Jahoda Psychology of Superstition – first impressions

Posted on July 10, 2007


I’ve started reading Jahoda’s classic on the psychology of superstition and am quite taken by it thus far. The introduction, written by Judd Marmor, didn’t bode well but it doesn’t sit well with the rest of what I’ve read. Marmor tends to try and understand superstition through a psychoanalytical lens which, from the view-point of the developments that have been made in psychology since the mid-twentieth century looks, well, superstitious. Frankly, in my reading this is the first time I’ve seen someone try and apply concepts like that of the Oedipal Complex to superstition. Interestingly, it is from the Marmor introduction that Vyse got the definition of superstition that he favoured and which I suggested previously is fairly inadequate. Thankfully, Jahoda’s definition is actually quite different – one of the inconsistencies between the intro and the rest of the book. Jahoda does not try to give a proper definition only limiting himself to saying that he will be talking about “the kind of belief and action a reasonable man in present-day Western society would regard as being ‘superstitious’.” In a sense, therefore, the ‘definition’ is a place-holder, humbly acknowledging our ignorance about what superstition is. The problem is that Jahoda, very sensibly, agrees that the “reasonable man in present-day Western society” actually probably possesses many superstitious beliefs.

With similar refreshing intellectual honesty, Jahoda suggests a working classification of four categories of superstition:

Superstition forming part of a cosmology or coherent world-view

In general this first ategory of superstition associated with a wider traditional world-view is somewhat uneasily located in the no-man’s land separating religion from superstition. There is thus room for argument as to what ought to be included or omitted, and in the main our concern in this sphere will be with magic, sorcery and witchcraft.

 Other socially shared superstitions

Some of these may in the past have been part of a broader system of ideas and beliefs, but at present they consist for the most part of isolated elements handed down by tradition, which have not yet lost their potency. A large proportion of such superstitions are concerned with good and bad luck, either as omens of practices supposedly offering protection.

‘Occult’ experiences of individuals

This category does beg the question to some extent, in so far as some of these experiences may be held to be genuine. The alleged phenomena are of different kinds, ranging from those on which even scientific opinion is genuinely divided to others which few educated people would care to defend.

Personal superstitions

These are beliefs and practices individuals have come to adopt by and for themselves, usually without communicating them to others.

It has to be immediately said that the third of the categories does not, at least as stated, concern beliefs or practices but experiences. In effect, it does not concern the kinds of things that are usually considered to be superstitious. Of course, the significance of ‘occult’ experiences for superstition is not to be scoffed at and that is not the point of my worry. Rather, it is that it is not the experiences, themselves, which are superstitious but, rather, the beliefs and practices caused by them. The term ‘anomalous experience’ (invented after Jahoda’s book was published) would probably be more appropriate, therefore. Consider the phenomenon of hypnopompic hallucinations – intrusions of dreams into waking states associated with sleep paralysis continuing after waking up. These often lead to occult beliefs but need not if one is aware of their neurological basis. However, in so far as such beliefs are formed, they would probably be included among personal superstitions.

The next category to examine critically has to be of superstitions tied to a specific world-view. Although Jahoda’s definition is quite broad, the examples he gives concern specifically so-called pagan religions. While that is, indeed, a rich mine for superstitious beliefs, it is hardly the only kind of world-view with associated superstitions. The first reason is that even the most ‘enlightened’ religions are often linked to beliefs and practices that anyone relatively objective would class as superstitious. The glaring example that comes to mind is that of the Catholic pilgrimage centres such as Medjugorje, Fatima or Lourdes which are breeding grounds for all manner of charlatans and quacks. The second reason is that, if we take a liberal view of what might be termed a world-view, there are many non-religious examples. A good pseudo-scientific one would be alchemy. Finally, if we consider what might be termed as areas of human activity in general we will see that they generally have associated superstitions that play a fairly significant role. Vyse, in particular, is very good on exposing the superstitions tied to professional sports, gambling and, even, education. While I would probably agree with the implied view that religion (in general, rather than just ‘pagan’ religion) is particularly prone to superstitions, I do not, therefore, think that it is by any means that only kind of human activity with which superstitions are associated. This suggests to me that it would be well to generalise this category of superstition to ‘superstitions tied to specific world-views and/or areas of human activity’. Such an extension also makes sense given the way that superstitions, themselves, entail both a doxa and a praxis.

This leaves us with three categories of superstitions differentiated along a broadly social/personal axis, the suggestion being that, at the very least, the ways in which the beliefs/practices form differ, in one case being due to social influences and in the other due to personal traits. Of course, as Jahoda would almost certainly agree, this can only be a rough differentiation as social and individual aspects will play a role in all superstitions – the first at the very least helping to determine the possible content of the beliefs and the second determining what kinds of beliefs people are susceptible to. Unfortunately, distinguishing between three different categories tends to suggest that there is a deeper distinction to be drawn here and that is something to be beware of.