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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Earlier definitions of paranormal beliefs

The terms magical, paranormal, supernatural, and religious beliefs as well as superstition are often used non-synonymously. Researchers have traditionally spoken of magical thinking with regard to primitive tribes and children (Frazer, 1922/1963; Lévy- Bruhl, 1949/1975). Magic has also been characterized as a socially shared phenomenon, in contrast to individual-level superstitions (Mauss, 1950/2001), which have primarily been thought to include amulets, rituals, and omens (e.g., Keinan, 2002). Instead, the term paranormal has most often been used on agents such as ghosts and extraterrestrials and on people’s claimed abilities such as psychokinesis and telepathy (e.g., Rice, 2003).

Sometimes a difference has been made between paranormal and supernatural beliefs, as religious people have disclaimed paranormal beliefs outside of Christian doctrine but have supported doctrinal supernatural beliefs such as belief in the efficacy of prayer (Beck & Miller, 2001). Further, religious beliefs have been noted to differ from paranormal beliefs on the grounds that faith in religious beliefs does not require empirical proof (Stark, 2001; Woolley, 1997).

There are numerous definitions for magical and paranormal beliefs and superstitions, none of which are adequate. Among the most influential definitions of magical thinking are the laws of sympathetic magic. These two laws, the law of similarity and the law of contagion, were originally enunciated by early anthropologists (Frazer, 1922/1963; Mauss, 1950/2001; Tylor, 1871/1974). In the last couple of decades, American psychologists Rozin and Nemero ff have shown how these laws are expressed in the thoughts and behavior o f contemporary Western people (reviews: Nemeroff & Rozin, 2000; Rozin & Nemeroff, 1990). The law of similarity is in effect when an image is regarded as the object it represents or appearance is regarded as reality.

Examples of present day beliefs and behavior that obey the law of similarity are belief in the efficacy of tearing up a photo of a person to harm him or her, and disgust reaction toward eating
chocolate fudge in the shape of dog feces. The law of contagion is in effect when something in even minimal contact is believed to have a lasting contagious impact on the contacted object or person. Examples of the law of contagion are reluctance to drink one’s own saliva in fear of getting polluted or to use a clean sweater previously worn by a morally dubious person such as a convicted murderer. Contagion may also be positive, as in the case of possessing an object previously owned by a celebrity, but positive contagion is felt less strongly than negative contamination (Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994).

Belief in magical contagion has been shown to be highly resistant to change, even after efforts at purifying the contaminated object (Hejmadi, Rozin, & Siegal, 2004; Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994). The magical laws cover verbal claims as well as emotional and behavioral reactions: Believers themselves may consider their thoughts irrational but emotion and behavior can overcome knowledge (Rozin, Millman, & Nemeroff, 1986).

For example, knowing that there is no real danger of contagion in eating one’s favorite soup which has been stirred with a brand new fly swatter still makes the soup appear disgusting and contaminated to many. Magical contagion has been differentiated from real life contagion in that the array o f contagious t hings, their amounts, and their ways of contagion have been considered to be much broader in magical contagion (Nemeroff & Rozin, 2000). In this definition, however, the line between magical and real contagion is blurry and thus a belief may later turn out to be scientifically valid as happened in the case of germ theory. Neither is this definition intended to explain the difference – if there is one – between magical beliefs and paranormal beliefs and

In their definition of magical beliefs or superstitions, some researchers have emphasized that the beliefs include a concrete act towards a definite purpose (Campbell, 1996; Malinowski, 1948/1984; Stark, 2001). Examples of these are avoidance of number 13 and crossing one’s fingers. This kind of definition leaves many superstitions and paranormal beliefs outside, as there is no act included in, for example, belief in witches.

Some researchers have defined magical thinking as violation of everyday causal principles that depend on folk physics and psychology (Bolton, Dearsley, Madronal- Luque, & Baron-Cohen, 2002). Along similar lines, magical thinking has been characterized as correlational thinking coupled with a search for meaningful connections (Shweder, 1977). Paranormal beliefs that fulfill these kinds of definitions are, for example, beliefs in lunacy and in the effectiveness of rain dances. However, all paranormal beliefs are not about causality: for example belief in the existence of ghosts does not necessarily mean belief in any magical causality.

Paranormal phenomena have also been defined as violating “our naive theories of the world” (Woolley, 1997) or “basic limiting principles which are commonly accepted either as self-evident or as established by overwhelming and uniformly favorable empirical evidence” (Broad, 1953). Superstitions have also been defined as groundless beliefs and practices that are inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by scientists and the general public (Vyse, 1997). Unfortunately, “naive theories of the world” and “basic limiting principles” are left without a definition. Moreover, these definitions require each paranormal belief to be assessed in view of the believer’s knowledge level and the knowledge level of the culture the believer lives in.

Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs have also been defined very broadly as irrational practices (Jahoda, 1970) or metaphysical beliefs (James & Wells, 2002). But these kinds of definitions do not differentiate paranormal beliefs from other false beliefs such as the belief that only genetically modified tomatoes include genes.

Yet superstitious, magical, paranormal, supernatural, and religious beliefs are at least partly overlapping. In effect, magical thinking has been asserted to be the basis of superstitions (Keinan, 2002; Zusne & Jones, 1989) and equivalent to paranormal beliefs (Brugger & Graves, 1997). The terms paranormal and supernatural are often used interchangeably (e.g., Randall & Desrosiers, 1980; Rice, 2003), and superstitions as well as religious beliefs have been conceptualized as part o f paranormal beliefs (Tobacyk & Milford, 1983).
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