Thursday, 5 March 2009

"The Psychology of Superstition" by Gustav Jahoda: A Review

"The Psychology of Superstition" by Gustav Jahoda: A Review
What is superstition? In this book, Jahoda begins by pointing out the difficulties of definition. For a start, the term "superstition" is often "little more than a verbal bludgeon to trounce one's ideological opponents"; a corollary to this is the fact that "one man's religion is another man's 'superstition'". It is also difficult to use scientific criteria to judge superstitions as "false beliefs" because the scientific picture of the world is rapidly changing and "each new discovery renders some of the old judgements obsolete and creates a basis for new ones." This can be seen in the fact that many "old wives' tales" have turned out to have a kernel of truth in them.
Jahoda's argues that "there is no objective means of distinguishing 'superstition' from other types of belief and action". From this position, his strategy is to adopt the use of a legal fiction; in his study of superstition, he considers those matters which that elusive creature beloved of law, the "reasonable man", would judge to be "superstitious".
One chapter which I found very interesting examined superstition as a form of error. In this category, there is "the belief in mythical animals like the unicorn." Here the superstitious notion is "created as a result of errors of observation and subsequent transmission of these mistaken notions." A less direct aspect of error occurs in the idea of regarding natural events - for example, comets, black cats, or dreams - as portents or omens which warn or predict future misfortune. Jahoda comments that "the persistence of such beliefs was at least in part a function of errors of memory - what we now call 'selective forgetting': events that conform with predictions are singled out and cited as confirmation, whilst others that do not are glossed over and forgotten."
We all tend to imagine that our memory does not mislead us. But if our memory did deceive us, how could we tell? The position becomes more alarming after Jahoda looks at a famous case from the files of the Society for Psychical Research. It was related by Sir Edmund Horney, Chief Judge of the Supreme Consular Court in the Far East. He "told the story of a reporter who visited him in the middle of the night to collect a judgement handed down the previous day." The man created quite a disturbance, although it was past midnight, and Sir Edmund "gave way to the pressing insistence of the man to avoid disturbing his wife. Nevertheless she woke up, and her husband explained what had occurred." The following day. Sir Edmund learned that the reporter had died that night; he had died at his office, and had not left the building.

This case is often cited as a good example of "psychic phenomena." However, it contains errors which are beyond dispute: "(a) there were no judgements made on the day prior to the reporter's death and (b) Sir Edmund had married three months after that event." These facts were brought to the attention of Sir Edmund, who was forced to admit that his memory must have grossly deceived him.
Other chapters cover astrology, clairvoyance, luck, ghosts, visions, and dowsing as divination. Jahoda explores how superstitious thinking functions, and how practices that, to the reasonable man, may seem superstitious, may actually work. This is fascinating study which shows how superstition is still widespread, even in our "rational age".

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