Education and persistence of traditional beliefs

Posted on November 7, 2007

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Gustav Jahoda directed me to a series of letters in Nature that report studies on the effect of education on belief in various supernatural beliefs. The first study was written by Jahoda, himself: Scientific Training and the Persistence of Traditional Beliefs among West African University Students, Nature 220, 1968, pp. 1356-7. It is followed by three more that refer back to it and basically expand the results to include US students, among others.

The studies looked at university students and compared espoused belief in supernatural claims to the time the students had spent at university and the kind of course they studied. The results differed slightly between the four studies but the conclusions of Jahoda’s study were basically borne out by the others:

In summary there was no evidence that either university education in general or any particular type of course, including scientific training, had any discernible impact on the magico-mythical beliefs entertained by the students.

This is, of course, much the same conclusion as Vyse reaches after considering the broader list of studies he looks at – education has only a minor impact upon belief in supernatural claims, if any. This brings me back to a couple of connected points that I have already previously mentioned.

Despite the continued wide spread of belief in the supernatural, including in various superstitions, it is clear that in an important respect our society is less superstitious; this respect being that we simply do not rely on superstitions as much as other societies. This is tied with the observation that I am concerned about the way in which such questionnaires measure the strength of belief in a superstition. In particular, there is no explicit link between the belief and the willingness to act on it. So, one possible improvement would be to try to determine if people would be less likely to engage in superstitious practices.

A possible answer to why people seem less willing to engage in such practices despite continued espoused belief is that superstitious practices are only attractive in situations of uncertainty and our society, it might be claimed, has made lives less dangerous. Of course, this is not a straight forward claim to make given how much change is now the norm, unlike in traditional societies. Still, it seems a worthwhile line of enquiry to pursue. An important step would be to determine just what kind of uncertainty is linked with superstitious practices as well as to what degree espousal of superstitious beliefs is linked to superstitious practice.

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