Zusne & Jones Anomalistic Psychology – On heuristics

Posted on September 13, 2007


I am currently reading the last of the three classic texts on the psychology of superstition – Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking by Zusne and Jones – having already read the Vyse and the Jahoda volumes. It has proved surprisingly interesting thus far – ‘surprisingly’ as I had not expected to find much that was new given how much psychology of superstition I have been reading recently. Part of the novelty is that Zusne and Jones focus on an aspect of superstition that I had not really considered as much. Whereas I have been thinking in terms of the beliefs and practices tied to superstition, they place their focus on the experiences. Obviously, the lines are blurry and many of the things they consider I have looked at already but the different focus provides me with a new perspective and touches issues that I had not thought about. Also, in a way anomalistic psychology is closer to parapsychology than the other work I have been looking at. Whereas I and the others whom I have been reading treat superstition itself as a phenomenon, anomalistic psychology is looking at the same things that parapsychology looks at, i.e. the experiences which some interpret as indicative of paranormal phenomena, but unlike parapsychology assumes that the explanations to be found are actually natural.

I have just come across the section in which Zusne and Jones discuss heuristics. Here is what they say:

Important insights concerning the ways in which probability estimation effects judgment concerning causal relationships in paranormal phenomena can be derived from the work of Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky (e.g., Kahnemann, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982). In making inferences under conditions of uncertainty, people adopt certain intuitive rules of thumb that lead to systematic biases in judgment because the rules are intuitive and not based on a calculus of probabilities.

Obviously, Zusne and Jones are here uncritically accepting the Kahneman/Tversky view of heuristics with the effect that they see them as ‘intuitive’ – whatever that means – and as merely related to probability judgments. The result is that while they can apply the work to some particular examples of superstition – astrology is the one they consider – heuristics are incapable of providing them with a theoretical basis to look at superstition in general. They do, however, make the interesting remark that a magical explanation is resorted to when no natural one is available. This seems to be right to me though I should like to see empirical results showing it. Certainly, such an approach would fit with a generally falibilist methodology. Another interesting line of research they mention is Susan Blackmore’s work on chance baseline shift. According to what they say Blackmore has found that there is a correlation between how much people underestimate the probabilities of chance coincidences and how superstitious they are. Obviously, the idea that people come to have superstitious beliefs due to the underestimation of chance coincidences is one that has been around for a while but it would be interesting to see a study correlating the two.

The scary thing from reading Zusne and Jones is that it reinforces my view that it would be good if I was also familiar with the current philosophical and psychological discussions of causation and explanation – topics with which I have only a passing acquaintance. I do not think it possible for me to familiarise myself with that material in the near future, however, given just how much else I need to do. And this leads to the meta-thought that I should get down to finishing the papers I am working on to avoid getting into a never-ending spiral of wider and wider reading motivated by the constant gnawing knowledge of how ignorant I am.