superstitious if the people engaging in them give supernatural explanations for their meaning. The cases where no explanation is given seem to be indeterminate.

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Superstition vis-à-vis supernatural through religion:

Superstition is any sort of belief or behavior which is magical. A magical understanding of the religion is primitive, immature and dangerous. Basically a superstitious or magical understanding of religion involves sympathetic magic or an irrational link between certain behaviors and their outcomes. It means, in some way, we are trying to manipulate things to produce an outcome that we desire. Sympathetic magic links two otherwise unconnected things together–usually one physical and the other metaphysical and expects a causal result. So, for example, you have a black cat, and you believe that black cat symbolizes evil, so you cast a spell which you believe transfers the evil to the black cat, then you kill the black cat in order kill the evil. The form of magic which makes an irrational link between certain behaviors or objects with their outcomes is just as dangerous. So a person may believe that by walking in a circle clockwise thirteen times and throwing salt over the shoulder will ward off the evil eye. Similarly, carrying a rabbit’s foot or some other talisman to bring good luck or blessing or to ward off evil is a form of magic that makes an irrational link between an object or behavior and the desired result. It is easy to think that the opposite of being superstitious is to be materialistic and dismissive of all everything supernatural. Untrue. The true balance to superstition is not materialism, but supernaturalism. The truly supernatural view is based on the foundational belief that the grace of God is working in our world and through our lives. It allows for, and expects miracles. The other distinction between the superstitious and the supernatural is the direction of the interaction. With superstition, or what might be called magic, the practitioner is always manipulating the material world in order to manipulate the supernatural world for his own benefit. We kill a black cat to kill the evil powers that threaten us. We wear a talisman to ward off the evil eye. We say prayers and do penance to get God to give us what we want. We wear a scapular to escape hell. We fast in order to get what we want. In other words, the whole transaction is initiated by us to get what we want. By extension, therefore, much of our activity in the world of living to make money, gain power and prestige and protection through the acquisition of more and more money–is a sort of witchcraft. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, is God’s grace coming to us through the natural world. In superstition we try to impose our will. In Supernaturalism we try to conform to God’s will. In superstition we do something to get our way. In supernaturalism God does something to change us to his way. This is why when we do bring our prayer requests to God we always include the prayers, “According to your will.”

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Superstitions and religion:

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Superstition and religious beliefs often go hand in hand. Throughout man’s history, one person’s superstition was often part of another’s religion. Constantine, the Christian emperor, called paganism superstition, while the pagan statesman Tacitus called Christianity a “pernicious, irrational belief.”  Protestants believed the veneration of saints and relics by Catholics was superstition. And to an atheist, all religious beliefs are superstition.

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Literally, a superstition is a ritual or belief that comes from an irrational fear, such as “I wipe my feet when I come inside so the monster won’t get me”. A religion is similar, but has dogma, organization, and every single person who is in the religion has that irrational fear. It’s organized and much more complex, and irrational fear doesn’t necessarily drive their motivations (although if Hell didn’t exist, who knows how many people would be involved).

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Superstitions that belong to the cultural tradition (in some cases inseparable from religious superstition) are enormous in their variety. Many persons, in nearly all times, have held, seriously or half-seriously, irrational beliefs concerning methods of warding off ill or bringing good, foretelling the future, and healing or preventing sickness or accident. A few specific folk traditions, such as belief in the evil eye or in the efficacy of amulets, have been found in most periods of history and in most parts of the world. Others may be limited to one country, region, or village, to one family, or to one social or vocational group.

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The borderline between these two words is very thin and often it has been observed that they tend to overlap each other. Religious believers have often seen other religions as superstitions. Likewise, atheists and agnostics may regard religious beliefs as superstitious. Religious practices are more likely to be labeled ‘superstitions’ by outsiders when they believe in extraordinary events (miracles), an afterlife, supernatural intervention, value of prayer, charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens, and prognostications. The Roman Catholic Church considers superstitions to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in God and, as such, is a violation of the Ten Commandments, and defining superstition as “a perverse excess of religion”. Same is the case with Islam; it prohibits following such beliefs that are not in accordance with Quran and Hadiths. Islam refers such false beliefs as the way of Shaitan (Satan or Demon).

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Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms, scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. Such fear of the gods was what the Romans meant by “superstition”. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to religious practices (e.g., Voodoo) other than the one prevailing in a given society (e.g., Christianity in western culture), although the prevailing religion may contain just as many supernatural beliefs. So the term superstition contrasts with the term religion, by definition referring to what are seen as excessive or false religious behavior as opposed to a standard of proper or accepted religious standard. It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific unrelated prior events. Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. A religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs whereas superstition is a credulous belief or notion, not based on reason, knowledge, or experience. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to folk beliefs deemed irrational.

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Faith and superstition vis-à-vis religion:

Rationality is belief based on reason or evidence. Faith is belief in inspiration, revelation, or authority. The word faith generally refers to a belief that is held with lack of, in spite of or against reason & evidence. Rationalism holds that truth should be determined by reason and factual analysis, rather than faith, dogma, tradition or religious teaching. However the Roman Catholic Church believes that faith without reason leads to superstition, while reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism; and therefore faith and reason can and must work together. In fact, most religions believe that faith is not only the basis of underlying rationality but also complementing rationality, by providing answers to questions that would otherwise be unanswerable. Real faith always has a good, sound, reasonable basis. It is simply an established confidence. You have faith in your friend because, you say, you have known him for years: you have observed and mentally noted his principles of action, and have found them uniformly the same; he has always been just, true, benevolent and kind; for many years and under many tests you have observed his steady faithfulness to these principles, and so your confidence or faith has been so established that you never think of doubting him. You know, judging from the past, that he will always be true to these principles, and hence can often tell just what his future course will be in various contingencies that may arise wherein these principles may be involved. Just so it is with those who have become acquainted with God through his Word and his providences. From year to year their confidence or faith has grown and taken deeper and deeper root, until every promise of God is now to them yea and amen in Christ Jesus. They know that what he has promised he is able to perform and that he will do it, and they make all calculations accordingly and live and work in this confident hope. Such a faith is a real faith: it has been real from the beginning, but it has matured and strengthened with the proofs of passing years. Such a faith is not mere surmise, imagination or guesswork: it has a sound, logical basis. You have drawn certain positive conclusions from a logical argument based upon an infallible and undeniable premise; and consequently you have full faith in those conclusions. But superstition, unlike faith, has no substantial basis; nor is its conclusions reached by logical deductions. Superstitions originate in the diseased brains of fallible men, and upon no subject are they so prevalent as upon religious subjects. Here they are legion. They are in direct opposition to true faith and should be carefully avoided by every sincere child of God. And not only should we avoid the superstitions themselves, but we should be careful to so frame our conversation that our true faith, minus all superstition, may be apparent to all. The difference between superstitions and religion is not only the difference between meaning and randomness, and between faith and anxiety, but also the difference between belief in a personal, benevolent God and fear of a pitiless Mother Nature, waiting to be appeased — or exploited — by mumbo jumbo. “Superstition” by definition “stands beyond” us, whereas religion is part of the human experience and interacts with it. Superstition offers the illusion of control by manipulating nature or revealing her occult intent. If the spells are recited properly, all should be well. It’s a big “if,” however. Religion gives the promise, rather than the illusion, of hope.

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Obviously, not everyone who is religious is also superstitious and not everyone who is superstitious is also religious. A person can faithfully attend church services all their life without giving a second thought to a black cat walking in front of them. On the other hand, a person who completely rejects any religion whatsoever may consciously or unconsciously avoid walking under a ladder — even if there is no one on the ladder who might drop something. If neither necessarily leads to the other, it might be easy to conclude that they are different types of beliefs. Moreover, because the very label “superstition” seems to include a negative judgment of irrationality, childishness, or primitiveness, it is understandable of religious believers wouldn’t want their own faiths to be categorized with superstitions. We must, nevertheless, acknowledge that the similarities are not superficial. For one thing, both superstition and traditional religions are non-materialistic in nature. They do not conceive of the world as a place controlled by sequences of cause and effect between matter and energy. Instead, they presume the added presence of immaterial forces which influence or control the course of our lives. Furthermore, there is also the appearance of a desire to provide meaning and coherence to otherwise random and chaotic events. If we get hurt in an accident, it is might be attributed to a black cat, to spilling salt, to failing to pay sufficient honor to our ancestors, to performing the appropriate sacrifices to the sprits, etc. There seems to be a genuine continuum between what we tend to call “superstition” and the ideas in animistic religions. In both cases, people are expected to avoid certain actions and perform other actions in order to ensure that they do not fall victim to the unseen forces at work in our world. In both cases, the very idea that such unseen forces are at work seems to stem (at least in part) both from a desire to explain otherwise random events and from a desire to have some means of affecting those events. It seems reasonable to argue, then, that while superstition may not be a form of religion, it does spring from some of the same basic human needs and desires as religion does. Thus, a greater understanding of how and why superstition develops can be useful in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of religion. A true religion is not superstition any more than darkness is light. A true religion is a tool to help man understand and direct his relationship and responsibility to the universe around him. If we examine our experience in physical science, we find clearly that our first advances in the realm of physical science were merely crudely sharpened stones, axes and spears. It is hardly surprising that our first moral or religious systems were inefficient. In a figurative metaphorical sense, our 2,000 year old moral systems are like crudely sharpened stones. But that does not mean that we should abandon all moral or religious ideas any more than we abandoned all tools because our first axes and spears were inefficient.

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Superstition has been deeply influential in history. Even in so-called modern times, in a day when objective evidence is highly valued, there are few people who would not, if pressed, admit to cherishing secretly one or two irrational beliefs or superstitions. The table below shows how religious knowledge, mystic knowledge and scientific knowledge differs from each other.

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Science and other kinds of knowledge

Religious Knowledge Artistic/Mystic Knowledge Scientific Knowledge
Outrageous stereotype of user Bible-thumping fundamentalist or robe-draped monk; fond of Sunday-morning radio. Crystal-hugging wearer of tie-dyed T-shirts; listens to new-age music. Geek with pocket protector and calculator; watches Discovery Channel a lot.
How one discovers knowledge From ancient texts or revelations of inspired individuals. From personal insight, or insight of others From evidence generated by observation of nature or by experimentation.
Extent to which knowledge changes through time Little. May be considerable. Considerable.
Extent to which future changes in knowledge are expected by user None. Can be expected, to the degree that the user expects personal development Considerable.
How knowledge changes through time Unchangeable except by reinterpretation by authorities, or by new inspired revelations, or by divergence of mavericks. As user changes or as user encounters ideas of others By new observations or experiments, and/or by reinterpretation of existing data.
Certainty of the user High, given sufficient faith; can be complete. High Dependent on quality and extent of evidence; should never be complete.
Assumptions That ancient texts or inspired revelation have meaning to modern or future conditions. That personal feelings and insights reflect nature. That nature has discernible, predictable, and explainable patterns of behavior.
Where users put their faith In the supernatural beings that they worship or in the authorities who interpret texts and events. In their own perceptions. In the honesty of the people reporting scientific data (the incomes of whom depend on generation of that data), and in the human ability to understand nature.
Sources of contradiction Between different religions; between different texts and/or authorities within one religion; within individual texts (as in the two accounts of human origin in the Judeo-Christian Genesis). Between users, who each draw on their own personal insights Across time, as understanding changes; between fields, which use different approaches and materials; and between individuals, who use different approaches and materials.

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As you go through the table above you will find that religion, to an extent, is superstitious. The religious use of the term faith suggests “belief in a higher power that makes things happen independent of a physical cause,” thus overlooking the scientific knowledge and comprehension of events, which could lead “the faithful to deny the evidence of their senses if it disagrees with Holy Scripture.” Science impairs superstitious beliefs through evidence of physical cause and effect in all things. The tension that exists between superstition and science is clearly illustrated.

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When I wear a white shirt, I do well on my job. That’s why I always wear a white shirt when I go to work these days. As you can see, superstitions are based on an arbitrary belief in one event causing another event. There are no rational/logical explanations for wearing a white shirt ‘causing’ a success at work. But the person decides to believe that his white shirt was somehow responsible for his success at work. This is the most succinct explanation of superstition. Can some religions be like superstitions? Absolutely. As with the examples above, some religious folks actually and sincerely believe that certain devotional actions (prayers & offerings) do bring preferred outcomes to them. We often hear that a religious person’s illness was cured after much prayer. The effect of one’s prayer caused illness to disappear. Miracle is a violation of the law of nature. A simple prayer actually causing cancer cells to die would fall into this category. Medically and scientifically speaking, a prayer can’t kill cancer cells. However, it is unfortunate that many (so called) “educated people” dismiss religions as nothing more than superstitions only because some religions stress the possibility of miracles via the act of faith. Although faith per se is neither blind nor irrational, faith is often perceived as an irrational act of believing in some unexplainable supernatural forces which bring on a violation of the law of nature. Religion points to the way to lead a wise and wholesome life. It should never be assumed to be a bundle of superstitious beliefs. Religion’s primary focus is to help us live wisely. We can all benefit from wisdom literature of world’s great religions. After all, we are often greedy, vicious, jealous, vengeful, insecure, and unsettled in our day lives. Inner peace is often missing in our existence. We can certainly benefit from wisdom literature that has been handed down from our ancestors. One can be religious yet not superstitious and atheist yet superstitious.

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The bottom line is that we should have serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

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There are also, of course, many more superstitious beliefs than are captured by the term “religion” or even by “spirituality”:-for example homeopathy, collective consciousness, women’s intuition, and the principle that unprocessed foods are uniformly healthier. People are able to shield all of these beliefs against an onslaught of facts by resorting to unfalsifiable foundations. For example, if a raw milk advocate learns that studies show no health benefits from the enzymes in raw milk that have been destroyed in pasteurized milk, then they may (as many have) conclude that dairy research is manipulated by dairy industry. So there are plenty of ways to be superstitious where no religion or spirituality is involved.

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Is prayer a superstition?

Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity or object of worship through deliberate communication. Prayer can be a form of religious practice, may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. It may involve the use of words or song. The belief in prayer is just as superstitious as the belief in lucky horseshoes. The fascinating thing is that we can prove that prayer has no effect. We take 1,000 cancer patients. We pray over 500 of them and we leave the other 500 alone. Then we look at cancer remission rates between the two groups. What we find is that prayers have zero benefit. We would see no statistical difference between the remission rates in the two groups of 500 patients. These experiments have been performed many times, and they always return the same results. One of the most scientifically rigorous studies yet, found that the prayers of a distant congregation did not reduce the major complications or death rate in patients hospitalized for heart treatments. A review of 17 past studies of ”distant healing,” published in 2003 by a British researcher, found no significant effect for prayer or other healing methods. In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications. Quite simply, prayer has absolutely no effect on the outcome of any event. The “power of prayer” is actually “the power of coincidence.” Belief in prayer is pure superstition. The billion dollar question is “why won’t a prayer or religion heal amputees?

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In 1872, Francis Galton conducted a famous statistical experiment to determine whether prayer had a physical effect on the external environment. Galton hypothesized that if prayer was effective, members of the British Royal family would live longer, given that thousands prayed for their wellbeing every Sunday. He therefore compared longevity in the British Royal family with that of the general population, and found no difference. While the experiment was probably intended to satirize, and suffered from a number of confounders, it set the precedent for a number of different studies, the results of which are contradictory. Two studies claimed that patients, who are being prayed for, recover more quickly or more frequently although critics have claimed that the methodologies of such studies are flawed, and the perceived effect disappears when controls are tightened.

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Many believe that prayer can aid in recovery, not due to divine influence but due to psychological and physical benefits. It has also been suggested that if a person knows that he or she is being prayed for it can be uplifting and increase morale, thus aiding recovery. Many studies have suggested that prayer can reduce physical stress, regardless of the god or gods a person prays to, and this may be true for many worldly reasons. According to a study by Central State Hospital, “the psychological benefits of prayer may help reduce stress and anxiety, promote a more positive outlook, and strengthen the will to live.” Other practices such as yoga, t’ai chi, and meditation may also have a positive impact on physical and psychological health. However, a positive attitude does not improve the chances of surviving cancer and doctors who encourage patients to keep up hope may be burdening them.

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A Cochrane review of intercessory prayer found conflicting evidence for claims of a positive effect, but there was a conclusion that “evidence presented so far is interesting enough to justify further study.” A recent study not included in the review found that intercessory prayer had no effect on complication-free recovery from heart surgery, but curiously the group certain of receiving intercessory prayer experienced higher rates of complications.

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One scientific movement attempts to track the physical effects of prayer through neuroscience is a movement by Andrew Newberg, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In Newberg’s brain scans, monks, priests, nuns and gurus alike have exceptionally focused attention and compassion sites. This is a result of the frontal lobe of the brain’s engagement. Newburg believes that anybody can connect to the supernatural with practice. Those without religious affiliations benefit from the connection to the metaphysical as well. Newberg also states that further evidence towards humans’ need for metaphysical relationships is that as science has increased, spirituality has not decreased. Newburg believes that at the end of the eighteenth century, when the scientific method began to consume the human mind, religion could have vanished. However, two hundred years later, the perception of spirituality, in many instances, appears to be gaining in strength. Newberg’s research also provides the connection between prayer & meditation and health. By understanding how the brain works during religious experiences and practices, Newberg’s research shows that the brain changes during these practices allowing an understanding of how religion affects psychological and physical health. For example, brain activity during meditation indicates that people who frequently practice prayer or meditation experience lower blood-pressure, lower heart rates, decreased anxiety, and decreased depression.

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In a nutshell, I conclude that prayer has no effect on any illness except psychological effect but psychology does matter as a prayer can reduce stress, boost morale and gives hope.

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Faith healing:

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Faith healing is healing through spiritual means. Believers assert that the healing of a person can be brought about by religious faith through prayer and/or rituals that, according to adherents, stimulate a divine presence and power toward correcting disease and disability. Belief in divine intervention in illness or healing is related to religious belief. The American Cancer Society states “available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can actually cure physical ailments.” Death, disability, and other unwanted outcomes have occurred when faith healing was elected instead of medical care for serious injuries or illnesses. A group at Johns Hopkins published a study in 2011 reporting no significant effects on pain, mood, health perceptions, illness intrusiveness, or self-efficacy, but a small improvement in reported energy in a double-blind study to test the efficacy of spiritual exercise in chronically ill adults.

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The wonderful influence of imagination in the cure of diseases is well known. A motion of the hand, or a glance of the eye, will throw a weak and credulous patient into a fit; and a pill made of bread, if taken with sufficient faith, will operate a cure better than all the drugs in the pharmacopeia. When fraud is not involved, faith healing is a cooperative form of magical thinking involving a healer and a patient. When an alleged cure by faith healing occurs in a religious context it is usually called a miracle. Those who have investigated these claims have not found a single case that stands up to scrutiny and that can be explained only by appealing to a miracle. The majority of faith healings are successful because of the cooperation of healer and patient. Working together, believing in the treatment, strongly desiring the treatment to work, not only can relieve stress and bring about the curative effects of the power of suggestion, it can lead the patient to give testimony that is exaggerated or even false in the desire to get well and to please the healer. The power of subjective validation is enormous and essential to many, if not most, faith healings. The faith healer can’t lose. Any treatment he or she gives is likely to get a high approval rating. Most patients will validate their treatments. There will be no follow-up, so there will be few bothersome failures. The healer is likely to be showered with proclamations of gratitude. It is no wonder, then, that the healer comes to believe that his or her method, whether it be invoking a god or the life force or some other mysterious entity, truly works. Even obvious failures can be blamed on the patient for not having enough faith in a god or the healing method or for not cooperating fully. Also, many patients are afraid to admit they’re not better because that would imply that they lack faith or didn’t participate properly. They blame themselves if the treatment doesn’t work. As long as a treatment is harmless to either a sick or well person, it “will always prove to be effective for virtually every patient with any serious disease”. The patient wants to be healed, wants the healer to succeed, and can be deceived into thinking they have been cured when what they are experiencing is a temporary relief due to the release of endorphins.

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There are lots of reports describing the emperor’s new clothes, but investigations consistently show he is naked. There is a good review of faith healing on Quackwatch. When faith healings have been diligently investigated by qualified doctors, they have found no evidence that the patients were actually helped in any objective sense. Even at Lourdes, the Catholic Church has only recognized 4 cures since 1978, out of 5 million people who seek healing there every year. There simply is no evidence that faith healing heals. Not what science considers evidence. And the true believers don’t value evidence or the scientific method: for them, belief is enough.

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Negative impact on public health by prayer and faith healing:

Reliance on faith healing to the exclusion of other forms of treatment can have a public health impact when it reduces or eliminates access to modern medical techniques. This is evident in both higher mortality rates for children and in reduced life expectancy for adults. Critics have also made note of serious injury that has resulted from falsely labeled “healings”, where patients erroneously consider themselves cured and cease or withdraw from treatment. For example, at least six people have died after faith healing by their church and being told they had been healed of HIV and could stop taking their medications. It is the stated position of the AMA that “prayer as therapy should not delay access to scientific medical care.”

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For a thousand years, doctors were prevented from examining the human body to determine the source and the cure of disease because fundamentalist religionists believed that the examination and dissection of the human body was blasphemous. How many millions of innocent people suffered and died in agony because of that? In fact, countless millions of people would still die horrible deaths today except that some courageous scientists risked their lives and dissected and examined the human body in spite of the threats of fundamentalist religionists. These courageous scientists thereby found cures for much of the suffering and disease that afflicted the human race. Imagine the irony when sick people today turn to fundamental religionists for help. If not for the delays and obstacles put in the way of scientists and doctors in the past by these same fundamental religionists, the disease they suffer from might well have been cured centuries ago.

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In my view, faith healing is believed by people due to four factors.

1. First, people who are psychic often get cured by faith healing as it works like psychotherapy.

2. Second, many illnesses are self limiting and get cured by itself and faith healer gets credit. E.g. Viral fever.

3. Third, faith healing works through placebo effect in which a person may experience genuine pain relief and other symptomatic alleviation. In this case, the patient genuinely has been helped by the faith healer or faith-based remedy, not through any mysterious or numinous function, but by the power of their own belief that they would be healed. Of course, endorphins are released in brain which relieve pain and provide a sense of well being.

4. Fourth, faith healing provides psychological support to the sufferer which results in reduced stress, reduced anxiety and enhanced morale.

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Folk religion:

Folk religion consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of an organized religion, but outside of official doctrine and practices. Folk religions include magical thinking in the form of protective qualities ascribed to religious objects like a particular copy of the Bible, Voodoo pouches, a crucifix, stones, crystals, eagle feathers, or any other “power” object. Also, belief in traditional systems of magic (hoodoo, voodoo, pow-wow, Benedicaria, Palo Monte, Anito, Santería and Catimbó) and rituals to ward off the evil eye, curses, demons, witchcraft, etc.

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Superstition and folklore:

With the development of folklore studies in the late 18th century, use of the derogatory term superstition was sometimes replaced by the neutral term “folk belief”. Both terms remain in use; thus, describing a practice such as the crossing fingers to nullify a promise as “folk belief” implies a neutral description from the perspective of ethnology or folklore studies, while calling the same thing a “superstition” implies its rejection as irrational. Dictionary definitions of the word regularly invoke the ideas of fear, irrationality, ignorance, groundless belief; folklorists can broadly accept this, while giving added emphasis to the communal and traditional nature of the genre.

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Curse:

A curse (also called execration) is any expressed wish that some form of adversity or misfortune will befall or attach to some other entity—one or more persons, a place, or an object. In particular, “curse” may refer to a wish that harm or hurt will be inflicted by any supernatural powers, such as a spell, a prayer, an imprecation, an execration, magic, witchcraft, God, a natural force, or a spirit. In many belief systems, the curse itself (or accompanying ritual) is considered to have some causative force in the result. The study of the forms of curses comprises a significant proportion of the study of both folk religion and folklore. The deliberate attempt to levy curses is often part of the practice of magic. In Hindu culture the Fakir is believed to have the power to bless and curse.

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Taboo:

A taboo is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment. Breaking a taboo is usually considered objectionable by society in general, not merely a subset of a culture. Common taboos include restrictions or ritual regulation of killing and hunting; sex and sexual relationships (primarily incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, intermarriage, miscegenation, adultery, homosexuality, fornication, and bestiality); reproduction (abortion, infanticide); the deceased and their graves; food and dining (primarily cannibalism and dietary laws such as vegetarianism, kashrut, and halal); and bodily functions (primarily menstrual cycles, but also defecation and urination). In India, diseases such as leprosy and AIDS are perceived as taboos by lay people and this is how taboos manifest as a superstition.

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Shamanism:

Shamanism is a term used in a variety of anthropological, historical and popular contexts to refer to certain magico-religious practices that involve a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world. A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing. Shamanic beliefs and practices have attracted the interest of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, religious studies scholars and psychologists. Hundreds of books and academic papers on the subject have been produced, with a peer-reviewed academic journal being devoted to the study of shamanisms. There is no single agreed upon definition for the word “shamanism” among anthropologists. The English historian Ronald Hutton noted that by the dawn of the 21st century, there were four separate definitions of the term which appeared to be in use. The first of these uses the term to refer to “anybody who contacts a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness.” The second definition limits the term to refer to those who contact a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness at the behest of others. The third definition attempts to distinguish shamans from other magico-religious specialists who are believed to contact spirits, such as “mediums”, “witch doctors”, “spiritual healers” or “prophets”, by claiming that they undertake a particular technique not used by the others. Problematically, scholars advocating this position have failed to agree on what this defining technique should be. The fourth definition identified by Hutton uses “shamanism” to refer to the indigenous religions of Siberia and neighboring parts of Asia. The shaman’s social role is usually defined by the obligations, actions and responsibilities expected of them within their individual cultures. A debated approach explains the etymology of word “shaman” as meaning “one who knows”. Really, the shaman is a person who is an expert in keeping together the multiple codes of the society. Accordingly, the society’s codes are the manifestation of the society’s underlying complex belief system. Thus to be effective, shamans maintain a comprehensive view in their mind which gives them certainty of knowledge.The shaman uses (and the audience understands) multiple codes. Shamans express meanings in many ways: verbally, musically, artistically, and in dance. Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living. Although the causes of disease lie in the spiritual realm, inspired by malicious spirits or witchcraft, both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal. Commonly, a shaman “enters the body” of the patient to confront the spiritual infirmity and heals by banishing the infectious spirit. Many shamans have expert knowledge of medicinal plants native to their area, and an herbal treatment is often prescribed. In many places shamans learn directly from the plants, harnessing their effects and healing properties, after obtaining permission from the indwelling or patron spirits.

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Ghosts:

In traditional belief and fiction, a ghost is the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living. Descriptions of the apparition of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic, life-like visions. The belief in manifestations of the spirits of the dead is widespread, dating back to animism or ancestor worship in pre-literate cultures. Certain religious practices—funeral rites, exorcisms, and some practices of spiritualism and ritual magic—are specifically designed to appease the spirits of the dead. Ghosts are generally described as solitary essences that haunt particular locations, objects, or people they were associated with in life, though stories of phantom armies, ghost trains, phantom ships, and even ghost animals have also been recounted. Physicians of 18’th century believed that ghosts are result of either optical illusions or hallucinations. Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, wrote that there was no credible scientific evidence that any location was inhabited by spirits of the dead. Limitations of human perception and ordinary physical explanations can account for ghost sightings; for example, air pressure changes in a home causing doors to slam, or lights from a passing car reflected through a window at night. Pareidolia, an innate tendency to recognize patterns in random perceptions, is what some skeptics believe causes people to believe that they have ‘seen ghosts’. Reports of ghosts “seen out of the corner of the eye” may be accounted for by the sensitivity of human peripheral vision. According to Nickell, peripheral vision can easily mislead, especially late at night when the brain is tired and more likely to misinterpret sights and sounds. Some researchers, such as Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Canada, have speculated that changes in geomagnetic fields (created, e.g., by tectonic stresses in the Earth’s crust or solar activity) could stimulate the brain’s temporal lobes and produce many of the experiences associated with haunting. Sound is thought to be another cause of supposed sightings. Richard Lord and Richard Wiseman have concluded that infrasound can cause humans to experience bizarre feelings in a room, such as anxiety, extreme sorrow, a feeling of being watched, or even the chills.

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Divination:

Divination (from Latin divinare “to foresee, to be inspired by a god”, related to divinus, divine) is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultic standardized process or ritual. Used in various forms for thousands of years, diviners ascertain their interpretations of how a querent (inquirer) should proceed by reading signs, events, or omens, or through alleged contact with a supernatural agency. Divination can be seen as a systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand. If a distinction is to be made between divination and fortune-telling, divination has a formal or ritual and often social character, usually in a religious context, as seen in traditional African medicine; while fortune-telling is a more everyday practice for personal purposes. Particular divination methods vary by culture and religion. Divination is often dismissed by skeptics, including the scientific community, as being mere superstition.

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Reincarnation:

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Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical belief that the soul or spirit, after biological death, begins a new life in a new body that may be human, animal or spiritual depending on the moral quality of the previous life’s actions. This doctrine is a central tenet of the Indian religions. The majority of sects within Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not believe that individuals reincarnate. Professor Stevenson spent over 40 years devoted to the study of children who have apparently spoken about a past life. In each case, Stevenson methodically documented the child’s statements. Then he identified the deceased person the child allegedly identified with, and verified the facts of the deceased person’s life that matched the child’s memory. He also matched birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records such as autopsy photographs. Stevenson believed that his strict methods ruled out all possible “normal” explanations for the child’s memories. However, it should be noted that a significant majority of Professor Stevenson’s reported cases of reincarnation originate in Eastern societies, where dominant religions often permit the concept of reincarnation. There are many people who have investigated reincarnation and come to the conclusion that it is a legitimate phenomenon, such as Peter Ramster, Dr. Brian Weiss, Dr. Walter Semkiw, and others, but their work is generally ignored by the scientific community. Professor Stevenson, in contrast, published dozens of papers in peer-reviewed journals. Some people remember foreign languages and things they could not have possibly known without doing research. Some people start to learn forex or other such technical things only to find out they already know them. Polyglossy or Xenoglossy is the putative phenomenon in which a person is able to speak a language that he or she could not have acquired by natural means. This often goes along with reincarnation theories. The most obvious objection to reincarnation is that there is no evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and travel to another body, and researchers such as Professor Stevenson recognize this limitation. Some skeptics explain that claims of evidence for reincarnation originate from selective thinking and the psychological phenomena of false memories that often result from one’s own belief system and basic fears, and thus cannot be counted as empirical evidence. Please read my article on “The death” and you will find that reincarnation does not exist. It is a mere superstition.

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Déjà vu and jamais vu:

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Déjà vu (from French-literally “already seen”) is the feeling of certainty that one has already witnessed or experienced a current situation, even though the exact circumstances of the prior encounter are unclear and were perhaps imagined. The term déjà vu is French and means, literally, “already seen.” Those who have experienced the feeling describe it as an overwhelming sense of familiarity with something that shouldn’t be familiar at all. Say, for example, you are traveling to England for the first time. You are touring a cathedral, and suddenly it seems as if you have been in that very spot before. The “previous” experience is most frequently attributed to a dream, although in some cases there is a firm sense that the experience has genuinely happened in the past. Déjà vu is caused by a person getting a brief glimpse of an object or situation prior to full conscious perception, resulting in a false sense of familiarity. As much as 70 percent of the population reports having experienced some form of déjà vu. A higher number of incidents occur in people 15 to 25 years old than in any other age group. Déjà vu has been firmly associated with temporal-lobe epilepsy. The explanation that has mostly been accepted of déjà vu is not that it is an act of “precognition” or “prophecy”, but rather that it is an anomaly of memory, giving the false impression that an experience is “being recalled”. This explanation is supported by the fact that the sense of “recollection” at the time is strong in most cases, but that the circumstances of the “previous” experience (when, where, and how the earlier experience occurred) are quite uncertain or believed to be impossible. Some researchers have written that some cases of déjà vu might be explained on the basis of reincarnation and déjà vu experiences occur as people are living their lives not for the first time but at least the second. Jamais vu (from French, meaning “never seen”) is a term in psychology which is used to describe any familiar situation which is not recognized by the observer. Often described as the opposite of déjà vu, jamais vu involves a sense of eeriness and the observer’s impression of seeing the situation for the first time, despite rationally knowing that he or she has been in the situation before. Jamais vu is more commonly explained as when a person momentarily does not recognize a word, person, or place that they already know. Jamais vu is sometimes associated with certain types of aphasia, amnesia, and epilepsy. In my view, reincarnation belief in occasional individual is nothing but déjà vu, a faulty memory system.

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Numerology:

Numerology is any study of the purported divine, mystical or other special relationship between a count or measurement and life. It has many systems, traditions and beliefs. Today, numerology is often associated with the paranormal, alongside astrology and similar divinatory arts. Some astrologers believe that each number from 0 to 9 is ruled by a celestial body in our solar system. Many alchemical theories were closely related to numerology. The best known example of “numerology” in science involves the coincidental resemblance of certain large numbers such as the ratio of the age of the universe to the atomic unit of time, the number of electrons in the universe, and the difference in strengths between gravity and the electric force for the electron and proton.  Large number co-incidences continue to fascinate many mathematical physicists. Rational skeptics argue that numbers have no occult significance and cannot by themselves influence a person’s life. Skeptics therefore regard numerology as a superstition and a pseudoscience that uses numbers to give the subject a veneer of scientific authority. There is no evidence, for example, that all people born on the same date have the same future, contrary to the claims of numerologists.

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ESP:

Extrasensory perception (ESP) involves reception of information not gained through the recognized physical senses but sensed with the mind. The term was coined by Frederic Myers, and adopted by Duke University psychologist J. B. Rhine to denote psychic abilities such as telepathy, clairaudience, and clairvoyance, and their trans-temporal operation as precognition or retrocognition. ESP is also sometimes casually referred to as a sixth sense, gut instinct or hunch, which are historical English idioms. The term implies acquisition of information by means external to the basic limiting assumptions of science, such as organisms can only receive information from the past to the present. Among scientists in the National Academy of Sciences, 96% described themselves as “skeptical” of ESP. Skeptics claim that there is a lack of a viable theory of the mechanism behind ESP, and that there are historical cases in which flaws have been discovered in the experimental design of parapsychological studies. Critics of experimental parapsychology hold that there are no consistent and agreed-upon standards by which “ESP powers” may be tested. It is argued that when psychics are challenged by skeptics and fail to prove their alleged powers, they assign all sorts of reasons for their failure, such as that the skeptic is affecting the experiment with “negative energy” or their cell phone is causing interference.

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Muhurta:

Muhurta is a Hindu unit of measurement for time in the Hindu calendar. A Muhurta equals 2 Ghadiyas or approximately 48 minutes. It is stated in Manu Samhita that eighteen nimeshas (twinkling of the eye) are one kashtha, thirty kashthas one kala, thirty kalas one muhurta, and as many muhurtas one day and night. Traditionally, it is common practice amongst Hindus to start or avoid starting significant tasks like religious ceremonies, etc. on the basis of the quality of a particular Muhurta. The Vedic scriptures also generally recommend one or more Muhurtas to perform rituals and practices.

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Nazar Battus:

A nazarbattu is often an intentional blemish or flaw that is introduced to prevent perfection. For instance, a black mark might be made on the face or neck of a loved one. In houses, a deliberate flaw might be included in the otherwise-perfect physical appearance of the house. In expensive items such as carpets or saris, a deliberate coloring or stitching flaw is sometimes created. Although it doesn’t involve a specific nazar battu, it is customary in the region for mothers to lightly spit at their children (usually ritualistically to the side of the children rather than directly at them) to imply a sense of disparagement and imperfection that protects them from nazar. Excessive admiration, even from well-meaning people, is believed attract the evil eye, so this is believed to protect children from nazar that could be caused by their own mothers’ “excessive” love of them. When I was a small child, my grandmother used to put black mark on my temple to prevent evil from hurting me.

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Witchcraft:

Witchcraft, in historical, anthropological, religious, and mythological contexts, is the alleged use of supernatural or magical powers. A witch (from Old English wicca masculine, wicce feminine) is a practitioner of witchcraft. Historically, it was widely believed in early modern Christian Europe that witches were in league with the Devil and used their powers to harm people and property. Particularly, since the mid-20th century, “bad” and “good” witchcraft are sometimes distinguished, the latter often involving healing. The concept of witchcraft as harmful is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community.

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The belief in the infernal art of witchcraft is perhaps the most horrid, as it certainly is the most absurd, phenomenon in the religious history of the world. Of the millions of victims sacrificed on the altars of religion, this particular delusion can claim a considerable proportion. By a moderate computation, nine millions have been burned or hanged since the establishment of Christianity. Religion played a large part in people’s lives in 16’th and 17’th century period. People not only believed in God, they also believed that the devil was causing evil in the world. People did not know much about science, so they did not know natural why natural things happened. If things went wrong people ideas thought that it was the work of the devil. Witches people thought worked for the devil and were evil. Some people accused witches of murdering people by witchcraft. Others were accused of turning milk sour or making crops grow badly. People often blamed their problems on witches. Even important people believed in witches. King James I of England wrote a book which described the signs to look out for to spot a witch. King James told Parliament to pass laws against anybody who was thought to be a witch. Witches were put on trial and hanged if found guilty.

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The belief in witchcraft is just one type of superstition. Belief in witchcraft is strong in all parts of India, and lynching for witchcraft are reported in the press from time to time. It is estimated that 750 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the states of Assam and West Bengal since 2003. More than 100 women are tortured, paraded naked, or harassed in the state of Chhattisgarh annually, officials said. A social activist in the region said the reported cases were only the tip of the iceberg. While statistics regarding the magnitude of the problem are scarce, according to unofficial estimates in the last 15 years around 2,500 women have been killed after being branded “witches” in India. Maharashtra is one Indian state that tried to enact a law against witch hunts and other superstitious practices some years ago. It failed primarily because of opposition from Hindu religious groups that felt that the law might do away with certain ancient rites altogether. However, the Maharashtra government is apparently planning to introduce a bill to combat the social ills of witchcraft and human sacrifice once again.

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One of the most potent African superstitions is belief in witchcraft. Most Africans believe in sorcerers. They believe witches are real, active beings that act to influence, intervene and alter the course of human life for good or ill. Witchcraft is accepted as a mode of explanation, perception and interpretation of life, events, nature and reality. Witches are believed to cause poverty, disease, accidents, business failures, famine, earthquake, infertility and childbirth difficulties. Africans also attribute any extraordinary, mysterious or inexplicable phenomenon to sorcery. While witch hunting is a thing of the past in Europe and the entire Western world, in Africa it is an ongoing activity. Attacks on witches, persecution and killings still take place. Most of the victims are women and children. Recently there have several reported cases of witches being attacked or killed in different parts of the continent.

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Ingestion of dead fetus flesh to boost stamina and cure illness, the height of superstition vis-à-vis health:

In order to keep its population down, China performs 13 million abortions a year – mainly because mothers sacrifice their newborns to avoid punishment such as severe fines or even a beating by the authorities. The Chinese authorities have confirmed that 38 per cent of women of child-bearing age have been sterilized – but the babies that are aborted do not go to waste because of the sickening trade in using their corpses for purported medicinal purposes. A few weeks ago it was discovered that South Korean smugglers have been trying to get capsules made of baby (dead human fetus) flesh into the country. The customs authorities said more than 17,000 of the capsules had been illegally brought into the country from China since August 2011. The powdered flesh is believed by some to cure disease and boost stamina. However, officials insist the capsules, which contain flesh of dead babies and fetuses, are full of bacteria and pose a health risk. It sounds horrific, almost unreal. The desire for these capsules comes from the fact that some people believe they have healing powers. Many people have superstitious beliefs of some sort, but when those beliefs impede them from living a deliberate and healthy life, they become nothing but hindrances. There is a huge demand for alternative Chinese remedies – which include ground up rhino horns. The Chinese have historically consumed human placentas to improve blood supply and circulation. Health authorities in Asia are concerned that if the powdered fetus trade is allowed to continue the capsules will find their way onto the internet and be sold to gullible or sick superstitious desperate people in other parts of the world.

 

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Astrology:

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Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra hasn’t ever really been concerned about Thailand’s current political tension. When asked to comment he told reporters; “Be patient with the headache-inducing situation until July 2. Mars moving closer to Saturn causes the headache. When Mars leaves, the situation will ease.” Like many powerful businessmen, Thaksin Shinawatra is a firm believer in astrology. To me, the fact that such a prominent political figure could base his judgments on astrology and predictions of a fortune teller is surprising. However, in Thailand decisions are often influenced by astrology, magic spells, superstitious beliefs and charms. It is often reported that the Thai military regularly travels as a group to visit certain monks who are believed to have the power to predict the future.

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For tens of thousands of years human beings have looked up at the night sky and asked themselves, “What does it all mean?” Many answers have been suggested. One of the oldest is provided by astrology: the belief that the stars and planets are controlling influences on our lives. Humans have always been curious about their future. Whenever someone is in trouble and cannot easily get out, wanting to know if the days of misery will end at all. And if so, when? When you invest a lot of time, effort and money in any project, it is natural to ask whether the investment will bear the fruit. It’s always been around people who have successfully predicted future events. Their methods are different – some people can simply look to the future, some use tarot cards, some draw up an astrological chart, which we call the horoscopes, some read the lines in the palms of the hands of the people. Each successful prediction shows that it is indeed possible to correctly predict the future.

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In the U.S., a number of years ago Time magazine identified Ronald Reagan as a client of astrologer Carroll Righter, and a recent survey revealed that 15% of college undergraduates believe in astrology. Among the general population, the percentage is far higher. Jon D. Miller of Northern Illinois University reports that 39% of adult Americans, some 66 million persons, believe that astrology is “scientific.” These figures seem reasonable in light of astrology’s popularity. At present, two-thirds of U.S. daily newspapers carry horoscopes. There are at least 10,000 full-time and 175,000 part-time astrologers in the country. And astrologically related books and magazines are a glut on the market.

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Astrology is defined as the study of the positions and aspects of celestial bodies in the belief that they have an influence on the course of natural earthly occurrences and human affairs. It is a divination that consists of interpreting the influence of stars and planets on earthly affairs and human destinies. As people began to consider the seemingly infinite universe, they wondered whether the stars could foretell future events and exercise control over human lives. A psalmist of the Bible wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). Zoroastrian astrologers called Magi traveled to Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus because they saw a “star” or sign in the heavens foretelling the birth of a Jewish king. Long before this, astrologers as far apart as Egypt, China, Peru, and England were building stone structures to aid in foretelling times and seasons based on the stars. Many cultures have attached importance to astronomical events, and the Indians, Chinese, and Mayans developed elaborate systems for predicting terrestrial events from celestial observations. It is an art of divining the fate or future of persons from the juxtaposition of the Sun, Moon, and planets. A person is said to be born under that planet that ruled the hour of his birth. Preparing a horoscope requires date of birth, time of birth and place of birth. Without this data, an astrologer cannot prepare a horoscope.

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A central principle of astrology is integration within the cosmos. The individual, Earth, and its environment are viewed as a single organism, all parts of which are correlated with each other. Cycles of change that are observed in the heavens are therefore said to be reflective (not causative) of similar cycles of change observed on earth and within the individual. This relationship is expressed in the Hermetic maxim “as above, so below; as below, so above”, which postulates symmetry between the individual as a microcosm and the celestial environment as a macrocosm. Accordingly, the natal horoscope depicts a stylized map of the universe at the time of birth, specifically focused on the individual at its centre, with the Sun, Moon, and celestial bodies considered to be that individual’s personal planets or stars, which are uniquely relevant to that individual alone. At the heart of astrology is the metaphysical principle that mathematical relationships express qualities or ‘tones’ of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds – all connected within a pattern of proportion.

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Western astrology is largely horoscopic, that is, it is a form of divination based on the construction of a horoscope for an exact moment, such as a person’s birth. It is founded on the movements and relative positions of celestial bodies such as the Sun, Moon, planets, which are analyzed by their aspects (angles) relative to one another. Indian astrology uses a different commencement point to its 12-fold division of the zodiac than Western astrology but retains the same names and meanings for the signs and shares many of the same traditional principles. The two methods differ mainly in their focus on sidereal and tropical astrology. In India, there is a long-established and widespread belief in astrology. It is commonly used for daily life, particularly in matters concerning marriage and career, and makes extensive use of electional, horary and karmic astrology. It is considered a branch of Vedic science. In February 2011, the Mumbai High Court reaffirmed astrology’s standing in India when it dismissed a case which had challenged it status as a science.

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Modern scientific appraisal:

Contemporary science considers astrology a pseudoscience. Criticisms include that astrology is conjectural and supplies no hypotheses, proves difficult to falsify, and describes natural events in terms of scientifically untestable supernatural causes. It has also been suggested that much of the continued faith in astrology could be psychologically explained as a matter of cognitive bias. Skeptics say that the practice of astrologers allows them to avoid making verifiable predictions, and gives them the ability to attach significance to arbitrary and unrelated events, in a way that suits their purpose, although science also provides methodologies to separate verifiable significance from arbitrary predictions in research experiments, as demonstrated by Gauquelin’s research and Carlson’s experiment. Astrology has repeatedly failed to demonstrate its effectiveness in controlled studies, according to the American Humanist Society. The group characterized those who continue to have faith in astrology as doing so “in spite of the fact that there is no verified scientific basis for their beliefs, and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary.” One well-documented and referenced paper, for instance, which conducted a large scale scientific test, involving more than one hundred cognitive, behavioral, physical and other variables, found no support for astrological accuracy. In a lecture in 2001, Stephen Hawking stated “The reason most scientists don’t believe in astrology is because it is not consistent with our theories that have been tested by experiment”.

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This approach came into light once more when Prof. Dr. Jayant Narlikar, an eminent scientist and internationally acclaimed astro-physicist, attacked over it. He said, “Astrology is not science, but superstition.” Narlikar was speaking at a seminar “Astrology-a pseudoscience” in Rourkela organized by the Orissa Rationalists Association. Moreover, he also mentioned various researches that proved the misconceptions of astrology & the pertinent gurus to a great extent. While speaking on an investigation in the past, Dr. Jayant stated, “We took the horoscope of 100 mentally retarded and 100 bright children and jumbled them up. Finally, we tried to find out from the astrologers whether they can spot them rightly in which 50 persons participated. We gave 40 horoscopes to each individual. Surprisingly many did not return their findings to us and of those who did the highest was 22 correct answers and 17 was the average. And it was like the chances one takes with coins where the chances of heads and tails always come. Our future lies in our hands and not on the position of planets,” added Prof. Narlikar.

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There are many other reasons to regard astrology as a superstition rather than as a science.

1. First of all, astrologers have never attempted to explain how astrology supposedly works—that is, why the apparent positions of different astronomical bodies supposedly have different effects upon different people.

2.Second, astrology does not even take into account all of the major bodies in our solar system, let alone all those in our galaxy or the hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe. Most astrologers make their planetary computations using only the planets known to the ancients; they don’t take into account those discovered by modern science (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto); and no astrologers take into account the nearest stars, which are far nearer to us than those in the zodiac constellations, which themselves are at wildly varying distances.

3. Third, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the mysterious, undetectable, astrological forces supposedly emanating from the planets would be any stronger than the gravitational forces of the planets. And those forces are weak indeed. At its nearest conjunction, Mars exerts far less gravitational force upon a newborn infant than the midwife or doctor who delivers the child.

4. Fourth, astrologers, in their computations, do not take into account the inverse square law, which is a fundamental law of physics. It says that the amount of radiation received by a body varies as the inverse square of its distance from the source of the radiation. They don’t care whether Mars is 40 million or 100 million miles away. They only concern themselves with the apparent position—to a viewer on Earth—of Mars in relation to the backdrop of the zodiac constellations and the other planets. So, if the astrological “radiation” (“vibration”—choose your own nebulous term) of the planets does influence human beings as astrologers claim, it would have to be a most peculiar type of radiation, one which disobeys a fundamental, well-established law of physics.

5. Fifth, many astrologers ignore precession. The Earth’s rotational axis is not stable, and the Earth wobbles like a top—but much more slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it takes approximately 26,000 years for the Earth’s axis to complete one rotation around the 47-degree-diameter circle it describes. This slow wobbling is called precession. It means, among other things, that the stars we now see in summer will be seen in winter (and vice versa) 13,000 years from now. It also means that the sun has receded almost a full sign along the zodiac since the Tetrabiblos was written nearly two millennia ago. So, the calculations of astrologers who rely on that hoary source are now off almost a full sign.

6. Sixth, the most popular type of astrology is natal astrology, in which astrological forces supposedly leap into action at the moment of an individual’s birth, imprinting her or him with certain characteristics. But the choice of the time of birth as the moment of supposed astrological imprinting makes no sense at all. Astrologers choose the time of birth purely because it’s convenient. They might object that a mother’s body shields her baby from astrological “radiation” until birth, but that argument ignores the fact that almost all babies are born indoors, and it would be illogical to think that this “radiation” could penetrate wood, concrete and steel, but not a few centimeters of human flesh.

7. Finally, there is absolutely no empirical evidence, absolutely none, that astrology has any value whatsoever as a means of prediction. What scientific testing has been done indicates that there are no astrological “effects.” For instance, former Michigan State University psychologist Bernie Silberman asked astrologers to list compatible and incompatible signs. Silberman then inspected the records of 478 couples who divorced and 2978 who married in 1967 and 1968 in Michigan. He found no correspondence beyond that of random chance between the astrological signs predicted to be compatible or incompatible by astrologers and the signs of those getting married or divorced. French statistician Michel Gauquelin has conducted far more detailed tests which also have discovered no astrological effects. (Gauquelin’s early, highly publicized report of a “Mars effect” on professional athletes was the result of an error in his calculations, and similar studies conducted by others showed no such effect.) In one test he examined the signs (moon, zodiacal, planetary, ascendant, and mid-heaven) for 15,560 professionals from five European nations in 10 different occupations. He found no evidence of any astrological effects. His calculations showed that the correlation between astrological signs and occupations to be that of random chance.

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Why would anyone believe in anything as patently absurd as astrology?

Probably for reasons similar to those of persons who believe in such patent absurdities as transubstantiation or their own “personal savior.” One particularly disturbing aspect of this belief in the absurd is that many astrological believers not only do not use logical (scientific) reasoning, but they do not want to use it. Their “reasoning” is that of a stubborn child: “If I want it to be true, it must be true!” So, they adopt (probably unconsciously) a completely dishonest intellectual attitude, clinging obstinately to anything which seems to confirm their belief, while ignoring the plethora of inconvenient facts which call it into doubt. Also, occult believers ignore contradictory evidence much more often than skeptics. Why do occult believers have such a reluctance to face facts? Glick and Snyder concluded that, “in order to maintain the sense of being able to predict events, the believer makes the facts ‘fit’ the theory whether or not these events are consistent with the theory’s predictions.”  The reason for this blindness is obvious. It’s an unfortunate fact that a great many people do not want to go to the work of making their own decisions. They want someone or something to tell them how to act, how to think, and how to feel. Astrology, like other religious beliefs, fills the bill. As a system of preordination (“Oh! You’re a Scorpio! You must . . .”), it gives believers a nice, neat means of interpreting reality and of tailoring their behavior and expectations to fit the prescriptions of their belief system. Astrologers themselves admit this, with some of them maintaining that astrology “controls,” “influences,” or “can serve as a road guide.” (The difference between these descriptions is one of degree, not substance). Also, many astrologers are good psychologists who dominate over feeble minded lay people and give them false sense of security or hope.

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Astrology the height of absurdity:

Another of Gauquelin’s experiments provides a more amusing example of the self-deception of occult believers. He took out a newspaper advertisement in which he promised free personalized horoscopes to all who answered the ad. One hundred fifty persons responded. Gauquelin then sent out the same horoscope to all 150 and asked them how well it fit them. Ninety-four percent replied that they recognized themselves in it. The horoscope was that of Dr. Michel Petiot, a mass murderer.

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Astrology is scoffed at by rational people for two main reasons. First, of course, is that the predictions made by astrologers often go wrong. Secondly, if one takes his horoscope to different astrologers, they make different predictions. They even make different horoscopes given the same set of data regarding the birth of a person. These facts force people to conclude that astrology is not a science and that it is only a means to befool people for the astrologers’ benefit.

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Superstitions about certain calendar dates may influence when you give birth:

In the study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, researchers looked at more than three million birth records from babies born in the US between 1996 and 2006. Sure enough, records showed a 3.4 percent increase in induced births, a 3.6 percent lift in spontaneous births, and a 12.1 rise in Cesarean deliveries on February 14 (compared to the week before and week after this date). Records also showed a spooky trend on Halloween in the form of an 18.7 percent drop in induced births, a 16.9 percent dip in Cesarean deliveries, and a 5.3 percent fall in spontaneous births compared to days surrounding the ghostly holiday. The power of superstition is not just a North American thing either. In Taiwan, a 2003 study showed an increase in scheduled births on auspicious days and decreases on inauspicious days, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Researchers from Yale University who unearthed the statistics believe that strong feelings about giving birth on a certain day may consciously or unconsciously influence the body’s hormonal mechanisms. Hormones, in turn, are able to “tell” your body to speed up or slow down when you begin labor. In other words, delivering on October 31, a day many of us associate with ghost, ghouls, witches—and let’s face it, death—may just be too scary a proposition. But on the other hand, if your due date is in February, you may yearn for birth on February 14, a day filled with images of cherubs and love. And your body’s hormones may just respond to these thoughts! This is how superstitions arising in human mind can affect biology. Interesting to note that astrological prediction depends on time and day of birth; and if that can be determined by thoughts affecting biology, how astrology can predict future!!!  I mean if your thoughts can determine when your baby will be born, then, how celestial bodies can affect the future of your baby.

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People should realize that a false concept will never become right just because the majority of people believe it or because it is believed from ancient times, or because there are some scientists among the believers. Astrology originated when man’s knowledge of astronomy and the universe was wrong. Hence, astrological calculations were and are made on wrong data. Of the nine planets (navagraha) of astrologers only five are real planets. Of the remaining four, one is a star and another satellite. The remaining two do not exist at all! How can conclusions derived from wrong data be true? Astrological charts are prepared according to the relative visual positions of the so-called planets in the twelve zodiacal constellations at the time of the birth of a person. As the solar planets and the zodiacal stars are millions of miles away from the earth, their visual positions at any moment are only virtual and not real. In preparing the chart for a person, astrologer makes use of the wrong virtual positions of the planets. If they have the knowledge and ability to calculate and find the real positions of the planets through astronomical calculations, perhaps astrologers themselves will lose faith in their cult! Since light from planets and stars takes several minutes to millions of years to reach the earth, it is clear that astrologers’ charts are wrong by several minutes to millions of years!!

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Palmistry:

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Palmistry, also known as chiromancy, is the practice of telling fortunes from the lines, marks, and patterns on the hands, particularly the palms. According to Ann Fiery (The Book of Divination), if you are right handed, your left hand indicates inherited personality traits and your right hand indicates your individuality and fulfillment of potential. The palmist claims to be able to read the various lines on your hand. These lines are given names like the life line, the head line, the heart line, the Saturn line. The life line supposedly indicates physical vitality, the head line intellectual capacity, the heart line emotional nature, etc. The authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Palmistry, Robin Giles and Lisa Lenard, claim that “palmistry works because your hand changes as you do.” They claim to have a few anecdotes to back them up on this, but fail to produce any scientific support for the claim. Palmists believe that the hand lines are a representation of the experiences of the central nervous system, and the lines, signs and grids in your hands are the way of the brain to express itself. Changes in the main hand lines mean changes in life. Sidelines change and develop easier with less effect. An analysis of character and psyche through hand lines is thus logical.

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Believe it or not, those lines on your palm are related to fingerprints, and can be used to identify people just as fingerprints can. They are unique to each individual, and are called palmar flexion creases. Even identical twins don’t have the same patterns of palm creases! Palmar (or palm) creases form by the 3rd month in utero on a fetus, and like fingerprints, never change (unless there is permanent scarring of some kind) until the decomposure of the skin at death. Even today, imagine the difficulty of holding a slippery glass of water with totally smooth palms and fingers (almost as if you were wearing a slick rubber glove!). Basically palmar creases are developed evolutionarily for grasping objects. Palmistry is as humbug as astrology.

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How superstitions boost confidence and performance:

By many accounts, Bjorn Borg is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Most remarkably, he won 82 percent of all the professional matches he played. He had skills. But that’s not all he had. Like many athletes, he had superstitions. To prepare for Wimbledon, Bjorn grew a beard and wore the same Fila shirt during the matches. It worked too. Superstitions are, by many accounts, irrational and scientifically backwards. However, empirical evidence suggests that this might not be entirely true. In one experiment, the social scientists tested the “lucky ball” myth by having two groups of participants attempt ten golf putts from a distance of 100cm. Like good psychologists they told one group of participants that the ball they were about to use “turned out to be lucky” (superstition-activated condition). In contrast, they told the second group they were using a ball that everyone used (control condition). The researchers found that participants in the superstition-activated condition drained 35 percent more putts than participants in the control condition. The basis for superstitious beliefs is sheer fantasy, but their effects can be real and consequential. In terms of athletic performance, evidence suggests that a superstitious belief in certain objects (Curtis’ putter) and habits (Bjorn’s beard) gives us confidence, which moreover improves performance. There are downsides, of course, to fantastical thinking – athletes often become overly obsessed with pregame rituals and many religious beliefs led to less than ideal scenarios. To see why these superstitions improved performance, the researchers measured their self-efficacy (roughly equivalent to self-confidence) and goal-setting. This suggested that, “The increased levels of self-efficacy that result from activating a superstition lead to higher self-set goals and greater persistence in the performance task.” In other words, the lucky charms appeared to be giving people the confidence to aim higher and keep trying. The belief, however questionable, that there may be something to a particular superstition, could help release nervous tension. This may be because superstitions allow us the illusion of control in what is a scary, random world. Perhaps that’s why superstitious behaviors to bring good luck are so common: they can sometimes work.

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Superstitions are often regarded as irrational and inconsequential, but researchers in Germany have been taking them seriously, trying to identify the benefits of superstitions, if any, and their underlying psychological mechanisms. Researchers designed four experiments to test the effectiveness of good-luck superstitions based on a common saying (such as saying “break a leg” to an actor before a performance), an action (such as crossing the fingers), or a lucky charm. The superstitions were tested to see whether or not they improved subsequent performance in motor dexterity, memory, solving anagrams, or playing golf. The results of all four experiments showed the superstition did improve performance. In the golf task those with the “lucky ball” performed significantly better than the control, and those doing the motor dexterity test were faster and better if the researcher wished them luck. The research result shows that superstitions associated with good luck have been demonstrated to affect future performance beneficially. It also showed the superstition worked even if it was activated by someone else (as in the first and second experiments). The research also gives some insight into how superstition works. In each case the superstition was essentially found to boost a participant’s confidence in their own abilities, and this resulted in enhanced performance. The increased confidence also encouraged them to work harder at the task and to persist until they succeeded.

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It is worth noting, that various experiments discussed above tested the positive effect of good luck superstition, but in theory, however, it is also possible to imagine situations in which the engagement of an irrational thought or behavior could adversely affect performance. In particular, this might be true for thoughts or behaviors that are believed to invite failures or misfortunes.

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Superstitions as sense of control and sense of meaning:

Superstition is typically a pejorative term. Belief in things like magic and miracles is thought to be irrational and scientifically retrograde. But as studies have repeatedly shown, some level of belief in the supernatural — often a subtle and unconscious belief — appears to be unavoidable, even among skeptics. The good news is that superstitious thought, or “magical thinking,” even as it misrepresents reality, has its advantages. It offers psychological benefits that logic and science can’t always provide: namely, a sense of control and a sense of meaning. For instance, subjects performed better on memory and word games when armed with a lucky charm. In a more real-world example of this effect, the anthropologist Richard Sosis of the University of Connecticut found that in Israel during the second intifada in the early 2000s, 36 percent of secular women in the town of Tzfat recited psalms in response to the violence. Compared with those who did not recite psalms, he found, those women benefited from reduced anxiety: they felt more comfortable entering crowds, going shopping and riding buses — a result, he concluded, of their increased sense of control. Another law of magic is “everything happens for a reason” — there is no such thing as randomness or happenstance. This is so-called teleological reasoning, which assumes intentions and goals behind even evidently purposeless entities like hurricanes. As social creatures, we may be biologically tuned to seek evidence of intentionality in the world, so that we can combat or collaborate with whoever did what’s been done. When lacking a visible author, we end up crediting an invisible one — God, karma, destiny, whatever. This illusion, too, turns out to be psychologically useful. In research led by the psychologist Laura Kray of the University of California, Berkeley, subjects reflected on a turning point in their lives. The more they felt the turning point to have been fated, the more they believed, “It made me who I am today” and, “It gave meaning to my life.” Belief in destiny helps render your life a coherent narrative, which infuses your goals with a greater sense of purpose. This works even when those turning points are harmful: in a study led by the psychologist Kenneth Pargament of Bowling Green State University, students who saw a negative event as “part of God’s plan” showed more growth in its aftermath. They became more open to new perspectives, more intimate in their relationships and more persistent in overcoming challenges. This isn’t to say magical thinking has no downside. At its worst, it can lead to obsession, fatalism or psychosis. But without it, the existential angst of realizing we’re just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us.

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Even spotting false patterns could have psychological benefits if it restores a person’s sense of control, increases their confidence or even reduces their risk of depression. Scientists fond of truth and fact, would typically argue that it’s better to get an accurate picture of the world around you. Whitson and Galinsky agree but they also take a pragmatic stance, saying that “it may be at times adaptive [to allow] an individual to psychologically engage with rather than withdraw from their environment.” Of course, there are instances when making false connections can be downright damaging, especially if they’re used as the basis of bad, or even fatal, decisions. Imagined pharmaceutical conspiracies or implications drawn about medicines from one-off anecdotes could drive people to embrace fruitless or potentially dangerous forms of alternative treatment. People can avoid taking responsibility for, or psychologically coping with, events in their lives if they ascribe them to higher powers or sinister agencies. And seeing too much meaning in the actions of others could lead to paranoia and severed social ties.

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Superstitions as Nocebo effect:

A nocebo (Latin for “I will harm”) is something that should be ineffective but which causes symptoms of ill health. Nocebo is a harmless substance that when taken by a patient is associated with harmful effects due to negative expectations or the psychological condition of the patient. A nocebo effect is an ill effect caused by the suggestion or belief that something is harmful. More than two-thirds of 34 college students developed headaches when told that a non-existent electrical current passing through their heads could produce a headache. In the Framingham Heart Study, women who believed they are prone to heart disease were nearly four times as likely to die as women with similar risk factors who didn’t believe.  C. K. Meador claimed that people who believe in voodoo may actually get sick and die because of their belief.

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Superstition is not a mere “false” link between cause and effect. If it were, many health fads would be superstition. But they are not; they are merely unsubstantiated or poorly substantiated claims. Superstition is the belief that the connections between events are occult (hidden) and that bad event can be caused or prevented by understanding and working with these hidden causes. For example, here’s a superstition: its seven years’ bad luck to break a mirror. Why? The true reason that breaking a mirror was anciently considered bad luck is that one’s reflection was thought to be an image of one’s soul, one’s life. So the shattered image was an omen of death. What makes a belief a superstition is not that the supposed connections between events may be false but that they are occult. They are not normal connections in any event. Is the belief false? That’s difficult to say because, while it is false for the person who disregards it, it might be true for the person who believes it. That is, if you break a mirror, nothing happens, of course. But the person who honestly believes, she will become very ill and could trigger the flare-up of a chronic illness. That’s called a nocebo effect. The difficulty then is that the person who believes in superstitions and occult causes may see genuine confirmation of her belief. So one will not get very far in discussing the matter with her by simply informing her that her belief about the broken mirror is false. It might be wiser to help her see that the power that she attributes to the image in the mirror actually resides in her own mind. It is quite real, but it is not what she thinks and she has power over it.

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Superstitions as Placebo effect:

Placebo is an inactive substance or other sham form of therapy administered to a patient usually to compare its effects with those of a real drug or treatment, but sometimes for the psychological benefit to the patient through his believing he is receiving treatment. It’s worth talking briefly about placebos here because superstitions can be thought of as placebos. This is especially the case when an object is imbued with properties to heal or give you luck. When you take a placebo painkiller, your brain can respond by releasing endorphins which actually relieve pain. Having a reaction to a placebo is commonly referred to as the placebo effect, something everyone has heard of. Like superstitions, the placebo effect can generate a subjective outcome. If you believe in an outcome, when it happens you’ll connect that to what you did before (wore a good luck charm or took a fake pill). In some ways the difference between a placebo and a superstition is tiny. For instance, people’s insistence that Vitamin C and Echinacea prevent colds, despite no scientific evidence existing for either.

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Foxman says there is a positive placebo effect — if you think something will help you, it may do just that. “There is a tremendous amount of power in belief,” he says. If the outcome is a matter of pure luck, beliefs don’t really have any impact, however, when your performance is a key factor in an outcome, superstitious thinking might give you an extra boost. “There can be a real psychological effect of superstitious thoughts,” says Vyse. If you’ve done well before when you had a particular shirt on, for example, it might prove wise to wear the shirt again, if it helps to relieve anxiety and promotes positive thoughts. But this way of thinking can also hinder your performance, if say; you lose your lucky object.

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Benefits of superstitions:

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We are often in situations in life where something really important is about to happen, we’ve prepared for it as best we can, but it’s still uncertain; it’s still unclear. No matter how confident or prepared you are for an event — whether it’s a football game, a wedding, or a presentation — things can still happen beyond your control. Superstitions provide people with the sense that they’ve done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for. A sense of security and confidence are perhaps the greatest benefits we get emotionally from superstitious thinking or behavior — like carrying an object or wearing an item of clothing that you deem to be lucky. Even when superstitious beliefs and rituals don’t directly influence events or outcomes, they actually do have a causal role in at least one important area of our lives; growing evidence shows that they may reduce our stress, and thus have a real (i.e., causal) relationship to our well-being. Health, of course, is another domain, like politics and sports, in which the stakes are high, outcomes uncertain, and a sense of personal control hard to come by, and stress is increasingly being understood as a central factor in health and illness. The search for explanations and causes has a stress-regulatory function even when those causes are far-fetched. APS Fellow and Charter Member Shelley Taylor showed that breast cancer patients’ search for theories about the causes of their illness, and the illusions of control those theories fostered (however accurate or inaccurate), had a favorable influence on their adjustment. As such, she argued that positive self-deception is a worthy goal of therapy (Taylor, 1983; Taylor & Brown, 1988). Also a reasoned, realistic, unsuperstitious view of the self and the world doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness; if anything, the opposite may be closer to the truth. Superstitious thinking is fostered by positive affect (King et al., 2007); and depression, conversely, can be described as “a loss of positive illusions”.

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Harmful repercussions and consequences of superstitions:

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Superstitious thinking about the way the world works undoubtedly has harmful repercussions. Failing to critically examine superstitious feelings about the contagious qualities of misfortune, for example, can serve to further alienate sufferers from disease and members of stigmatized groups whose conditions cannot be transmitted through contact. Rozin and Nemeroff speculate that fear of AIDS contributed to a decline in people’s willingness to donate blood, due to “backwards” contagion (Rozin & Nemeroff, 1990). It’s no coincidence (and certainly no synchronicity) that the mind that harbors such irrational fears is also the home of our most harmful racial, class, and gender prejudices.

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The disadvantage of superstition is emotional inhibition derived from the superior influence of leaders and elders. This emotional inhibition is generally a fear created by religious or superstitious concepts that are imposed upon the innocent mind of children. It is the ultimate fear of damnation and persecution for failure to gullibly accept the fascist dictates of the parental cult. There is the fear of ruthless reprisals for marriage or relations outside of the rules of the respective cult.

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According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of Friday the 13’th making it the most feared day and date in history. Some people are so paralyzed by fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed. It’s been estimated that $800 to $900 million is lost in business on this day.

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Superstitious beliefs can lower house prices, cause deaths in traffic accidents, increase abortion rates, increase the incidence of heart disease and even influence hospitals to waste millions of funding on unnecessary patient care. There are no houses numbered 13 in Paris. For decades the Savoy Hotel in London didn’t allow parties of 13 to dine at the hotel and went so far as have a member of staff make up the numbers. Superstition can cause us to take a great deal of trouble. In Italy, the national lottery omits the number 13. National and international airlines skip the 13th row of seats on planes. In America, modern skyscrapers, condominiums, co-ops, and apartment buildings label the floor that follows 12 as 14.

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What we believe can determine when – and even how – we die. An article in the British Medical Journal by sociologist David Phillips found a link between superstition and the precise moment of death. In Chinese Mandarin the words for ‘death’ and ‘four’ are very similar. So the number four is considered highly unlucky (as it is in Japanese culture). Many hospitals do not have a ‘fourth’ floor and many Japanese will not travel on the fourth day of the month. Chinese and Japanese inpatients may be more reluctant to be discharged on the fourth day of the month – meaning hospitals spend millions delaying discharge dates. And it seems that fear of the dreaded four can itself be fatal. Phillips wondered whether the stress of the fourth day of a month could induce heart attack. After surveying the records of over 47 million Americans who died between 1973 and 1998, and identifying those that occurred on the fourth day of the month, they found that on that day 13% more American Chinese and Japanese died from ‘chronic heart deaths’ than white Americans (who had much higher rates of cardiac death overall). So it seems people can be killed by fear and expectation to such an extent that they expire on an exact date.

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The ‘year of the fire horse’ comes around every 60 years according to the ancient Sino-Japanese almanac. The fire horse year symbolizes bad luck. Legend has it that females born in this year are especially prone to bad fortune. The last fire horse year was 1966, which saw a staggering drop in the annual female birth rate of 25% across the whole of Japan. There was also an increase of more than 20,000 induced abortions. Even more frightening is that newborn child mortality rates for girls (but not boys) rose significantly. Japanese researcher Kanae Kaku and his team based in Kyoto University concluded that it was possible that Japanese girls were being ‘sacrificed to a folk superstition’ during the year of the fire horse.

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Opposition to superstition:

Opposition to superstition was a central concern of the intellectuals during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. The philosophers at that time ridiculed any belief in miracles, revelation, magic, or the supernatural, as “superstition,” and typically included as well much of Christian doctrine. Nowadays we have so called rationalist associations in various nations which actively campaign against superstitions.

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Popularizing science and fighting superstition:

One of the most effective way to fight superstition is to popularize science by media, taking help of scientists. This principally involves efforts in two directions: the first is to make scientific ideas accessible to a layperson, and the second is to develop a scientific attitude in them. Superstitious beliefs are easy to define within the scientific framework. Any idea or theory that cannot be tested using the scientific methods is superstition.

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Tips to avoid superstitious behavior:

1. Don’t believe in bad luck and take some ownership over what control you do have in situations. Sometimes we use bad luck to let ourselves off the hook, but we should instead focus on what we can do to avoid difficult situations in the first place.

2. Be decisive and proactive. People who are less decisive believe in superstition more, and those who are proactive are less superstitious.

3. Don’t be in a situation where you have to rely on bad luck. Bad luck would never occur if only good things happened. If something bad happens and you call it bad luck, do it as a coping mechanism after the fact rather than before the event.

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Indian Media spreads superstitions:

Accusing Indian media of promoting superstitions and backward ideas to divert people’s attention from real issues, Press Council Chairman Justice Markandey Katju said that the media houses are often looked upon by their owners as the means of making money – hence the importance of TRP rating. In India, the recent tendencies show the media playing a reactionary role. Instead of promoting scientific thinking, it promotes superstitions and backward ideas and diverts attention from real issues which are socio-economic, to non-issues like lives of film stars, cricket, and astrology.  80% of Indians are suffering from poverty, unemployment, price rise, health issues, education, housing and evils such as honor killing, dowry deaths, farmer’s suicides, child malnutrition and female feticide. These problems can be resolved by scientific thinking which must be spread to every nook and corner of the country. He observed that scientific ideas can solve the problems of poverty, unemployment and lack of health-care faced by the country. He recommended that Indian media should emulate the path shown by European writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who had attacked feudal and backward ideas. The media and self-help industry is rife with extraordinary claims. Alien experimentation, psychic detectives, mediums, ESP, extreme therapies and miracle products are all examples of how pseudoscience and the paranormal have become prevalent, popular and even an extremely lucrative enterprise. The majority of these examples defy the basic laws of science, logic and common sense yet they appeal to a large number of people.

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Indian media and Godmen:

The Indian media has consistently maintained a love-hate relationship with the Godmen and has worked as per its needs and the TRPs. One of the most classic examples we witnessed recently was the explosive news coverage of Nirmal Baba, alias Nirmaljit Singh Narula. While it hasn’t been proved if the allegations against him are true, it was indeed ridiculous to watch the same news channels exposing the Baba, where his early morning discourses were being shown! It is quite clear that in the TRP dominated era, even the TV channels look out for stuff that can boost their earnings. Why can’t they just skip programs in which they don’t have any faith or belief or if they are suspicious of the motive of the people involved in them? After all, if they are telecasting a program, it is the responsibility of the TV channel, to ensure that the program is rational and is not done by a controversial or suspicious person. But then, why do they need to care if the morning 5.30-6.30 slot, earns them decent money. It seems it all boils down to revenue generation and a purely business relationship. The greatest tragedy of India is that its media is wedded to money making rather than spreading truth, science and hard work.

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Superstitions and law:
What is the relationship between the law [and lawyers] and superstition, in its most common sense such as black cats, mirrors, ladders, specific numbers, objects or persons which are supposed to bring bad [or, sometimes, good] luck? Some reasons of interest are both intrinsic and historical. The western legal tradition is based on logical propositions with a rational foundation, which clearly is in contrast with superstitious beliefs which are, in their essence, non-rational. There are therefore many reasons to suggest that law is completely removed from superstition, and the two notions appear to be incompatible one with another. A study points out that this is not altogether true: modern societies often use law and legislation in order to cast away evil social spells. Lawyers use scientific theories in a totally un-scientific and superstitious way. The judicial procedure is fraught with rituals and non-rational beliefs. At the same time superstition’s survival is due to the fact that it has its own very precise rules and may be reconstructed as a legal system of its own. Why should Mumbai high court say that astrology is a science? The only reason I can think is that judges themselves believe in astrology (my apologies to judges as no contempt of court intended).

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Psychological operations using superstition during war:

Superstition is a set of behaviors that are related to magical thinking, whereby the practitioner believes that the future, or the outcome of certain events, can be influenced by certain specified behaviors. Psychological Operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to specific foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce attitudes and behaviors favorable to the originator’s objectives. Psychological Operations can be effective psychological weapon when used against personnel in countries where superstition and a fear of the unknown are common. A strong superstition or a deeply-held belief shared by a substantial number of the enemy target audience can be used as a psychological weapon because it permits with some degree of probability the prediction of individual or group behavior under a given set of conditions. To use an enemy superstition as a starting point for psychological operations, however, one must be sure of the conditions and control the stimuli that trigger the desired behavior. We have read of witch doctors in Africa convincing insurgent warriors that amulets and prayers will turn government bullets into harmless water. We wonder how these adults can be so susceptible to obvious lies, but that is the power of superstition.

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The use of superstitions in psychological operations in war includes:

1. To devise guidelines for the exploitation of enemy vulnerabilities provided by superstitions and deeply-held traditional beliefs.

2. To be aware of and accommodate those superstitions of friendly forces and populations that may have a bearing on military operations.

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An undated WWII Office of Strategic Service Moral Operations report entitled “Superstitions and Black Magic” states in part in regard to Italy: Exploit local superstitions in Italy to arouse apprehensions about the future and to create defeatism and demoralization. Artificially produce omens predicting Nazi defeat, interpret various events as omens, and spread rumors about omens having taken place. Stir up old superstitions about strangers appearing in the land (Germans). Disseminate rumors that a sibyl or astrologer has predicted the streets of Italy will run in blood in three months’ time if the strangers (Germans) stay in the land…Suggest that Italian peasants are burning Hitler and Mussolini in effigy, or are sticking fires into little clay or cloth figures of Hitler or Mussolini.

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The Jean M. Hungerford U.S. Air Force Project Rand Research Memorandum dated 14 April 1950 and entitled The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare, mentions an alleged British campaign that used a monster to frighten Italian peasants in August 1945. The monster was created by British Army officer Jasper Maskelyne. He was a magician who is remembered for the accounts of his work for British military intelligence during the Second World War creating large-scale ruses, deception, and camouflage. The problem with the story is that it did not “ring true.”

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Despite the fact that Astrology has no scientific background, during WWII both the Allies and the Axis powers used astrologists to prepare fake charts showing that their side was assured victory and their enemy faced nothing but tragedy and defeat. The Germans also produced a 21-page propaganda booklet for occupied Belgium with their own interpretations of the prophecies of Nostradamus.

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Superstitions and marketing strategy:

Various studies showed that superstitious beliefs may cause consumers to make purchase decisions that seem to run counter to economic rationality, such as intending to purchase a product set with a lower but “lucky” (vs. greater but neutral) quantity in the package. The impact of superstition was also found to be reflected in differences in willingness to pay. That is, Taiwanese study participants were willing to spend over 50% more money for 25% fewer tennis balls because of their positive superstitious beliefs with the number 8 (v/s number 10). Further, a study showed that differential levels of performance expectations were the process underlying the effect of superstition on purchase likelihood. Additionally, researchers demonstrated for both purchase likelihood and satisfaction that previous findings were due to superstitious beliefs concerning lucky and unlucky numbers. Furthermore, researchers were able to find support for expectation disconfirmation sensitivity as a moderator of the impact of superstitious beliefs on product satisfaction. Interestingly, the extent to which satisfaction ratings for “lucky” products were lower than for neutral products was found to be independent of actual product performance. The current and the Argo et al. (2006) studies speak to the important implications for marketing managers of a systematic study of magical beliefs and superstitions. For example, they showed that managers are able to increase purchase likelihood by strategically managing the color of their products. Specifically, the color red is considered lucky in Chinese cultures, and on special occasions like weddings, red is the color of the ritual garments. Furthermore, lucky numbers, such as those associated with package size, are likely to be appreciated by consumers. Their results suggest that marketers may be able to strategically manage purchase likelihood through consumers’ performance expectations with relatively easy-to implement attribute changes in product price or color. Managers will be especially interested in the finding that superstitions may increase consumers’ purchase likelihood for items offered at higher, lucky, prices. In fact, researchers show that purchase likelihood increases despite a reduction in product set size, which is especially encouraging for managers. Thus, in general, featuring lucky colors or numbers may reduce consumer uncertainty associated with the purchase decision, increase purchase likelihood, and provide companies with a competitive advantage.

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Exploiting superstitions to make money:

All around the world, unscrupulous individuals are all too happy to cash in on weak-minded, gullible or otherwise vulnerable people. They include fortune-tellers, feng shui practitioners, soothsayers, witchdoctors, astrologers, exorcists, Shaman priests, spiritual healers and holistic medicine sellers. They all prey on people with more money than sense – the type of people that would rather believe the words of convincing con-merchants than those of the scientific community. These ruthless, heartless swindlers are raking in countless millions every year by exploiting people’s irrational superstitions. They must be outlawed because the people who hand their cash over to them clearly need protecting from themselves. I agree that there is a fine line between superstitious beliefs and religious beliefs – a very fine line indeed. And, true, who is to say that a belief in Christianity is any more legitimate than a belief in astrology or voodoo magic? The reality is that certain religions are recognized by the state so that, in the United States for example, a Christian preacher doesn’t pay income tax on sales of bibles whereas a Shaman priest flogging voodoo dolls or a gypsy peddling lucky heather does. So certain religions do occupy constitutionally privileged positions in many countries and there’s not much that can be done about that. Nonetheless, it is government’s prime responsibility to protect its citizens, from enemies abroad and also enemies within, whether they are corrupt officials or grasping spirit world mediums who prey on bereaved relatives hoping to make a profit out of their grief.

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Science and superstitions:

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Although we live in the scientific age, most people are still somewhat superstitious. Otherwise, there would not be such an interest in daily horoscopes and psychic readings. When we distinguish between science and superstition, we must be careful because the science of era may be the superstition of another. For example, alchemy was once regarded as a science but is today seen by chemistry as superstition, and astrology was once viewed as means of obtaining knowledge but is now regarded by astronomy as superstition.

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What are some examples of superstitious beliefs with scientific explanation?

Don’t cut your fingernails at night not to avoid bad luck, but because you may injure the finger when it is dark. Farmers will tell you that if cattle in the field are on their chest (lying down) there will be rain. Turns out cattle are sensitive to changes in barometric presume and are more often than not right about rain.

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Circumcision: Science or Superstition?

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the skin (prepuce) that normally covers and protects the glans (head) of the penis. All Prophets of Abrahmic religion were circumcised. Abrahamic faiths believe that it is God’s covenant to circumcise a male child. If the child had no Baptism/Bris/Sunnat, something negative would happen to the boy or the child will not be “saved.”  American Pediatric Association has not yet endorsed routine circumcision as beneficial to a male child. Further, there is no major medical issue noted for half billion uncircumcised Hindus around the World. To have foreskin on the penis is not a birth defect to be surgically corrected, rather the foreskin has abundant nerve endings designed to increase sexual sensation. However, circumcision does have some medical benefits:
1. Circumcised reduces the risk of penile cancer. Penile cancer is highest in India and Brazil where circumcision is not practiced.
2. Recent report also shows that it reduces the risk of HIV.
3. The most important reason is hygiene factor. Circumcision means that the penis is dry, otherwise it remain wet and unclean.

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The scientific truth is that prepuce is not appendix and prepuce has definite role in protecting glans, lubricating glans, help in penetration, reduce friction in intercourse, allowing natural physiological intercourse, enhance pleasure during intercourse and maintaining sensitivity of glans surface. Every man must retract prepuce over glans daily at the time of bathing and clean prepuce under-surface with water to remove smegma and other secretions. It is the unhygienic care of prepuce that is responsible for HIV transmission rather than the mechanics of prepuce.

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Here’s an example of a superstition. A black cat crosses the road while Joe is driving down the street. Joe crashes soon after and blames the cat. To verify the bad-luck qualities of the cat, Joe sets out to drive again, but friends run a black cat across the street to see if Joe crashes again. Joe does not crash. In other words, superstitions are not repeatable or testable. Scientific beliefs are repeatable and testable. Simply, you are told not to mix household cleaning agents, but you do, and you pass out. After recovering, and you repeat the process and you pass out again. The danger of mixing household cleaning agents is based on repeatable scientific experiments. When you believe such things you hold a scientific belief. In science, the present “fact” is for now the best explanation, until a repeatable experiment proves different. With superstitions, the beliefs hold forever and forever with no need to prove it. Science relies on repeatable, verifiable results from experiments in order to consider it valid. Superstition relies on a weakness in a believer.

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The way humans believe cannot be clearly divided onto two categories, same way it is at times hard to differentiate between scientific belief and superstition. Superstition is a way of thinking where an individual is convinced that taboo behaviour kind of forces bad things to happen at times. It is hard to say that any individual is entirely free of any superstition at all. The only way to tell if you are superstitious or not are to change your rituals like put your socks and shoes in different order or change the order of your morning ritual and see what will happen. You will see that there is some feeling inside you that not doing things in the proper order will lead to something bad happening or will make you uncomfortable. For example when you experiences bad luck after a black cat crosses your path; and then every time a black cat crosses your path you might try to ignore it but deep inside you subconsciously feel that something bad will happen. Hence superstition is reinforced by repeated experiences. Scientific belief is based on theories or knowledge which has been repeatedly tested out. Superstition hits once and misses many times while science hits many times but never misses, while repeatedly experimenting. However it is difficult to know that not everything we do or believe has been scientifically analyzed and tested. It would be too crazy for us to need scientific backing in every step we take. We need to be more reasonable about the way we approach things. Sometimes it is shocking to learn that what we thought to be a well-known scientific belief is actually an urban legend. The bottom line is that while superstition and scientific belief are different in many ways, they also share few things in common. A superstitious person sees the world in and operates in the world according to the limits of his own world view while a scientist would approach certain questions and explore them because investing their time on this exploring would help advance a certain world view. Both individuals would operate according to a set of assumptions (true or false) all based on what is going on in their heads. Both would assume their assumptions or experiment is more important. The best way to function is to willingly question everything around us and not be too surprised when our own theory or belief is debunked.

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Scientific method:

The scientific method begins with a concept & observation which leads to hypothesis, which leads to experimentation, which leads to theory. This is usually as far as it takes us, but theories which hold up fairly well are often referred to as “facts” while they are actually still only theories. If all works well, theory leads to more experimentation and observation and deduction, which leads to more of the same and (hopefully) eventually to knowledge of fact. So, ideally, the scientific method leads us from observation to knowledge of fact. Basically science can destroy superstition thanks to Scientific Method. Scientific method is the rulebook for science. If you said ‘Ghosts are scientifically provable’ you would need to write a scientific report with details of your experiments and your measurable, repeatable evidence to support your claim of ghosts. Then other scientists can read and test your report and the entire scientific community can check your claims. They would use ‘scientific method’ to see if your report is right or not. Superstitious belief, by definition, has no scientific basis. Science requires that ideas are tested in a way that is repeatable and falsifiable. Falsifiable means that there must be a way that the test shows that a stated belief is not true, while most superstitions rely on metaphysical entities or powers that are so vague they cannot be disproven. The difference between science and superstition beliefs is the science tells true information that has a basis which is testing it through experiments. While, superstition beliefs just tells a hypothesis (intelligent guess) or sometimes is just predicted by sorcerers that they read through their demonic ways including the sorcerer telling a man’s specific fortune.

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Superstitions about science:

Increased standards of living throughout the world are on the cards. Although the scientific and technological revolutions of the past have brought us close to the eradication of hunger, technologies such as genetically modified crops have already seen the development of pest-resistant crops, and species of plant able to survive in some of the harshest environments on the planet. The apparently looming energy crisis, for example, might be solved quite readily by a greater investment in nuclear power, which for its proponents is “a source of safe, clean energy with good prospects to meet our expanding needs”. And this is not to mention the newer developments, such as the prospects for nuclear fusion, and other, even more experimental methods of energy production which are already beginning to move from the realm of science fiction to the sphere of social reality. However, there is strong opposition to nuclear power using pseudo-scientific logic which is a mere superstition. Stem cell research and its application has made many incurable disease curable but stem cell research is blamed as immoral, unethical and destruction of human lives. Of course, scientific discoveries have always raised controversy, and the social changes such discoveries have engendered have always been as likely to throw-up opponents as supporters. But those who oppose science today are very different from the kinds of groups and individuals who objected to scientific developments in the past. It is the superstition under disguise of religion that opposes GMO and stem cell research using pseudo-scientific arguments. It may seem paradoxical, then, in a period when science promises so many great and exciting contributions to humanity’s future, that we are at the same time beset by a fear, uncertainty, and at times an outright antipathy, towards science; that we are distrustful of the promises science makes, and fearful of the risks it throws up and of the consequences of scientific intervention in the world around us. One explanation for our contemporary insecurity and risk aversion that has gained popularity over the past couple of decades is that if we are more risk averse; it is because the risks which science itself creates are greater than the risks humanity once faced. If we are more insecure about the changes science proposes, it is because those changes are experienced to be of a greater magnitude, and occurring at a far greater rate, than ever before in human history, so it is claimed. In reality the risks of the present are not greater than those of the past, nor are the pace of change faster. What is novel about the present, however, is that they are often experienced as such, and for this reason, our experience is unsettling. A second novelty is that our capacity to intervene in the world is far greater today that it has ever been. What this suggests, ultimately, is that it is our own increased capacity to intervene in the world and to manipulate it in the service of our interests which is experienced as unsettling. At the same time that science gives us a far greater capacity to control consciously the natural, social and biological world; we are unsettled and alienated from this very possibility. It is inside this paradoxical state of affairs that we can uncover the cause of contemporary society’s sense of uncertainty about science and the promises it makes.

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Science’s superstitions (scientific superstitions):

Occasionally, by linking cause and effect – often falsely – science is a simply dogmatic form of superstition. You have to find the tradeoff between being superstitious and being ignorant. By ignoring building evidence that contradicts their long-held ideas, quite a lot of scientists tend to be ignorant quite often. Critical to maintaining the credibility of modern science is a whole series of dogmas that are believed-in quasi-religiously by our scientists, contrary to the empirical and theoretical evidence. The notion that the ecosphere and everything in it is the product of pure chance is critical to the paradigm of reductionist science. Mutations are random in relation to evolution. Their effects are not related to the needs of the organism, or to the condition in which it is placed. They occur without reference to their biological uses. However, recent studies have contradicted this view. Biologist John Cairns and his colleagues at Harvard University have conducted studies that suggest that mutations are not random; but are on the contrary, highly adaptive. Cairns’s studies were, at first, dismissed by the scientific establishment; however, Barry Hall of Rochester University has now come up with similar results. He has found that certain mutations in bacteria occur more often when they are useful to the bacteria, than when they are not. Cairns refers to such mutations as “directed mutations” while Hall refers to them as “Cairnsian mutations” – in honor of their original discoverer. It was also thought for a long time that the genome was a random arrangement (‘bean-bag’) of chromosomes and genes. It is now generally realized that it is on the contrary highly organized. Complexity is also amazingly enough still seen by modern ecologists as random complexity, a complex ecosystem being made up of a large number of living things without any consideration for whether they contribute to, or, on the contrary, impair the integrity or stability of the ecosystem as a whole. Thus the introduction of alien pests, like the rabbit into Australia, and the Dutch Elm bark beetle into Europe, are naively seen as increasing the complexity of Australian and European ecosystems respectively. Indeed, more and more processes which originally appeared or still appear to be random, are found, or, I am sure, soon will be found upon closer examination, to be highly functional and indeed purposive. In the case of evolution, one does not need experimental “evidence” for rejecting the idea that it is based on random mutations. We know today that single gene mutations can only determine extremely superficial changes. Significant changes can only be brought about by changes occurring to a whole constellation of associated genes (polygeny). This means that for a “functional unit to make an adapted change” as Rupert Riedl notes, “requires not just one happy accident, but an accumulation of happy accidents.”  Even Francis Crick, who earned the Nobel Prize together with James Watson for having worked out the genetic code, realizes that the 3,000 million years since life began on our planet is far too short a period for the living world to have evolved by the process of selection from random mutations. The insistence by mainstream scientists to maintain the principle of the randomness of life processes in the face of all the evidence (both empirical and theoretical) to the contrary; provides an excellent illustration that scientific propositions are not accepted, not because they cannot be verified or falsified empirically, but because they are inconsistent with the paradigm of reductionist science and the world view of modernism which it so faithfully reflects. After all, the evidence for the goal-directedness or purposefulness of life processes at every level of organization within the hierarchy of the ecosphere is so great that its denial to normal people seems quite inconceivable. Thus it seems absurd to deny that the evolution of gills and fins by fish is purposeful to breathing and moving about in their aquatic environment, or that the development of mammary glands by the females of all species of mammals is purposeful to feeding their babies or that the human milk provided in this way is designed to satisfy the nutritional needs of their young in the first one or two years of their lives.

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The French scientist Claude Bernard, widely considered the Father of Physiology, recommended that researchers treat all theories with skepticism. Bernard is not saying that scientists should be extreme skeptics. Nor is he saying that theories are mere guesses. What he is saying is that theories are attempts to connect the factual dots within a logically consistent model. Theories can help lead us to new discoveries. But we must not let them blind us to facts that don’t fit the model. We must trust our observations or our theories only after experimental verification. If we trust too much, the mind becomes bound and cramped by the results of its own reasoning; it no longer has freedom of action, and so lacks the power to break away from that blind faith in theories which is only scientific superstition. It has often been said that, to make discoveries, one must be ignorant. This opinion, mistaken in itself, nevertheless conceals a truth. It means that it is better to know nothing than to keep in mind fixed ideas based on theories whose confirmation we constantly seek, neglecting meanwhile everything that fails to agree with them. Nothing could be worse than this state of mind; it is the very opposite of inventiveness. In scientific education, it is very important to differentiate between determinism which is the absolute principle of science, and theories which are only relative principles to which we should assign but temporary value in the search for truth. In short, we must not teach theories as dogmas or articles of faith. By exaggerated belief in theories, we often give a false idea of science; we often overload and enslave the mind, by taking away its freedom, smothering its originality and infecting it with the taste for systems. Finally, he points out that not only religious beliefs, but scientific beliefs, can obstruct the search for truth: To sum up, two things must be considered in experimental science: method and idea. The object of method is to direct the idea which arises in the interpretation of natural phenomena and in the search for truth. The idea must always remain independent, and we must no more chain it with scientific beliefs than with philosophic or religious beliefs; we must be bold and free in setting forth our ideas, must follow our feeling, and must on no account linger too long in childish fear of contradicting theories…

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Scientific superstition in medical science:

Medical science is in a total mess since it began riding piggyback on the natural sciences since the 12th Century AD. It is still deep into the conventional laws of deterministic predictability in a dynamic human system that does not follow these rules even for a second. We have been therefore, predicting the unpredictable future of the hapless patients and making life miserable for them. The IOM report in the US has shown that doctors and hospitals are the third important cause of death and the Adverse Drug Reactions (ADR) as the fourth cause!Another European study of five countries showed that where there are more doctors there is less health and vice versa. Recent doctors’ strike in Israel brought the death and disability rates remarkably down during the strike period only to return to their original levels after the doctors withdrew the strike and went back to work. There are several ways in which medical science is infected with scientific superstitions as narrated below:

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1. Risk factor hypothesis:

This has been the biggest myth in medicine. Consider the sites designated to clean up hazardous waste. Calculated risk of someone’s chance of getting cancer from those sites is 1 in 10,000 or more. The risk is so small that it would take a study of at least 500 million people (twice the US population) to prove such a small risk. One can never be proved right or wrong in this situation. Biological plausibility is the only certainty in this area. However, one of the greatest worries for the lay people (who can read these health magazines) is this silly risk factor hypothesis, a superstition indeed.

2. Statistical significance:

P-value indicates the probability that the statistical association is a stroke of luck. The smaller the p-value the better. If it is below 0.05, there is a less than 5% chance of your association being a stroke of luck. 95% chance that it is true! 95% confidence interval. However, if it is above 0.05 also, one could manage to fix it for showing better results. There are methods to do that also.

3. Controlled studies:

Claimed to be the last best thing to have happened to medical research, the controlled studies have been the biggest superstition of all times. We compare two cohorts of humans matched for body mass index and a few known phenotypic characters. The cohorts are therefore supposed to be identical. Human being is not just the phenotype only. Whole man is genotype, phenotype and plenty of unknown biological variables. Unless one gets the total picture, time evolution can never be predicted. The latter does not depend on partial knowledge of the initial state of the organism, but on the whole knowledge. Under such circumstances, controlled studies have no meaning at all. To cap it, time evolution might not keep pace with the minor changes made to the initial state of the organism, as time evolves. This is the main reason why most, if not all drugs, in the long run have done more damage than good to patients, emerging as the fourth important cause of death in the US.

4. Blind extrapolation:

Extrapolating controlled study data to patients is another superstition. There are no controlled studies of many drugs used in combination, but in reality patients get many tablets together. Controlled studies have been done for short periods of time-rarely up to five years, but patients take drugs for decades. Worse still is extrapolating animal studies to humans. Although we have burnt our fingers many a time in the past, these superstitions continue unabated.

5. Faith in Drug Company sponsored research:

Marcia Angell, the former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine in her celebrated book ‘The Truth About Drug Companies’ exposed the dangerous scenario of the drug company fraud. Still better is the book ‘Health Myths Exposed’ by Shane Ellison. Despite the many glaring instances of fraud, drugs are still being marketed by companies under various garbs. Doctors are being bought over by these companies and the so called “thought leaders” on the company pay role are the real culprits in making the gullible public and the medical profession to believe in their wisdom to pontificate.

6. Research Fraud:

Disease clusters and Texas sharpshooters, data dredging, mix-master technique, otherwise called meta-analysis, baked biological plausibility, picking the right animal species to show positive results, maximizing the dose, in addition to the final doctoring and sexing up data are all used regularly in medical research. Peer review is another one of those untested methods to authenticate one’s research data. Can peer reviewing be fool proof? Many of the reputed journals also have editorial policies that might assist in these processes. To cite one example, many a time any original study is accompanied by an editorial by a guest editor. Most, if not all, of these breed of wise people are on the pay role of the Drug Company that has funded the research in the first place! The new avatar of drug trials in the developing countries is another great fraud on the gullible public. These CROs (contract research organization) are only brokers to get drugs studied in the developing countries to make huge profits for themselves. They entice doctors in those countries with relatively comfortable perks compared to their earning capacity in their positions otherwise. One could only imagine the results in this setting. Of course, the trial results are the property of the sponsoring company and are published by them.

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Does atheism make people superstitious?

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science? The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did. That’s roughly a four-fold increase in belief in ghosts and astrology, and a doubling of belief in tarot. Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead. This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener,” skeptic and science writer Martin Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely. Surprisingly, while increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn’t. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that, while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students. We can’t even count on self-described atheists to be strict rationalists. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s monumental “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey”, 21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a personal God or an impersonal force. Ten percent of atheists pray at least weekly and 12% believe in heaven. Anti-religionists such as Mr. Maher bring to mind the assertion of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown character that all atheists, secularists, humanists and rationalists are susceptible to superstition. Of course, religious people will say that it’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can’t see things as they are. On the other hand, many religious beliefs themselves are mere superstitions. So how do you resolve the paradox? I will resolve it soon. Continue reading.

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Psychology of superstitions:

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Confirmatory bias and Superstitions:

The confirmation bias is the “mother of all biases,” and it serves to filter incoming information so as to accept all that supports our beliefs and rejects all that disconfirms our belief. The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other. Quite a lot of people report “psychic” or “paranormal” experiences based upon quirky and unusual coincidences that they cannot otherwise explain. Even more interesting is the fact that the unusual coincidences occur far more often than we realize (vide infra).

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Magical thinking and superstitions:

“Magical thinking” (as it has been called) is defined as the belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome. In other words, stepping on a crack cannot, given what we know about the principles of causal relations, have any direct effect on the probability of your mother breaking her back. Those who live in fear of such a tragedy are engaging in magical thought and behaving irrationally. Magical thinking is causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion, and superstition, the correlation posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice, or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities.

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Magical thinking sees connections between the different parts of reality that go beyond what can be empirically determined. These connections are believed to have a ‘power’ which can be manipulated, if you know what to do. Such thinking was pervasive in ancient times. So early cave painters sought to capture the spirit of their intended prey by painting, and thereby ‘capturing’ their ‘spirit’. This meant that actually finding and killing the prey thus became a formality, as the animal spirit had already been captured. Magical thinking pervades modern life too. Gamblers have their ‘lucky numbers’ and lottery regulars may have complicated and ritualistic ‘systems’ using birthdates and the like in a bid to control the outcome of the draw. It seems that magical thinking helps us feel more secure in an unpredictable world and therefore it is no surprise that people behave more superstitiously during heightened times of uncertainty or danger. The good news is that magical thinking, even as it misrepresents reality, has its advantages. It offers psychological benefits that logic and science can’t always provide: namely, a sense of control and a sense of meaning.  Consider one “law of magic” that people tend to put stock in: the idea that “luck is in your hands,” that you can affect your fate via superstitious rituals like knocking on wood or carrying a lucky charm. We often rely on such rituals when we are anxious or want to perform well, and though they may not directly have their intended magical effects, these rituals produce an illusion of control and enhance self-confidence, which in turn can improve our performance and thus indirectly affect our fate.

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De Craen et al. (1996) investigated magical thinking in different cultures. Six studies published in the British Medical Journal were reviewed, which reported European and American magical thinking beliefs about the suitability and effectiveness of different colored medical pills. Red, orange and yellow pills were seen as possessing stimulant qualities, while blue and green tablets were perceived as containing sedative properties. Red pills were specifically seen as incurring cardiovascular effects, as red is the color of blood, while orange pills affected the skin. It was concluded that there is a cross-cultural element to magical thinking and that colors are perceived as having symbolic associative effects upon different body areas.

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Superstition by chance:

Ever thought about someone 5 minutes before you learn of their death? In a country the size of USA, 3000 people would experience this by chance alone every year.  So… what seems to be a paranormal event can be explained by chance of coincidence. Believers are more likely to see dreams as predictive. This is based on experiences of a dream event and its future occurrence. This is not as unlikely as people assume. This shows poor estimation of probabilities leads to paranormal beliefs.

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In a review of Debunked; Physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton invoked “Littlewood’s Law of Miracles” (John Littlewood was a University of Cambridge mathematician) which states: “In the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month.” Dyson explains that “during the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.”

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A principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. … In the case of death premonitions, suppose that you know of 10 people a year who die and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the 10 people, a probability of one out of 10,512–certainly an improbable event. Yet there are 295 million Americans. Assume, for the sake of our calculation that they think like you. That makes 1/10,512 X 295,000,000 = 28,063 people a year, or 77 people a day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable. With the well-known cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias firmly in force, if just a couple of these people recount their miraculous tales in a public forum (next on Oprah!), the paranormal seems vindicated. In fact, they are merely demonstrating the laws of probability writ large.

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Superstitions and luck (discussed vide supra):

The persistence of secret beliefs in the mind’s influence over reality is particularly apparent when it comes to questions of luck. Going around casting spells or sticking pins into dolls will make people look at you funny, but no one bats an eye when someone knocks on wood after commenting on their own good fortune. The ancient dramatic principle, “When hubris rises, nemesis falls,” remains a widespread, deeply held intuition about fate; it’s one that may also be explained in terms of heuristics and biases. A negative outcome following a fate-tempting action will be anticipated by people as especially negative, due to the added embarrassment or regret of having knowingly harmed their prospects, as well as from having gone out on a limb by flaunting a well-known societal norm. They hypothesize that such an outcome becomes more cognitively accessible than its more positive alternative due to the tendency for people’s attention to be drawn disproportionally to negative stimuli (a tendency especially found in younger people). And since ease of thinking about something biases us toward seeing that thing as likely — what Tversky and Kahneman (1973) called the availability heuristic — the negative outcome seems disproportionally probable.  People’s beliefs about tempting fate are due to their tendency to accentuate the negative coupled with their tendency to believe in the likelihood of what they can readily imagine.

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A total of 4,000 people were asked if they considered themselves lucky or unlucky, and whether they engaged in any superstitious behavior. The survey found that “lucky” people tended to believe in superstitions designed to bring good luck, such as touching wood, crossing fingers and carrying a lucky charm. “Unlucky” people were drawn to bad luck superstitions, such as breaking a mirror, walking under a ladder, or having anything to do with the number 13. If you’re one of these people, the fact that it’s Friday the 13th could make you anxious and that will make you more likely to have accidents, drive less well, and perhaps find it harder to relate to other people. People who see themselves as unlucky should stay indoors on Friday the 13th, according to this study. More controversially, researcher believes some people actually want to be unlucky because it helps them to avoid taking responsibility for their own failings. It’s a way of copping out. The results support the notion that people make their own luck – lucky people carry out behaviors that make them feel good, whereas unlucky people’s superstition cause them to expect the worst.

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A superstitious belief could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to a British Medical Journal article, Friday the 13th has higher accident rates and higher hospital admissions reflecting that relatively more risk-taking drivers were on the street, despite substantially fewer cars travelling on the presumably dangerous Friday the 13th. The same researchers found that on Friday 13th hospital admissions for traffic related accidents rose by around 52 %. Yet more research in Finland looked at the incidence of deaths over 324 Friday 13ths, with a control of 1339 ‘normal Fridays’. They found that 5% more men died on the fateful days while massive 38% more women died! They too put it down to anxious driving causing accidents and declared that ‘superstition kills’. But it appears that superstition can also even lead to increased rates of abortion.

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So Friday the 13’th works both ways. People who believe in this superstition but compelled to drive due to circumstances will be anxious and drive less well on roads resulting in accidents; and on the other hand, people who do not believe in this superstition would be kind of more risk taking drivers who are more prone to accidents. Either way, more accidents is a positive reinforcement of the belief.

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These superstitions are basically stories that tell us what to do and from what to avoid in order to get away from bad luck or how to be lucky and successful in life. It is a human nature to want things and to try to explain why something worked and why it didn’t worked. It is also a good way to blame others for your failures instead of taking responsibility for your actions in life. For example: it is well known that if you see a black cat it will bring you bad luck for a long time. Now the cat itself is not responsible for your life, only you are in charge of this. So if something will go wrong, the superstition put the blame on the cute cat. This is why it is very easy to believe in it, because it gives you the freedom from this responsibility. Furthermore every superstition have also a cure, for example after seeing that black cat in the street, if you spit three times then it supposed to protect you from this unlucky event.

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Superstitions and uncertainty (lack of control):

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Imagine a time in your life when you felt out of control—anything from getting lost to losing a job. Feelings of control are essential for our well-being—we think clearer and make better decisions when we feel we are in control. Control and security are vital parts of our psychological well-being and it goes without saying that losing them can feel depressing or scary. It protects a person from spotting false patterns that aren’t there, from believing in conspiracies and from developing superstitions. Lacking control is highly aversive, so we instinctively seek out patterns to regain control—even if those patterns are illusory. Researchers found that when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptually. Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception, is a finding of a study published in Science, illusory pattern perception  as the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli … (such as the tendency to perceive false correlations, see imaginary figures, form superstitious rituals, and embrace conspiracy beliefs, among others). Wanting more control or certainty is the driving force behind most superstitions. We tend to look for some kind of a rule, or an explanation for why things happen. Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty at all, and that is what much of the research suggests. We cannot control everything but one strategy is to identify coherent and meaningful relationships between things we observe. These patterns can help us to make sense of past events and predict future ones, affording us a degree of control over our fates, albeit an indirect one. We can’t change the weather, for example, but if we can tell when it’s going to rain, we can be prepared. At the more extreme end, conspiracy theories can help the bewildered to make sense of otherwise unconnected events. And explaining random events by invoking superstitions or higher beings can help to bring reality’s many possibilities within one’s understanding, if not under one’s heel.

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Stock market experiment:

Volunteers read statements about the financial performance of two companies after hearing that the stock market was either stable or volatile. Both companies had twice as many positive statements as negative ones, but company A had twice as many statements overall than company B. During a stable market, the information gap didn’t matter and volunteers were about just as likely to invest in either company. But if volatile conditions were afoot, a mere 25% minority decided to invest in company B and more likely to associate it with the negative information. With less control over the fate of their investments, they were more likely to make a false connection between company B and its negative statements, even though the pros actually outnumbered the cons for both companies. So the lack of control not only affects our perceptions, but our actions too. Such experiments show that the need to feel in control is so powerful that people will resort to psychological solutions that return the world into a predictable state – pulling patterns from noise and causality from randomness. Even though each individual study only looked at a small number of people, but the results strengthen each other through their consistency and the fact that they were all statistically significant.

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Constant worry makes people believe more in conspiracy theories and superstitions, a new research has found. Scientists reckon that people who lack control over their life have a bigger urge to impose order and structure on the world through rituals and conspiracy theories. The research finds that a quest for structure or understanding leads people to trick themselves into seeing and believing connections that simply don’t exist. Through a series of six experiments, the researchers showed that individuals who lacked control were more likely to see images that did not exist, perceive conspiracies, and develop superstitions.  The scientists believe that the findings show that people trick themselves into seeing or believing things that are not real because of a search for structure to their lives. People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static, and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order – even imaginary order. Superstition provides the illusion of increased control over one’s life. More articles on superstition appear in magazines and newspapers when a country is experiencing economic downturn and depression. Researchers also found that Israelis living in the areas ‘most prone to be attacked by missile’ during the first Gulf War in 1991 became much more superstitious than people living in areas less likely to be attacked. OCD is an anxiety driven psychological difficulty which causes people to concoct their own superstitious behaviors (such as compulsively washing). OCD also seems to flare up during higher than normal times of stress. The behavior tries to meet the need for safety, predictability and security – but of course it becomes a problem in itself.

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A universal truth about superstition is that superstitious behavior emerges as a result of uncertainty to circumstances that are inherently random or uncontrollable (Vyse, 1997, p. 201). Superstitious behavior often results in response to uncontrollable reinforcement (Ono, 1987; Rudski, Lischner, & Albert, 1999; Skinner, 1948; Wright, 1962). It’s also hypothesized that superstitions arise from our natural tendency to seek evidence of intentionality in the world. We want reasons for things, and we want those reasons to have an author (e.g., God, destiny, karma, the force). We hate randomness. Many religious beliefs come about from teleological reasoning along these lines.

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Psychology researchers have shown that superstitious behaviors and thought processes arise from the rapid, automatic judgments ordinary people routinely use to help navigate a highly uncertain world. Some are even at the heart of some of our most cherished beliefs about the self. High stakes are often compounded by unpredictability of outcome; in sports, outcomes are (almost by definition) unpredictable and subject to many variables outside an individual athlete’s control. Dutch psychologists Michaela Schippers (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) and APS Fellow Paul A.M. Van Lange (Free University, Amsterdam) have found that superstitious behavior in top athletes positively correlates with the importance of the game and negatively correlates with the degree of control an athlete feels (Schippers & Van Lange, 2005). Professional sporting competitions are not only notoriously high-stakes events, but are notoriously unpredictable. No matter how well an athlete performs the outcome of a game or match is never entirely under his or her control. In the face of this uncertainty, it is not surprising that professional athletes and spectators alike take part in often elaborate superstitious rituals to ward off bad luck and ensure victory. For example; Michael Jordan’s Shorts: Throughout his career, Jordan wore his UNC shorts beneath his Bulls uniform for good luck. Tiger Woods’ Red Shirts: Tiger wears only red shirts on Sundays, as his mother believes it is a lucky color for him.

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Death demolishes superstitions due to lack of control/uncertainty:

If there really is a connection between increased superstitiousness and increased levels of life uncertainty, we would expect to find that people living in dangerous circumstances are more prone to superstition but it is not so. Soldiers, police, doctors etc are kind of people who constantly encounter death in most uncertain way. For example: Soldiers can be killed at any time on battle field; police can be killed in combat with criminals or see murdered people; and doctor has given best treatment and expecting speedy recovery finds sudden death of a patient. But statistically such people are much less superstitious than ordinary people. Why? Because, in my view, death is the only certainty in a life full of uncertainty. So people who regularly encounter death or see death overcome the psychology of superstitions arising from uncertainty.

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Operant conditioning and superstitions:

Operant conditioning is the use of consistent consequences to mold a desired type of behavior. An emphasis on the environmental consequences of behavior is at the heart of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning typically occurs when an observable stimulus does not exist, the absence of such, produces a particular response in an organism in order to acquire something. This is non-reflexive behavior. In other words, a person or animal will interact with the environment in an effort to establish what it is that it needs to do in order to get its needs met. Superstitious behavior means actions linked to reinforcement by sheer coincidence. Superstitions are behaviors that are accidentally or coincidentally paired with the delivery of reinforcement (reward or punishment) and therefore are more or less frequent than they would otherwise be. Superstitious behavior develops when reinforcement or punishment accidentally follow an irrelevant behavior. You are then more or less likely to engage in that behavior depending if it was reinforced and punished!  Operant conditioning is when organisms associate their actions with consequences (good or bad). So, when somebody is rewarded or punished for a random set of actions, superstition is born. In other words, association between random events and reward/punishment occurring due to operant conditioning leads to superstitions. Perhaps the best way to combat superstitious behavior is to extinguish it. In other words, you must have the superstitious behavior occur without the positive/negative results over and over until the association is gone.

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Skinner’s pigeons: repeat behaviors as habit forming due to operant learning (superstitions as operant learning from random events):

We refer to something that we do without thinking as being a habit. This is precisely why habits are useful – they do not take up mental effort. Our brains have mechanisms for acquiring new routines, and part of what makes us, and other creatures successful is the ability to create these habits. Even pigeons can develop superstitious habits, as psychologist B. F. Skinner famously showed in an experiment. In 1948, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behavior.  Skinner would begin a lecture by placing a pigeon in a cage with an automatic feeder that delivered a food pellet every 15 seconds. At the start of the lecture Skinner would let the audience observe the ordinary, passive behavior of the pigeon, before covering the box. After fifty minutes he would uncover the box and show that different pigeons developed different behaviors. One pigeon was making turns in its cage; another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while another bird would be turning counter clockwise three times before looking in the food basket and another would be thrusting its head into the top left corner. In other words, all pigeons struck upon some particular ritual that they would do over and over again. Skinner’s explanation for this strange behavior is as straightforward as it is ingenious. Although we know the food is delivered regardless of the pigeon’s behavior, the pigeon doesn’t know this. Because these behaviors were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons’ actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. So imagine yourself in the position of the pigeon; your brain knows very little about the world of men, or cages, or automatic food dispensers. You strut around your cage for a while, you decide to turn counter clockwise three times, and right at that moment some food appears. What should you do to make that happen again? The obvious answer is that you should repeat what you have just been doing. You repeat that action and it works, food arrives. From this seed, argued Skinner, superstition develops.

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He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behavior in humans. His conception of the reinforcement schedule has been used to explain superstitious behavior in humans. Originally, in Skinner’s animal research, “some pigeons responded up to 10,000 times without reinforcement when they had originally been conditioned on an intermittent reinforcement basis.” Compared to the other reinforcement schedules (e.g., fixed ratio, fixed interval), these behaviors were also the most resistant to extinction. This is called the partial reinforcement effect, and this has been used to explain superstitious behavior in humans. To be more precise, this effect means that, whenever an individual performs an action expecting reinforcement, and none seems forthcoming, it actually creates a sense of persistence within the individual. This strongly parallels superstitious behavior in humans because the individual feels that, by continuing this action, reinforcement will happen; or that reinforcement has come at certain times in the past as a result of this action, although not all the time, but this may be one of those times. Superstitions take over behavior because our brains try and repeat whatever actions precede success, even if we cannot see how they have had their influence. Faced with the choice of figuring out how the world works and calculating the best outcome (which is the sensible rational thing to do), or repeating whatever you did last time before something good happened, we are far more likely to choose the latter.

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Note:

Stadden & Simmelhag – challenged Skinner’s view that superstition is accidental learning. They claim that when pigeons are observed in his experiment……..All pigeons were behaving the same when food first arrived. The rituals occurred at other times also. The rituals also occurred as often before food as it did afterwards. Therefore accidental reinforcement does not explain superstition.

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Dickinson’s rats:

University of Cambridge psychologist Tony Dickinson has taken the investigation of habits one step further. Dickinson trains rats to press a lever for food and perform another action (usually pulling a chain) for water. The animals can now decide which reward they would like most. If you give them water before the experiment they press the lever for food, if you give them food beforehand they pull the chain for water. But something strange happens if the animals keep practicing these actions beyond the point at which they have effectively learnt them – they seem to “forget” about the specific effects of each action. After this “overtraining”, you feed the animal food before the experiment and they keep on pressing the lever to produce food, regardless of the fact that they have just been fed. The rat has developed a habit, something it does just because it the opportunity is there, without thinking about the outcome.

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To a psychologist, lots of human rituals look a lot like the automatic behaviors developed by Skinner’s pigeons or Dickinson’s rats. Chunks of behavior that do not truly have an effect on the world, but which get stuck in our repertoire of actions. We cling to these habits because we – or ancient animal parts of our brains – do not want to risk finding out what happens if we change. The rituals survive despite seeming irrational because they are coded in parts of our brains, which are designed by evolution not to think about reasons. They just repeat what seemed to work last time. This explains why having personal rituals is a normal part of being human. It is part of our inheritance as intelligent animals, a strategy that works in the long-term, even though it clearly does not make sense for every individual act.

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Evolutionary perspective vis-à-vis superstition:

From Evolutionary perspective on superstitions, natural selection will tend to reinforce a tendency to generate associations. If there is a strong survival advantage to making correct associations, then this will outweigh the negatives of making many incorrect, “superstitious” associations. The theory of natural selection explains why people believe in such nonsense. The tendency to falsely link cause to effect – a superstition – is occasionally beneficial. For instance, a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but if a group of lions is coming there’s a huge benefit to not being around. As long as the cost of believing a superstition is less than the cost of missing a real association, superstitious beliefs will be favored. In general, an animal must balance the cost of being right with the cost of being wrong. Throw in the chances that a real lion, and not wind, makes the rustling sound, and you can predict superstitious belief. Real and false associations become even cloudier when multiple potential “causes” portend an event. Rustling leaves and say, a full moon, might precede a lion’s arrival, tilting the balance toward superstition more than a single “cause” would. In modern times, superstitions turn up as a belief in alternative and homeopathic remedies. The chances are that most of them don’t do anything, but occasionally few of them do. Causal thinking (e.g. nodding 5 times causes food to arrive) is evolved. It helps us understand & control our environment. (e.g. eating red toadstools makes you very ill). Causal thinking is adaptive, but often leads you to believe something is true when it is not (type 1 error), and we tolerate being wrong because it is better than risking the opposite – being ignorant about causal relationships (type 2 error) [Vide supra]. So we believe because it may be right & it may be beneficial. (e.g. believing in an afterlife).

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The popular book of Shermer (1998) argues that superstitions are the adaptive outcome of a general ‘belief engine’, which evolved to both reduce anxiety (proximate cause) and enable humans to make causal associations (ultimate cause). Specifically, Shermer argued that in making causal associations, humans are faced with the option to minimize one of two types of statistical error: type I errors whereby they believe a falsehood or type II errors whereby they reject a truth. And as long as the cost of type II errors is high enough, natural selection can favor strategies that frequently make type I errors and generate superstitions. Natural selection can favor strategies that lead to frequent errors in assessment as long as the occasional correct response carries a large fitness benefit. It follows that incorrect responses are the most common when the probability that two events are really associated is low to moderate: very strong associations are rarely incorrect, while natural selection will rarely favor making very weak associations. He concluded that behaviors which are, or appear, superstitious are an inevitable feature of adaptive behavior in all organisms, including us.

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Evolutionary theory has fairly limited clinical use for people in whom superstitious behavior has become a problem. Just because something would be beneficial does not prove its existence. The same phenomena are as well (or perhaps considerably better) accounted for by operant conditioning, which of course can understand just about ‘every old’ superstition. Again an example; Steve Waugh had a poor start to his test match cricket career but one day, scored his first 100. What had changed? Well he discovered upon returning to the changing room he was carry a red handkerchief – which he has carried ever since. Why? The hankie was associated with success (it was the only thing different to normal) and was positively reinforced.

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Better safe than sorry:

In recent years Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell have shed more light than anyone on the phenomenon of tempting fate. When they asked people to answer rationally whether exchanging a lottery ticket for another ticket would increase the chances of their old ticket winning, 90 percent said no. But when asked to answer the same question using their gut, 46 percent said yes. (Subjects thought selling the ticket to an enemy gave it the best chance of winning.) In another experiment, people said wearing a Stanford shirt after applying to the school would reduce the probability of admission. Risen and Gilovich argue that belief in tempting fate rests, in part, on a three-step mental process. First, some behaviors make outcomes seem especially bad because they highlight the contrast between what happened and what almost happened. Being stuck in a slow grocery line feels worse if you switched into that line than if you were always in that line, because you were just in a faster line. Second, negative scenarios engage our imagination more than positive ones (as they should: a fish can feed a man for a day, but a blowfish can kill him for a lifetime). So if you’re thinking about switching lines, the thought of switching to a line that then slows down is worse than the thought of staying in a slow line, and therefore it looms larger in your head. Finally, the more you think about something, the more likely it seems. Switching grocery lines, carrying an umbrella, talking out loud about a possible no-hitter in baseball—a sense of jinxing things arises because when negative possibilities come to mind, they seem more likely. Risen and Gilovich note that going against any superstition, no matter how silly, can feel like tempting fate because of the anticipated regret of misfortune after flouting conventional wisdom. Allowing anticipated regret to influence your judgments of objective probability is irrational, but the psychologists Dale Miller and Brian Taylor have argued that it’s not irrational to let anticipated regret affect your behavior. Regret is real. So if you’d feel worse falling into a pothole after walking under a ladder than after walking around the ladder, by all means, take the few extra steps to walk around. You won’t regret it.

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Superstitions and coincidence [read my article on coincidence on my facebook page]:

What made a fool of Skinner’s pigeons is what makes fools of us all: conditioning. Specifically conditioning by coincidence. Essentially, the food was dispensed, and the pigeon thought that whatever it happened to be doing at the time was the cause, so it kept on doing it. Subsequent feedings serve only to reinforce the behavior: The pigeon repeats its action; the food keeps coming, so why mess with a good thing?  Their error is a classic case of the common logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc — “after this, therefore because of this.” Temporal contiguity does not imply causality, as every good scientist knows, but the brain is a voracious and often indiscriminate pattern detector, always on the lookout for connections among phenomena and between the individual’s own actions and favorable or unfavorable outcomes. Superstition arises from the natural tendency to seek connections that could, even remotely, be useful in controlling the world.

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Coincidence occurs when two unrelated events correspond. There is no obvious relationship between the two. But… a belief forms, creating a cognitive bias, that one causes the other. A causal relationship is assumed. Extraordinary coincidences are singled out when they occur and given a significant status. But the Statistical Law of Truly Large Numbers states that amazing coincidences occur frequently in large populations. Furthermore, unlikely coincidences are considered more significant when they happen to us- egocentric bias. This suggests a bias in cognitive processing. Coincidences can lead to superstitious beliefs: e.g. Bjorn Borg would not shave when he had started a winning streak in a tennis tournament. He had won once when he hadn’t shaved and these two phenomena were linked in his mind. This is called the psychology of contiguity. Superstitions are learned because of coincidence – if two events occur at same time, we assume rightly or wrongly that one causes the other. Sometimes it’s obvious there isn’t a causal relationship, but not always. People who believe in paranormal maybe less likely to assess coincidences appropriately e.g. you think of a friend and then they phone you – did one event cause the other.

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Coincidental correlation:

Post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this,” is a logical fallacy (of the questionable cause variety) that states, “Since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.” It is often shortened to simply post hoc and is also sometimes referred to as false cause, coincidental correlation, or correlation not causation.

The form of the post hoc fallacy can be expressed as follows:

A occurred, then B occurred.

Therefore, A caused B.

When B is undesirable, this pattern is often extended in reverse: Avoiding A will prevent B.

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Why might people turn coincidences into causal relationships?

1. Illusion of control:

Coincidence explanations give some sense of order in the world and increase the feelings of control. Believers show greater illusion of control.

2. Finding links between distantly related materials:

Individuals who believe they have had a psychic experience think this because there appears to be an inexplicable association between their thoughts and events in real world. E.g. seeing spherical object in sky and believing it is a UFO.

3. General cognitive ability:

Might be lower in believers, so less able to judge if paranormal event in fact has a normal explanation. Research also found believers perform less well on syllogistic reasoning.

4. Accept Type I error to avoid more damaging type II error.

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Believers underestimate statistical likelihood on probability judgment tasks. Hence they are more surprised when coincidence occurs and tend to assume some paranormal explanation. Believers are also less accurate when generating random numbers – they avoid repetition. The ‘Small World Effect’ predicts common coincidences are inevitable due to the huge interconnectivity of social relationships. All events can be related to unseen or prior causes/associations, which do not have a paranormal explanation. Many people misjudge the probability of unrelated events occurring and think it’s paranormal.  E.g. Thinking about a person and then they ring you or Part of a dream coming true.

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The famous psychiatrist and mystic Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe meaningful coincidences that appear to defy the laws of probability (Jung, 1960/1973). In Jung’s theory, unconscious archetypes appear to exert an influence on events in the world. His idea made sense not only to the magically minded, but even to some hard-headed scientists at a time when people were first grappling with the implications of indeterminacy in physics. The rigorous theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli (one of Jung’s patients) was persuaded that uncertainty on a quantum scale could allow the unconscious mind to have a hand in events. As a theory of how things actually occur in the material world, synchronicity is easily debunked by the statistician. People are notoriously bad at understanding probabilities and statistics, and they generally underestimate the likelihood of “impossible” coincidences. The law of large numbers ensures that improbable events happen all the time. What’s more, the egocentric bias causes us to disproportionally notice chance occurrences that have some bearing on our own interests and priorities. Ruma Falk, a specialist in the psychology of coincidence at Hebrew University, found that participants were more surprised by coincidences that happened in their own lives (either in the past or in the course of an experiment) than they were by identical coincidences that happened to another person. A coincidence that happens to another person, she says, seems unremarkable, just “one of many events that could have happened”.  Coincidence is meaningful in terms of the associative links in one’s head, and those links bias how we perceive and interpret the world. To be fair, this was part of Jung’s point: Coincidences, in the end, tell us about ourselves. If we take it simply as a description of the brain’s appetite for “meaningful” association and not as a statement of how the external world works, his oft-quoted definition of synchronicity, “an acausal connecting principle,” fits quite well. The brain could be described as an “acausal connecting organ” — an insatiable meaning maker.

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The acausal connections that give rise to superstition may be temporal, as in the case of conditioning by coincidence, and they may also involve physical contact or similarities in form between objects. Perhaps the most familiar example of superstitious or magical thinking involves objects that are imbued with special significance because of what they resemble — for example, a picture of one’s spouse or a religious icon. The law of similarity holds that a representation is linked to what it represents. People have difficulty throwing darts at a picture of a baby, for example (King, Burton, Hicks, & Drigotas, 2007). Objects also become special by virtue of what or whom they have been in contact with — the law of contagion. The laws of similarity and contagion are part of what is known as sympathetic magic (Rozin & Nemeroff, 1990). What makes such beliefs superstitions is when they run counter to the causal theories held in one’s culture. Vyse (1999) defines superstition as “beliefs or practices groundless in themselves and inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by the community to which one belongs”. One person’s enlightenment might be another person’s superstition, of course, and a devout Catholic might justifiably balk at being called superstitious when kissing a crucifix, as it reflects his consciously held belief system and that of his community. Yet like most people in our culture, he might readily cop to the charge of superstition if he wears his lucky sweater to a poker game.

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Probability misjudgment:

Probability misjudgment – some people are better than others at judging the probability of coincidental events – believers tend to underestimate statistical likelihood of probability judgment tasks and thereby increasing their desire for causal explanations for coincidences. It is a type of cognitive illusion resulting from failure to judge probability. This is because cognitive illusions cannot accept unexplained events as random and coupled with confirmatory bias tend to ignore evidence that refutes their beliefs.

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Optimism & pessimism vis-à-vis superstitions:

Superstition affects us by working on our optimism or pessimism and levels of confidence. Optimistic individuals are categorized as having positive expectations and perceptions on life. Optimists also believe the future holds desirable outcomes. In contrast, pessimistic individuals tend to represent a negative bias towards life because the future is undesirable (Carver & Scheier, 2002a; Scheier & Carver, 2003). Rudski (2004) found optimism to be positively correlated with religiosity, while pessimism was negatively related to religiosity. Pessimism was found to be a predictor of superstitious belief (Rudski, et al., 1999). While optimism and pessimism may influence other factors such as attitude and recovery from poor performance, the findings of another study suggested athletes’ levels of optimism and pessimism did not influence whether or not they employed superstitious behaviors in sport. There was also a positive correlation between optimism and the belief that one has control of stress in one’s life (Fontaine, Manstead, & Wagner, 1993). Luck does not exist in any force; it is an illusion cast over our eyes by our perceptions of events. For example, if a person is an extreme optimist, they see bad things in a good light. Everything is luckier for a person when it all seems to end up good. Because these superstitions are passed down for so long, they have been ingrained into our minds. Optimistic people statistically see more opportunity around them. Optimists are more open to change and are often more observant of their surroundings. They simply notice more around them. A pessimist, on the other hand, is more straightforward thinking. They are traditional stuck in one train of thought and less open to opportunity and change. For example, when walking past a billboard, an optimist is more likely to notice an ad for something that strikes his eye. He sees it as a great deal and opportunity. A pessimist is more likely to walk right by it or if he or she does notice it, is less likely to see it as an opportunity. The more opportunities present themselves to a person, the luckier he seems to be. Optimists are opportunists; they find their own luck around them without realizing it. Looking back on their life, they begin seeing bad things as luckier thing that happened to them.

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You have nothing to lose by believing superstitions:

The persistence of superstition in a society that values reason may be explained by how little it seems to matter. It is part of the very definition of a superstition that people will admit they don’t rationally believe that rituals and thoughts have a causal influence; it just makes them feel better to pay their superstitions a certain heed, because what can it hurt? In the mental balance sheet, the trivial cost of seeming slightly irrational is generally outweighed by the size of the possible benefits.

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On the other hand, superstitions also exist when there is too much to lose:

Even if you doubt the existence of God or heaven and hell, you are better off behaving as if they exist, because you stand to lose in the one case more than you stand to benefit in the other. As Kahneman and Tversky (1979) show in their Nobel Prize-winning work, loss aversion is a stronger motivator than the promise of gain. Pascal’s Wager helps explain why superstitions are such a familiar feature in high-stakes domains like politics, aviation, and sports. In all these realms, there’s a lot to lose. The statistics-obsessed sport of baseball, for example, is also famously superstition-obsessed. Wade Boggs, former NY Yankees third baseman, is a well-known example: He consumed chicken before every game, along with a host of other rituals, to help ensure success. And when the stakes are high – such as with sports – there is even more pressure on our brains to “capture” whatever behaviors might be important for success. Some rituals can help a sportsperson to relax and get “in the zone” as part of a well-established routine before and during a big game. Tiger Woods always wears red the last day of a golf tournament, because he says it is his “power color”.

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Intuitive & analytical thinking vis-à-vis superstitions:

A multivariate study revealed that the best predictors of paranormal beliefs were intuitive thinking and a humanistic world view, while low analytical thinking was a less important predictor. Another study showed that women’s greater belief in the paranormal compared to men was partially explained by women’s higher intuitive and lower analytical thinking. Additionally, it was shown that university students were originally more skeptical than vocational school students, but university studies did not increase skepticism. The finding that paranormal beliefs mainly arise from an intuitive system, instead of a malfunctioning analytical system, explains why the beliefs do not vanish with the increase of education, scientific knowledge, and rational thinking.

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Superstition and intelligence:

Intelligence seems to have little to do with whether or not we subscribe to superstitions. Vyse says that on the Harvard campus — where one would assume there are a lot of intelligent people — students frequently rub the foot of the statue of John Harvard for good luck. In a sense, a superstition, like other rituals, can become part of a campus, community or culture, and can help bring people together. Most of the superstitions people engage in are perfectly fine, and are not pathological.

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Superstitions and impulsivity:

In ludomania (Problem gambling) there seems to be a link between impulsive nature and erroneous reasoning. This has been shown in a research study led by the University of Cambridge. Affected individuals may strongly believe in superstitions and fortune. While studying the behavior of compulsive gamblers on treatment at the National Problem Gambling Clinic, it was found that subjects who had a high level of impulsivity were more prone to errors in reasoning linked to gambling. Such subjects believed more on superstitions, like holding a lucky charm. They also had a tendency towards associating any losses in gambling to misfortune or ‘cold’ machines. Previous studies have identified an ‘addictive personality’ in ludomania, but this recent study has elucidated that high impulsivity also leads to errors in reasoning and more belief in superstitions and fortune.

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Reasoning errors:

Superstitions often spring from reasoning errors, but these mistakes (illusions of control, misunderstandings of chance and probability, confirmation bias) are common to us all…reasoning errors are a natural feature of our humanity. Belief in Aromatherapy, arthritis pain due to weather, and more specifically the Q-Ray bracelet etc are all parts of reasoning errors. If doctors can’t exactly determine why the bracelet works, maybe it is just a superstition. If one thought that if they wore the bracelet to ward off arthritis pain, they may just be teaching their brain to actually believe that it is helping them. Almost any erroneous belief stems from superstitious beliefs.

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Why superstitions persists:

Many have wondered why superstition persists despite improvements in religion, logic, and science. For Gilbert White in 1776, it is because of habits formed when young and imbibed with our mother’s milk (White, 1789: letter xxviii). For Melton (1620) and Igglesden (c.1932), it is because astrologers, fortunetellers, and local cunning men/women deliberately foster credulity for profit. For Puritans of the 16th century onwards, it was due to Roman Catholic priests. Some maintain that rationalism must not be allowed to remove all the romance and mystery of life, and enjoy the idea of ‘more things in heaven and earth’. Others point to the distress superstition brings, for example the lifelong guilt felt by a woman who believed she had caused her brother’s death at sea by washing clothes on New Year’s Day. At a general level, it is clear that the hold of superstition on people’s minds has weakened over the centuries, and that it is increasingly consigned to trivial areas of everyday life.

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After performing studies, the researchers developed three reasons for superstitious behavior:

1. Individuals use superstitions to gain control over uncertainty;

2. To decrease feelings of helplessness; and

3. Because it is easier to rely on superstition instead of coping strategies.

People sometimes fall back on their superstitions as a handicap. It’s a parachute they think will help them out. Irwin (1994) found a stronger belief in magical thinking, witchcraft, superstition and precognition in those who had an alcoholic parent in childhood, which suggests that such beliefs serve a coping function. Wiseman & Watt (2004) found that neuroticism was positively correlated with a belief in the paranormal, which implies that personality is linked to anomalous experience. Researchers focus on variables associated with three other reasons for why people hold anomalous beliefs: the cognitive deficits hypothesis (that people lack the critical and intellectual ability to dismiss potential anomalous events as being due to chance); the worldview hypothesis (that particular attitudes and behaviors, such as being religious or having a subjective outlook that prioritizes personal experience above objective facts, lead to anomalous beliefs); and the psychodynamic functions hypothesis (that people hold anomalous beliefs because they serve a useful function, such as reducing anxiety by making the world seem more ordered and predictable).

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Associative Learning (learning by coincidence):

The ability to learn is a basic foundation of intelligence. Humans are particularly keen observers of the world around them and are thereby able to reliably identify the presence of different regularities and generalizations. Patterns that are of consequence to our daily lives are readily learned, which suggests the presence of powerful biases in their search and representation. We tend to remember information more easily if we have uncovered it ourselves than if they are simply presented to us. Associative learning is a type of learning by associating random events. Associative learning is the process by which an association between two stimuli or a behavior and a stimulus is learned. The two forms of associative learning are classical and operant conditioning. In the former a previously neutral stimulus is repeatedly presented together with a reflex eliciting stimuli until eventually the neutral stimulus will elicit a response on its own. In operant conditioning a certain behavior is either reinforced or punished which results in an altered probability that the behavior will happen again.

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Associative learning among insects:

Among many researchers, especially neuroscientists, consensus is building for a very different view, namely that learning ability may be an emergent property of nervous systems and, thus, all animals with nervous systems should be able to learn. A research study was conducted on associative learning in insects, and review learning in larval antlions (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae), a highly unlikely insect candidate. It concluded by asserting that the capacity for associative learning is the default condition favored by animal brain: Whenever selection pressures favor evolution of nervous systems, the capacity for associative learning follows ipso facto. Indeed, recent experiments suggest that insects are capable of even much more than forming simple associations between a cue and a response: They can learn to discriminate between multiple cues, retain the information over long periods of time, and transfer learning to completely new environments.

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Associative learning among honeybee:

Researchers document a positive correlation between a measure of associative learning performance and the metabolic stress resilience of honeybees. This relationship is independent of social factors, and may provide basic insights into how central nervous system (CNS) function and metabolic biology can be associated. Controlling for social environment, age, and learning motivation in each bee, they establish that learning in Pavlovian conditioning to an odor is positively correlated with individual survival time in hypoxia.

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Associative learning among monkeys and rats:

Many of our complex, learned behaviors depend on stimulus–response associations. We learn that “green” means “go” and “red” means “stop,” for example. The prefrontal (PF) cortex has been implicated in the ability of primates to form and rearrange arbitrary associations rapidly. This ability was studied in two monkeys, using a task that required them to learn to make specific saccades in response to particular cues and then repeatedly reverse these responses. Researchers found that the activity of individual PF neurons represented both the cues and the associated responses, perhaps providing a neural substrate for their association Furthermore, during learning, neural activity conveyed the direction of the animals’ impending responses progressively earlier within each succeed trial. The final level of activity just before the response, however, was unaffected by learning. These results suggest a role for the PF cortex in learning cue–response associations, an ability of critical complex behavior. Within prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), by its connections with limbic areas, is positioned to allow associative information regarding outcomes access to representational memory. Orbitofrontal cortex is characterized by its unique pattern of connections with subcortical areas, such as basolateral amygdala. Experiments on rats found that dual roles OFC plays. One role is to allow associative information from amygdala access to representational memory. This role is important in performance, because it allows the comparison of the expected values of immediate and delayed rewards. Thus, rats lesioned after initial training know which responses produce the large and small rewards but are unable to maintain this information in representational memory. Therefore, they are unable to discount the value of the large reward, which results in “perseverative” responding. However, OFC also helps facilitate associative learning in amygdala, particularly during initial training. As a result, rats lesioned before any training fail to encode the actual associations normally. This deficit renders meaningless any loss of the delayed discounting function in OFC. The resultant behavior would depend on the associability of the response-outcome contingencies. Researchers would speculate that “impulsive” responding was observed because the large reward was often delayed in training, resulting in a weaker association with the response.

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Associative learning and intelligence:

Relatively little attention has been given to the possibility that associative learning is an additional mechanism contributing to intelligence. A study tested the hypothesis that associative learning ability, as assessed by psychometrically sound associative learning tasks, would predict variance in intelligence above and beyond the variance predicted by working memory capacity and processing speed. The results of the current study add to a growing literature on the existence of multiple cognitive mechanisms that support general cognitive ability (Sternberg & Pretz, 2005). The findings suggest that multiple cognitive processes —including the abilities to process information quickly, to maintain, update, and manipulate information in working memory, and to learn specific associations between stimuli —should contribute to performance on any highly intelligence-loaded task.

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Associative ability vis-à-vis creativity:

Creativity requires that a person come up with unique ideas and out-of-the-box thinking. This person may have good associative powers of thinking that allow him to create connections between otherwise disparate things. He synthesizes information in a different way. That is a suggestive, intuitive associative mode that reveals remote or subtle connections between items that are correlated but not necessarily causally related. The end result could take any number of forms: a scientific hypothesis, a piece of art, a musical composition or an unusual application of a theory, helping to advance how we understand the world. Researchers assert that the creative process requires a thought shift from associative thinking to cause and effect thinking. Associative thinking might reveal some correlation or relationship between two things, but this correlation might not provide a solution and might not be appropriate. It is reasonable that the cognitive process for generating creative ideas does not stem from the unconscious nor follows a rigid procedure, but instead it transforms and evolves a collection of old ideas into new ones. This transformation and evolution may occur through a cognitive shift.

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Pattern seeking brain machine:

Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, connecting the dots and creating meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. The idea is that we are born with brains that have evolved to make sense of a complex world by seeking patterns and trying to understand the mechanisms responsible for them. In doing so – and this is an intuitive process – children sometimes come up with assumptions and misconceptions that later seem to be the basis of adult supernatural beliefs. Superstitious beliefs we hold as adults may be a by-product of the processes we use to make sense of the world around us as children. The research offers an explanation for curious traditions such as crossing fingers or tapping wood, as responses to events that we can’t explain in any other way. In effect, these beliefs are a by-product of the reasoning behavior we develop as children. Despite what we may have learned as we grew up, these misconceptions often remain with us as adults. [Also, mirror neurons of children copy superstitions of parents, teachers, neighbors and society which persist in them during their adulthood and they pass on these superstitions to their children.] What about our responses to transplanted organs? You know organ transplant recipients are reluctant to accept organs when they are told that the donors were “morally corrupt” in some way; they were portrayed as murderers for example. This happens because subconsciously we think there is an inner property to the material world that is responsible for the identity of something. Most superstitions stem from a combination of primitive belief systems and coincidence. If, for instance, you broke a mirror one day and the rest of the day went just as bad, you might believe that you really were suffering from bad luck. Or, as is more likely the case, you’re just victim of a coincidence. The primitive belief system comes from the innate tendency that the human mind has to find patterns in the world around us. It’s why patterns in wood grain, stucco ceilings or clouds can be said to “look like something” (most typically faces). It is something we’ve had for a large percentage of our evolution because it allows us to learn quickly: fire on meat= good, fire in hair= bad. Saber tooth tiger= dangerous, house cat= cuddly. We can make quick decisions based on what we’ve experienced in the past to hopefully allow us to survive into the future. But as culture has gotten more advanced our brains haven’t necessarily evolved to keep pace, so even now we’re prone to the same sort of impulse-decision making. Another aspect of our pattern seeking tendency is a tendency to “find” relationships. A mirror shows us our reflection, which is “part of me”. Therefore the two “must” be related and if anything bad happens to my reflection, it will also happen to me. This is where superstitions about mirrors, animals, vegetables, minerals and the like all come from. Sometimes A really is connected to B, and sometimes it is not. When it isn’t, we err in thinking that it is because this process of associating random events is due to our pattern seeking brain which is genetically and evolutionarily hardwired into us.

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The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. This explains the way in which people behave when it comes to beliefs, whether that’s religious beliefs, scientific beliefs, political beliefs, or just whether to believe whether “Reality TV” is, in fact, “real.”  This tendency to see patterns and meaning is fundamental to us as individuals and a result of our evolutionary heritage. We are the descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns. So this process of association learning is fundamental to all animal behavior. Some researchers call this process patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. Not only do we find patterns and meanings in noise, but we tend to ascribe some type of agent to those patterns i.e. someone or something causes it. We often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world.

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Neurochemistry of superstition:

Shermer takes some time to talk about the neurochemistry of belief, with dopamine being the top contender for being “the belief chemical.”  Citing research from a number of sources, he proposes that higher concentrations of dopamine in the nervous system enhances the “signal-to-noise” ratio, which means you find more “signal,” or meaning, amid what is really “noise,” or meaninglessness. Studies he cites show that people with high levels of dopamine are more prone to be superstitious, believe in the paranormal, and more likely to see patterns when there are none there. In contrast, skeptics have lower dopamine levels. Exploring the neurochemistry of superstition, magical thinking, and belief in the paranormal, Brugger and Mohr found that people with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find significance in coincidences and pick out meaning and patterns where there are none.

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In 2002, Swiss neurologist Peter Brugger decided to see if people with a proclivity towards believing in the paranormal—towards a belief in such things as spirits and synchronicity and surfing could create real magic—had better pattern recognition skills than skeptics. To test this idea, Brugger took twenty true-believers (people who believed in things like gods and ghosts and conspiracies) and twenty non-believers and showed everyone a series of slides. All of the slides were of people’s faces. Some of the pictures had been expertly scrambled—a nose from person A; an ear from person B; a cheek from person C—while other were actual, unadjusted, real faces. Across the boards the true believers were much more likely to mistake a scrambled face for a real one than the skeptics. Brugger then gave all of his participants a Parkinson’s drug called L-Dopa which increased the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the reward portion of the brain’s need/reward system. It’s a chemical that produces the sensation of pleasure that accompanies the accomplishment of a goal. The slide show was then repeated with a fresh set of faces. Under the influence of dopamine both groups were much more likely to call scrambled faces real, but the skeptics significantly more so. This means that those of us with more dopamine running around our brains are more likely to notice patterns where others see none and, by extension, those of us who notice such patterns will most likely try to ascribe some semblance of meaning to such things, even if that semblance of meaning is more than a little detached from what we think of as the rational world. Brugger was starting to suspect he had found one of the neurochemical mechanisms for a spiritual belief, but one experiment does not make a theory. VMAT2 is a gene that regulates the flow of serotonin, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and, perhaps most importantly, dopamine in the brain. What researchers found was that those of us with the specific variation of the VMAT2 gene that ups the brain’s production of these same chemicals are also the people who score highest on the psychological tests for spirituality. Interesting to note that all of the aforementioned neurochemicals do not just regulate spirituality and superstition, but athletic performance as well. Dopamine and norepinephrine are the body’s two main performance enhancing chemicals, serotonin is a mood booster and it’s been long known that there is a direct correlation between positive moods and superior athletic performance. Adrenaline, meanwhile, governs the fight of flight syndrome and can definitely boost performance as well. The corollary is that those who play sports and are superstitious, are more likely have many of these performance-enhancing neurochemicals floating around their system and those neurochemicals may help them be perform better.

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Superstition as instinct:

Superstition needs to be seen as the instinct it actually is, not just some ethereal preference. We refer to it as an omnipresent belief and behavior, but it is much more than that. Superstition is an actual instinct much like sex, eating, xenophobia etc. Humans are built this way and we need to realize this more thoroughly. Instincts are not cultural phenomena but are built into the genetic code. How they are manifest may be cultural, but not their existence, power, and omnipresence. All instincts are taken too seriously because they “feel” that way. The whole gamut of human instincts is derived from evolution.  All instincts act in conjunction with the decision-making apparatus (DMA) which is hundreds of millions of years old. Addictions originate from genetic diversity within this mechanism. The DMA is altered by low activity alleles of genes making up the reward system. It is called it the Feel OK System (FOKS).That is, low activity alleles of genes making up the neurotransmitter system of reward. Examples of this concept are routinely found in lab animals who “voluntarily” get addicted to the same drugs humans do. These drugs, it turns out, affect the same receptors as the natural reinforcing neurotransmitters used to make instincts feel good. These “feel good” neurotransmitters reinforce all instincts including superstition. That’s where the awe and ecstasy of the “spiritual experience” originate; simply dopamine release. Some people are more superstitious than others because of the diversity of alleles of genes making up and rewarding this instinct. It’s the same with all instincts. There is diversity in the strength of all instincts in all people. This is one of the reasons we are all different (quantitatively but not qualitatively). Superstition is an instinct. In that context people can more easily come to grips with the inherent irrationality of that instinct since they will probably be able to identify with the inherent irrationality of all their instincts, including superstition. We have an appetite for wonder, a poetic appetite, which real science ought to be feeding but which is being hijacked, often for monetary gain, by purveyors of superstition, the paranormal and astrology. This instinct works in a goofy way. It makes a person ask a question (why?), be it answerable or not, and then makes him answer it. The answers can either be rational or irrational. The figure below is how this concept is visualized.

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The entire mechanism for utilizing instincts involves what is called the decision-making apparatus. Within this scheme is the reward system for reinforcing the use of instincts, the feel O.K. system (FOKS). The figure below is how this appears schematically:

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In other words, people use instincts when and because they feel good. Using an instinct stimulates the reward system. This causes the feelings of ecstasy, awe, and the other feelings associated with superstitious belief. That’s the feeling science takes away from superstitious people. They don’t like that. People are used to believing what “feels” right, not what is right. Critical thinking and the scientific method is hard work and doesn’t feel good. That’s the way humans have been structured by evolution and natural selection to date. Apparently, at this point in human evolution, concerning the human use of the superstition instinct, it feels better to utilize irrational answers than rational answers, at least for most people. It’s easy, fast, and feels good. Thus, the almost invariable use of irrational superstitious answers when confronted with the unanswerable, and even answerable, questions by most people. For the most part, instincts are located in the limbic region of the brain, and because of the difficulty the cortex has in altering limbic brain activity, conscious or rational attempts to change instinctive beliefs have little effect, as we have discovered. This is why beliefs are so intransigent and stubborn, in my opinion. It’s damned hard to talk someone out of a belief, especially an irrational one. The more irrational, the harder it is to change.

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Realizing that beliefs come from goofy instinct thousands of years old helps put into perspective their non-validity and lack of import. Believers can then see why loss of the ecstatic feelings of mystery is a poor excuse for holding onto the delusions. Man’s greatest achievements come from counter-instinctive ideas, from using the scientific method rather than instincts. Religion, a manifestation of the superstition instinct, is about relief of fear. The feelings religion stimulates, awe, reverence, and ecstasy are purely neurotransmitter derived and have nothing to do with the truth or absolute nature of the particular religious idea. The exact same feelings result from other irrational beliefs (astrology, gurus, UFO’s, etc.) and thus, are no different from drugs that stimulate the same neurotransmitter receptors. The receptor stimulation just comes from an internal rather than an external chemical. So addiction to drugs due to stimulation of dopamine reward system is akin to stimulation of dopamine reward system due to superstitions. So addictive personality and superstitiousness are correlated.

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The last evolutionary concept that humans need to acknowledge when they think and make decisions about how they use their evolution derived instincts, such as superstition, and the instinct regulating mechanism is: instincts derived in earlier, evolutionary time may have had important survival value at that time but in a later era may have purely detrimental effects on survival. In other words, instincts are a two edge sword. The two edged sword of superstition is that at an earlier evolutionary time it enhanced survival of hunter gatherer groups, the social groups that existed at the time when the instinct evolved, a time when there was sparse population, but when used in today’s more complex and densely populated social world causes excessive conflict and mainly detrimental effects. What this realization can allow us to do is to, as a world group, ask ourselves the question whether we actually want to continue using the superstition instinct the way it evolved or in a new way, a way that actually may benefit us rather than hurt us, for example, as causing wars and genocides between differing religious groups. With this new understanding of instincts we humans can begin to make more beneficial decisions for ourselves rather than passively following our instincts blindly. This can be the beginning of a new enlightenment that can prevent the destruction of all life on earth our present path will eventually cause.

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My theory of random event associations to find purpose vis-à-vis superstition and evolution:

Skinner’s experiment on pigeons and Dickinson’s experiment on rats show that animals develop superstitious belief by associating random events with reward (food) or punishment (death) because animal brain is evolutionary developed to prioritize survival at any cost. Human brain by evolutionary development also contain primitive animal brain with animal instincts (limbic system) which, by genetically mediated instincts, keep on associating random events linking it with basic human emotions to generate superstitions. So all human superstitions have emotional basis for survival ignoring logic. That is why type I error is preferred over Type II error for survival. Nonetheless, human brain has additional functional neocortex (which animals lack) which gives humans logic & rationale to suppress superstitions by will, which they found absurd or illogical. So superstitious beliefs mainly arise from an intuitive system (limbic system), instead of a malfunctioning analytical system (neocortex); that explains why the beliefs do not vanish with the increase of education, scientific knowledge, and rational thinking as emotions override over reason. However, humans have will and so they do try to figure out reason in random associations to find out illogical associations especially scientists. Hence cortico-limbic dissociation is responsible for disbelieving superstitions by people who allow logic (reason) to dominate over emotions. Nonetheless, all humans by nature are superstitious as their brains constantly keep on associating random events instinctively and therefore religious people and atheists, lay people and educated lot, morons and intellectuals, laborers and scientists, all are superstitious by nature. However, scientists frequently use neocortex adding logic all the times and therefore least superstitious. Associating random events perceived by brain is hardwired in brain of animals. When outcome of such association is beneficial for survival, it is reinforced repeatedly to generate superstition. Logic is not an issue. The issue is survival anyhow. You wear green shirt and go to airport to catch a flight and you miss the flight. Unfortunately, the plane crashes and all dies but you survive. So you believe that since you wore green shirt, you survived. Hence you start wearing green shirt while traveling by air but since flight accidents are rare, you survive anyway but you give credit to green shirt. This is how superstition is reinforced. You forget that when you missed that flight, many other also missed and survived, and they did not wear green shirt. What I am trying to prove that evolutionarily, for survival, random event association does lead to purpose. In my theory of “Duality of Existence” I have shown that randomness and certainty coexist simultaneously depending on knowledge of variables. How random is randomness? We used the term random event association to describe superstition and we use the term random mutations to propagate evolution. In my article on “The Stress” I have shown that response to change in environment (stress) is the basis of evolution. All bacteria are generating spontaneous mutations which may be purposeless. However, when some bacteria die due to antibiotics, the remaining bacteria generate enzyme to deactivate antibiotic by mutation, the purposeful mutation. Bacteria have generated purposeful mutation for survival only because it had ability to mutate spontaneously and so random purposeless mutations continue in the hope that one day the same mechanism may be useful to create purposeful mutation. Therefore when real threat came, purposeless mutation became purposeful. In the same way, animals and humans constantly associate random events (superstition) which may serve no purpose but when real threat comes, the same ability can generate adequate response for survival. So thousands of false connections may be ignored because one real connection may be life saving. This is how evolutionarily, our limbic system keep on associating random event to find purpose, even though many times it is a false association but occasional real association may lead to survival against life threatening situation. And in order to do such process relentlessly, we have happy chemical dopamine released in brain so that we keep on doing random association. So random mutations keep on occurring spontaneously in all species without biological purpose but when there is change in environment, the same mechanism leads to purposeful mutation and this is how all species have evolved on the earth in last 3000 million years. Evolution of species is purposeful due to innate ability of living organisms to randomly mutate to find purpose when faced with change of environment. This is my innovative theory of finding purpose among random events which not only explains superstitions but also evolution.

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The moral of the story:

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1. Superstition is an innate instinct of associating of two or more random events/perceptions defying logic (reason) and/or knowledge.

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2. All animals are instinctively superstitious in the sense that their brain keep on associating random events of environment perceived by their senses for survival and this trait is evolutionarily hardwired into the genes of their brain cells. It is an evolutionary design not to think about reasons but just repeat what seemed to work last time. Humans are no exception no matter whether they are religious people or atheists. However, instincts derived in earlier evolutionary time may have had important survival value at that time but in a later era may have purely detrimental effects on survival.

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3. Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, connecting random dots constantly to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless events/perceptions.

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4. Superstitions mainly arise from an intuitive system (limbic system), instead of a malfunctioning analytical system (neocortex) and that explains why superstitions do not vanish with the increase of education, scientific knowledge, and rational thinking. All human superstitions have emotional basis for survival ignoring logic. However by will, when logic from human neocortex (analytical power) dominates over limbic system (emotions), superstitions can be suppressed or overrode. Since animals lack powerful neocortex, they cannot suppress or override superstitions.

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5. Superstitions do give a sense of control & sense of meaning no matter whether illusive or real, boosts self-confidence and improve performance of athletes and actors. On the other hand, superstitions have taken lives of thousands of innocents, worsened health of millions, caused loss in business, increased traffic accidents, broken marriages & families, increased abortion rates and duped gullible people of their money.

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6. Prayer has no effect on any illness except psychological effect but psychology does matter as a prayer can reduce stress, boost morale and gives hope. No prayer should delay/deny access to scientific medical treatment.

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7. Astrology as a method of predicting future is humbug. Astrology is not even a pseudoscience but outright deception, con and propaganda.

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8. Reincarnation does not exist but feeling of being reincarnated in occasional individual is due to feeling of déjà vu.

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9. Feeling of spirituality comes from stimulation of dopamine reward system in human brain. The same system supports random events association (superstitions), and that is why you feel reverence and ecstasy in believing many superstitions, religious or otherwise; and that is why you are unwilling to discard superstitions despite scientific evidence to contrary.

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10. A superstitious belief could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to a British Medical Journal article, Friday the 13th has higher accident rates and higher hospital admissions rates. So such beliefs are reinforced repeatedly. It seems that it is the belief in superstition that causes harm rather than the superstition itself.

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11. Media (barring few exceptions) has generally propagated superstitions by playing with the emotions of people to improve their rating to make more money.

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12. Science can destroy most of the superstitions due to scientific method but science has its own superstitions.

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13. Evolution of species is purposeful due to innate ability of living organisms to randomly mutate to find purpose when faced with change of environment.

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Dr. Rajiv Desai. MD.

May 26, 2012

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Postscript:

I am upgrading my theory of creative neuron system enunciated in my article “creativity”. To associate random events or perceptions instinctively is the associative ability which is a key feature of animal brains (including humans) hardwired as an instinct, genetically and evolutionarily installed, to find purpose in random events/perceptions for survival. Creative neuron system is highly specialized system which not only associate unrelated events for survival (as in non-human animals) but also creates novel ideas which did not exist before by associating unrelated events, also for survival. So even though both human brain and animal brain keep on associating various events/perceptions, only human brain is creative due to presence of creative neuron system. In my view, 80 to 90 % humans hardly ever use their creative neuron system and therefore keep on copying/following other humans using mirror neuron system. That is why movie stars, sport stars and godmen have huge fan followings. These fans follow and emulate other humans by using mirror neurons rather than creative neurons. Had they used creative neuron system, most of the problems of the world would have been solved.

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Footnote:

This article was slated to be published in June 2012 but its contents are so vital for humans that it would have been wrong on my part to delay its publication. Life is uncertain, variable and imperfect. Today I may be alive, tomorrow I may be dead. So I decided to post it in advance.

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