Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
It's actually much worse than all that.
Those of us who value reason, evidence, logic, and science would love to increase our numbers and make progress in the battle against the forces of darkness, credulity, and fear. In a country where almost as many people believe in in ghosts (42 percent) as believe in evolution (47 percent), this seems like a worthy goal. Surely we would be better off if more of us followed the path of reason. But the wind keeps blowing in the other direction.
Michael Shermer correctly points to the problem of false negatives (Type II errors). Because it would be much more costly to miss the danger in the bush than to worry about a danger that isn't there, natural selection has given us a bias in favor of belief. We are primed to see the beast that isn't real because the consequences of a ignoring a real threat are so high. As psychologists Catherine Rawn and Kathleen Vohs so succinctly put it: "Death only has to win once; life has to win every day."
It is bad enough that the costliness of false negatives can get us to believe in goblins, but even when we aren't frightened at all -- when we are hoping for something good to happen -- logic and rationality will often fail us.
We have long known that lucky charms and superstitious rituals provide psychological comfort to those hoping to win the lottery, knock in a winning run, or get an A on a calculus exam, but now there is good evidence that our superstitions actually work -- not through magic but through psychology. Recent research suggests that believing in magic can bring you real benefits.
In the summer of 2010, just about the time Michael Shermer was giving his TEDTalk on self-deception, psychologist Lysann Damisch and her colleagues at the University of Cologne published a series of simple yet ground-breaking studies. In a now classic experiment, the researchers asked university students to come into the lab and putt a golfball into a cup. For half the participants, they said "Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball," and for the other half they just said, "This is the ball everyone has used so far." There were no other differences between the groups, yet, on average, the lucky ball group made significantly more putts than the non-lucky group. Earlier, 80 percent of the students had said they believed in good luck, and by activating this belief in some of them, Damisch and her colleagues were able to boost performance at a skilled activity.
Oddly, no previous researcher had tried to answer the question, "Can believing in luck make you perform better?" There had been studies of related phenomena. For example, we have lots of evidence that believing in the power of a pill can have important health benefits -- even when the pill contains no medicine. But Damisch demonstrated that believing a ball could be lucky can improve your skill with that ball. Believing in luck may not get the roulette wheel to stop at your number or make the sun shine on your wedding day, but it just might help you serve better on the tennis court or make a good impression at a job interview. Whenever there is skill involved, believing you have luck on your side can help.
So what is a skeptic to do? I remain convinced that as a society we are better off putting our faith in science and reason rather than magic and unreason. The world is populated with far too many false ideas that have led us to waste precious lives and resources. Yet, some of our self-deceptions served us well in our primordial past and others continue to help us today.
Perhaps the skeptic's role is to acknowledge that some of our self-deceptions are good. They help us in important ways, and ironically there is now scientific support for the usefulness of unscientific beliefs. But as we show understanding towards those who choose to put their faith in superstitions, there is an important line to be drawn. Ghosts are not real. A 13th floor hotel room is nothing to be concerned about. Your lucky socks might help you perform better on the baseball diamond, but they will not help the Red Sox win the World Series unless you are on the team.
Skeptics can acknowledge the benefits of some self-deceptions, and, in so doing, gain a bit of humility. But when human performance is taken out of the picture, false beliefs are just false beliefs, and our role is to respectfully make the case for a rational approach. We must remind ourselves that sometimes a shadow is just a shadow, and when we long for a bit of magic in our lives, we needn't look further than the scene outside our windows. The natural world -- just as it is -- gives us plenty to feel lucky about.
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