It's Hard to Shake Superstitions, Because We Don’t Want To

We know rally caps are dumb. But that doesn’t mean we won’t wear them.

Even the most die-hard sports obsessives know wearing their hats inside out won’t change the outcome of the game. But that doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyway. We may realize our behavior is irrational, but that doesn’t mean we’ll correct it, explain researchers in a new psychological study.

How this happens in reasonable adults is the question that led researcher Jane Risen, at University of Chicago Booth School of Business to find out. In her study, which will be published in the next issue of the journal Psychological Review, Risen suggests that it comes down to decoupling two crucial cognitive processes: detecting an irrational thought and correcting it. That is, whether we’re wearing a lucky jersey, repeating a childhood prayer, or avoiding black cats, we’re actively realizing that we’re being irrational and then choosing not to care.

Older models folded those cognitive processes into one, suggesting that people who believed in superstitions had cognitive defects and were unable to correct irrational thoughts. But, as we all know, even smart, educated, and emotionally stable adults believe in stupid things. The model, as Risen described in her study, needs refining:

“It must allow for the possibility that people can recognize — in the moment — that their belief does not make sense, but act on it nevertheless. People can detect an error, but choose not to correct it, a process I refer to as acquiescence.”

As Risen explains, certain conditions make it easier to give into irrational thought. Some people might rationalize their intuitions by convincing themselves that the situation at hand is “special.” Others may deem the cost of waiving rationality as a small price to pay — isn’t a team win well worth the embarrassment of wearing a tower of hats?

In addition to explaining our attachment to sports superstitions, Risen’s research has important implications in understanding why we behave irrationally. Figuring out what else makes us acquiesce, she writes, could help us design interventions for poor decision-making and illogical behavior.

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