Magical potential: Why magic performances should be used to explore the psychological factors contributing to human belief formation

Mohr, Christine; Lesaffer, L and Kuhn, Gustav. 2019. Magical potential: Why magic performances should be used to explore the psychological factors contributing to human belief formation. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 53(1), pp. 126-137. ISSN 1932-4502 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Beliefs in supernatural entities are integral parts of both our culturally embedded religions and more individualized magical belief systems (e.g., paranormal beliefs, spirituality). Scholars regularly link the occurrence of beliefs to individuals’ cognitive and affective ways of processing information. For magical beliefs in particular, we expect children to endorse them. When reaching adulthood, however, individuals should have abandoned magical beliefs, and become pragmatic, sceptical, critical and rational thinkers. The reality is, a large proportion of the adult population can be described as magical thinkers, or report having had magical experiences, even in the recent past. Moreover, psychological research in adults shows a large range of magical beliefs, which correlate with particular psychological processing biases (e.g., repetition avoidance, seeing signal in noise). Unfortunately, these correlational studies do not tell us whether such psychological processing biases precede magical beliefs or whether they result from these magical beliefs. Knowing the direction of such relationships is key to understand which psychological biases might contribute to adult belief formation (or the persistence of beliefs from childhood). To test such causal relationships, we started to systematically apply an experimental approach in which people are exposed to anomalous events. Such a central event allows before-after comparisons of psychological biases. First empirical results confirmed that the use of magic performances, particularly when of paranormal nature, results in an important amount of paranormal explanations. Pre-existing beliefs enhanced this explanation bias. These results show how easily naïve observers can be “tricked” into unsubstantiated beliefs.

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Causality, Paranormal belief, Magical beliefs, Cognition, Biases, Belief formation

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1 September 2018Accepted
24 September 2018Published Online
1 March 2019Published

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Date Deposited:

12 Oct 2018 15:07

Last Modified:

24 Sep 2019 01:26

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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