Cross-cultural measures of superstition

Posted on June 22, 2007

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Werner Callebaut, who runs the KLI, suggested at lunch yesterday that the French are less superstitious than other nationalities. Personally, I am somewhat sceptical about that claim for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, various attempts have been made in various countries to get rid of superstition and yet it is still very common, if not ubiquitous. If the French were significantly less superstitious it would suggest that the French had somehow happened upon means for really successfully fighting superstition. The point can be made in terms of how differences between individuals are correlated with levels of belief in superstitions. The general concensus appears to be that, while certain characteristics such as higher educational levels do correlate with decreased superstitiousness, the correlations are actually fairly weak. Thus, there is no magic way to innoculate individuals against superstition and even given groups of individuals with characteristics particularly unfavourable to superstition (as opposed to groups lacking those characteristics) you are not likely to see dramatic differences in superstitious beliefs. This does not, however, really get at the issue of cultural differences because cultures can not be reduced to groups of individuals.

This gets me to the second problem with claiming that the French are less superstitious. In the case of individuals in a single society it is comparatively (and only comparatively!) easy to measure superstitiousness. In the case of comparing cultures this gets very difficult, indeed. The problem is that the content of superstitions tends to be culture-specific – Europeans think that 13 is unlucky, the Chinese, however, see 4 as the unlucky number. This is significant because the way superstitiousness gets measured is by having people answer surveys regarding whether they believe that particular (superstitious) beliefs are correct. Thus, a European might be asked “Do you think that the number 13 is unlucky?” Obviously, the question has to be changed when dealing with Chinese. In this case cross-cultural comparison seems relatively easy. However, what about cases where no obvious counterpart superstition exists in the other culture? Or,  more misleadingly, what if a counterpart superstition exists but just happens not to be one of those that are really popular. Comparing such superstitions one might get the altogether false idea that one culture is less superstitious than the other simply because the wrong questions were asked.

The basic reason for the difficulty is that by asking people about their superstitious beliefs we are essentially comparing the symptoms of superstition rather than the underlying phenomenon. Unfortunately, measuring the symptoms is all that we can do at this point for the simple reason that we do not what their cause is. With superstition we are in much the same situation as the study of diseaes was before the discovery of bacteria.

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