Why You Believe In Ghosts, Even Though You Know Better

When Halloween rolls around, talk of witches, haunted houses and black cats is all in good fun -- right?

Maybe not. For a surprising number of Americans, these scary symbols represent something real. A 2010 Gallup poll found that 20 percent of Americans believe in witches and 37 percent believe that houses can be haunted. Overall, three in four Americans have at least one paranormal belief, according to the Gallup data.

But even if we don't harbor beliefs in the supernatural, many of us engage in superstitious thought or behavior without even thinking about it. When was the last time you knocked on wood, blamed an unlucky occurance on Mercury slipping into retrograde, or found yourself unwittingly avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk?

Psychologist Susan Whitbourne calls superstitions some of our "most fascinating, and yet least studied, everyday behaviors."

"Superstition is a belief or behavior that has two features: One is that it is aimed at bringing about good luck or avoiding bad, and the second is that it's not supported by what we know of science and typically makes reference to some sort of magical influence," Stuart Vyse, professor of psychology at Connecticut College and author of Believing In Magic, tells The Huffington Post. "It would be labeled magical because it isn't supported by our common understanding of science."

Astrology in particular is becoming an increasingly accepted superstitious belief, according to the recent Science and Engineering Indicators study, which found that fewer people are skeptical about astrology's scientific merit. Only 55 percent of Americans believed that astrology was "not at all scientific" in 2012, as compared to 65 percent in 2010.

So why do we embrace irrational beliefs and superstitious behavior? According to Vyse, it has a lot to do with something that psychologists call the "illusion of control."

"People have anxieties about things that they care about, that they want to happen, or things that they're afraid of and want to avoid," says Vyse. "People sometimes feel as though, no matter how hard they try, they can't guarantee that the outcome they're looking for will happen. So without that sense of pure control, people are willing to grasp at anything that will make them feel some sense of control."

Here's some of the psychology behind why we engage in superstitious behavior and "magical thinking."

We create our own systems of certainty.

We prefer to "roll the dice ourselves," says Vyse, so that we feel we have a better chance of predicting what the outcome of a given situation might be. If we're not sure how a job interview will go but we know that the interview falls under Mercury retrograde, there's a good chance that it will turn out poorly, and so we can prepare ourselves accordingly for that outcome.

This tendency hinges from our deep desire for control and certainty. It's what's known in psychology as the "uncertainty hypothesis," which holds that when people are unsure about an outcome, they will try to find a way to control that outcome.

"People believe in things like astrology because it works for them better than anything else," Herbert Gans, professor of sociology at Columbia, told 21stC, a university research publication. "Your own system is the most efficient one, whether it's a guardian angel, a rabbit's foot, or a God watching over you. And if it doesn't work, there's always an excuse for it."

The mere act of doing something that's aimed at bringing about a desired end is psychologically comforting, Vyse explains.

We're constantly looking for patterns and connections.

Personal superstitions are often acquired by noticing a connection between two seemingly unrelated things, like a necklace you wore and some positive event that occurred while you were wearing it.

"We are pattern-seekers -- we are looking for the answer to gaining control over our world, and so one way in which we do that is to notice the coincidence of events," says Vyse. "What's happening when a good thing happens? What's happening when a bad thing happens?"

We love a good coincidence, and there's a psychological reason for it. Our natural tendency to see patterns everywhere -- finding connections in random data -- is what's known in psychology as apophenia. And it can lead us to embrace irrational beliefs.

"Our tendency to see patterns everywhere means that sometimes we discover wonderful truths about the world," Psychology Today's Kaja Perina wrote. "Just as often, we are drawn into subjective cul-de-sacs."

One common thinking error related to coincidences is known in psychology as Type 1 error. This has to do with false positives, or our tendency to believe a hypothesis is true when it's not -- in the case of coincidences, we believe in a link between two things when in fact there is none.

"People focus on the instances in which the two things were related, and they don't always look at the other times," says Vyse.

We're not very good at detecting pseudoscience.

According to Scott Lilienfeld, assistant professor of psychology at Emory University, there are two major contributing factors to the growth of pseudoscientific beliefs: the explosion of (often false) information on the Internet, and low levels of scientific literacy.

"Sadly, critical thinking and the ability to critically judge the information you get -- where it came from, what are the sources, and so forth -- is less common today than it should be," says Vyse. "There's so much misinformation out there... unfortunately a lot of information [on the Internet] is bunk, and it's difficult for people to sift out the good stuff from the bad."

We're often willing to believe in products or services with little or no scientific backing behind them. "There's a willingness to accept almost anything, which is unfortunate, and promotes superstition," says Vyse.

It's easy to see how this could become dangerous in the health domain: People waste money on treatments that may not have any evidence behind them (like crystals) or may take up courses of treatment that could make serious health conditions worse. A particularly dangerous anti-science campaign is that of the anti-vaccination movement, which has led to an epidemic of measles, mumps and whooping cough.

Superstition may be on the rise.

Although it's difficult to determine on a large scale if we as a culture are becoming more or less superstitious, Vyse says that from what he's observed, superstition seems to be on the rise.

As the research cited earlier in this article shows, we've become less skeptical about astrology's scientific merit than we were in past years, and Americans' levels of superstitious beliefs stayed relatively stable between 2001 and 2010.

"It seems surprising given how scientifically advanced and technological we are, but it's also the case that there's a lot of stress and uncertainty in our world -- just look at the stock market," says Vyse.

This leads people to grasp for answers and for anything that occurs a glimmer of control or certainty.

"Critical thinking is not happening at a level that it should be," says Vyse, "with serious implications for all of us."

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