Keinan’s Effects of Stress and Tolerance of Ambiguity on Magical Thinking

Posted on January 9, 2008


Malinowski’s insight that uncertainty and superstitions are linked to each other has led to a great number of empirical studies that examine this relationship. One study that is very often cited is Keinan’s 1994 study of how being threatened by SCUD missile attacks during the 1991 Gulf War affected Israelis’ beliefs in superstitions. It is a very interesting and valuable study and it clearly shows that people threatened by the missiles were more likely to express superstitious belief and to behave superstitiously. Unfortunately, like a lot of empirical research, it is very weak conceptually – an objection that is very significant for a philosopher but which appears not to trouble psychologists anywhere near as much. Given how successful psychology has been in twentieth century I would not wish to necessarily defend the philosopher’s evaluation to the death.

The problem is that Keinan does not seem to take enough care to distinguish between a number of different possible causes of the superstitious behaviour: objective threat, perceived threat, and stress. Instead, Keinan lumps them all under the rubric of stress – not surprisingly the subject of his long-term studies and one that residents of the Middle East are bound to experience often. Keinan’s original division of the people to be studied is based upon whether they live in cities that have been attacked by SCUD missile – a measure of objective threat rather than of stress. He then goes on to ask about how stressed people feel while answering the questionnaire, how stressed they feel during attacks and how likely they think it is that they will be hurt during the then on-going war. Despite his claims to be measuring stress, only the first two questions strictly do this, the third concerning perceived threat. Given Keinan’s focus on stress and the close relationship between threat and stress this laxness is understandable. It is quite problematic, however, if one is interested in the causes of superstition, as I am. In that context the conclusion to be drawn from the data presented becomes a lot less clear-cut. As an aside it is interesting to note that according to Keinan’s study people in Israel estimated their chances of getting hurt during the war as 18.5% if they lived in the dangerous areas and as 11.5% in the safe areas. Taking the lower figure and applying it across the whole population of Israel this would suggest casualties in the order of at least 600 thousand people. As it was, the actual number killed by the SCUD missiles was 2. Daniel Kahneman gets thanked in the article for his comments – I suspect some of them must have concerned this disparity and its causes.