Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

How we think, what we spend our time thinking about, and the way we view and understand the world is important. If we fail to develop accurate beliefs in the world then we will make decisions based on causal structures that do not exist. Our actions, thoughts, and behaviors will inhibit knowledge for ourselves and others, and our species will be worse off because of it.
This idea is at the heart of Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Throughout our human history we have held many beliefs that cannot plausibly be true, or which we came to learn were incorrect over time. Cassam would argue (alongside others such as Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, and Joseph Henrich) that adopting more accurate and correct beliefs and promoting knowledge would help us systematically make better decisions to improve the life of our fellow humans. Learning where we were wrong and using science, technology, and information to improve our decision-making has helped our world become less violent, given us more opportunity, provided better nutrition, and allowed us to be more cooperative on a global level.
This is why Cassam addresses paranormal beliefs, superstitions, and conspiratorial thinking in his book. While examining conspiracy theories in depth, he writes, “studies have also found that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with superstitious and paranormal beliefs, and it has been suggested that these beliefs are associated because they are underpinned by similar thinking styles [italicized text is cited with Swami et al. 2011].  Cassam argues that conspiracy theories are different from the other two modes of thinking because they can sometimes be accurate in their descriptions of the world. Sometimes a politician truly is running a corruption scheme, sometimes a group of companies are conspiring to keep prices high, and sometimes a criminal organization is hiding nefarious activities in plain sight. Conspiratorial thinking in some instances can reveal real causal connections in the world.
However, conspiratorial thinking is often bizarre and  implausible. When our conspiratorial thinking pushes us off the deep edge, then it does share important characteristics with superstitious and paranormal thinking. All three can be described by positing causal connections that cannot possibly exist between phenomena happening or imagined in the real world. They create explanations that are inaccurate and prevent us from identifying real information about the world. Superstitions posit causal connections between random and unconnected events and paranormal thinking posits causal connections between non-existent entities and real world events. Conspiratorial thinking seems to fall in line with both ways of thinking when it is not describing reality.
Over the last few years we have seen how conspiratorial thinking can be vicious, how it can inhibit knowledge, and how it can have real life and death consequences when it goes wrong. Superstitious thinking doesn’t generally seem to have as severe of consequences, but it still prevents us from making the best possible decisions and still drives us to adopt incorrect worldviews, sometimes entrenching unfair biases and prejudices. Paranormal thinking has been a foundation of many world religions and fables used to teach lessons and encourage particular forms of behavior. However, if it does not describe the world in a real way, then the value of paranormal thinking is minimized, and we should seriously consider the harms that can come from paranormal thinking, such as anxiety, suicide, or hours of lost sleep. These ideas are important to consider because we need to make the best possible decisions based on the most accurate information possible if we want to continue to advance human societies, to live sustainably, and to continue to foster cooperation and community between all humans on a global scale. Thinking accurately takes practice, so pushing against unwarranted conspiracy theories, superstitions, and paranormal beliefs helps us build our epistemic muscles to improve thinking overall.
Causal Links Between Unconnected Events

Causal Links Between Unconnected Events

As a kid I grew up attending basketball camps at UCLA. I played in the old gym that used to host UCLA games in front of a few thousand fans, played on the current court in main stadium, and slept in the dorms. With my history of basketball at UCLA, I have always been a fan of the men’s basketball team, rooting for them and the Nevada Wolf Pack – where I actually went to school. With the UCLA team making a deep run in the NCAA March Madness tournament, I have been reminded of all the superstitious thinking that surrounds sports and that I used to indulge in.
Sports seem to bring out superstitious thinking in even the most rational of people. I try very hard to think about causal structures and to avoid seeing non-existent causal links between unconnected events, but nevertheless, it is hard to not let superstitious thinking creep in. When you are watching a game it is hard not to feel like you have to sit in the right spot, have to watch from a certain room, or have to avoid certain behaviors in order to keep your team in the lead. However, it is absolute nonsense to think that your actions on your couch, miles away from the sporting venue where the game is taking place, could have any causal link to the way that a sports team performs.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam spends time examining what is happening within our mind when we engage in superstitious thinking. He explains that superstitious thinking qualifies as an epistemic vice because it gets in the way of knowledge. It prevents us from forming accurate beliefs about the world. “Superstitious thinking,” Cassam writes, “isn’t a generally reliable method for forming true beliefs about the future; it won’t generally lead to true beliefs because it posits causal links between unconnected events. … beliefs based on superstitious thinking aren’t reasonable.”
Cassam gives the example of superstitions about walking under ladders in the book. Someone with a superstition believing that bad luck will befall them if they walk under a ladder will probably avoid walking under ladders, and as a result they won’t be as likely to have paint drip on them, to have something fall on their head, or to knock over the ladder and anyone or anything on top of it. Their superstition will lead to better outcomes for them, but not because the superstition helped them create true beliefs about the dangers of walking under ladders. The individual ends up with the correct answer, but interprets the wrong causal chain to get there.
Thinking about rational and plausible causal chains is a way to escape superstitious thinking. You can rationally examine the risks, harms, and benefits of certain behaviors and actions with rational connections between events to see when a superstition is nonsense, and when it pulls from real-life causal chains to help improve life. Trying not step on cracks will not prevent you from starting a causal chain that leads to your mother’s broken back, but it will help ensure you have more stable and steady footing when you walk. Wearing the same basketball jersey for each sports game has no causal connection with the team’s performance, and wearing it or not wearing it will not have an impact on how your favorite team performs. We should strive to have accurate beliefs about the world, we should work to see causal connections clearly, and we should limit superstitious thinking even if it is about trivial things like sports.
Superstitious Thinking

Superstitious Thinking

Would you consider superstitious thinking to be a vice? According to Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, superstitious thinking is indeed an epistemic vice. That is to say, Cassam believes that superstitious thinking is a is reprehensible, blameworthy, systematically obstructs knowledge. By systematically obstructing knowledge, superstitious thinking causes people to adopt beliefs about the world that don’t match reality, leaving them vulnerable to poor decision-making that can have real-world consequences in their lives.
Cassam writes, “a gambler who sees a succession of coin tosses coming down heads thinks that the next toss will be tails because a tails is now due. This is an example of superstitious or magical thinking, thinking that posits a causal link between unconnected events, namely, previous coin tosses and the next toss.” This quote shows how superstitious thinking systematically obstructs knowledge. It causes us to see causal connections when none exist, distorting our perception and theory of reality.
A gambler making bets sees a causal connection between previous roles of a dice or spins of a roulette wheel and the next roll or spin. In reality, each time you flip a coin, roll a dice, or spin a wheel, the previous result has no bearing on the current probability. A coin toss is a 50-50 affair that does not change because the previous flip was heads.
This type of thinking is prevalent in more than just gamblers. Sports enthusiasts regularly see causal links that cannot possibly exist. The same kind of thinking also shows up in people who have lucky clothing, special rituals in aspects of daily life, or who avoid certain phrases or behaviors. In many instances, the causal links we identify are absurd but don’t incur real costs in our lives. Avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk doesn’t cost you anything and growing a beard because your favorite sports team is on a roll might even provide some social benefits and save you time from not shaving. However, giving in to superstitious thinking, as noted before, distorts your view of reality.
The causal chains misperceived through superstitious thinking create false understandings of how the world works. While it is harmless to believe that you need to sit in the same exact spot for your sports team to play well, it is not harmless to believe that hiring a woman to do a certain job is bad luck, and it is not harmless to bet your life savings on a gamble because of superstitious thinking. What may be even worse is that superstitious thinking in one area could spill into other areas, creating a habit of seeing causal chains that don’t exist. Overtime, superstitious thinking will lead to worse outcomes and poor decision-making that will have real costs in our lives.