Flabbergasted by Keinan on Stress, Control, and Superstition

Posted on January 10, 2008


Having finished with Keinan’s 1994 paper, which I discussed yesterday, I am currently looking at his “The Effects of Stress and Desire for Control on Superstitious Behaviour” from 2002. Frankly, I find myself flabbergasted by some of what Keinan writes in the article. Reading it I can not help but think that I simply must not be understanding something quite basic about what he is doing because, otherwise, it would be hard to believe that someone who is clearly a highly competent scientist would write such things. If that is the case I would be really grateful if someone would explain the problem to me so that I can take back what I said and apologise. Here, by way of example, is a paragraph from page 103:

Magical thinking can promote one’s sense of control in several ways: First, it can help a person understand what is happening in his or her environment because it provides explanations and reasons for phenomena that are otherwise inexplicable or unfamiliar. This makes the person’s world more understandable, predictable, and controllable. Second, by means of superstitious beliefs or magical rituals, the individual may generate solutions that increase his or her control over the sources of the threat. Thus, for example, the belief that stepping into a new workplace on the right foot will bring success in a new job or that putting a lucky charm in one’s pocket will improve will improve one’s health augments the sense of control over the sources of threat. Finally, in some situations, magical thinking can create a self-fulfilling prophecy; thus, a belief that the situation will improve as a consequence of some magical ritual might increase optimism, decrease stress, and improve task performance – all of which may enhance one’s sense of control.

Reading this paragraph I find myself left breathless by what Keinan states – Magical thinking can help a person understand his environment! Magical thinking makes the world more understandable, predictable, and controllable! By magical rituals the individual may increase his or her control over the threat! Which of these effects are achieved by the examples Keinan gives of stepping into a workplace with the right foot or carrying a lucky charm. What threat does wearing a charm control?! The threat of not having a length of chain when one needs it? Surely, what the paragraph needs is the liberal addition of numerous instances of ‘seems to’, ‘apparent’, and other indicators that the (feeling of) control is subjective.

I appears as if Keinan did not see as important the difference between what is and what seems. Perhaps this is because of some underlying postmodernist assumption – which is hard to believe. Otherwise, it may be that Keinan thinks the difference obvious and not in need of stating. If that is the case, however, he is wrong as by expressing himself so carelessly he confuses two claims that do need to be differentiated. The irrational claim is that magic does give control. The claim Keinan seems to actually support (I hope!) is that magic gives the illusion of control. Finally, the claim this needs to be differentiated from is that magic is an unsuccessful attempt to gain actual control. The issue is very significant as it entail two very different views about superstition.

As it is, I would not be at all surprised to one day find someone pushing charms with the slogan “As approved of by university professor!”