Cherished beliefs -- we persist even when we know better

It's "no news" to note that superstition has gained new prominence in recent decades. But the degree to which the human mind insists on maintaining such beliefs has not been so obvious.

Indeed, psychologists Barry Singer and Victor A. Benassi of California State University, who have been investigating this sort of thing, have been startled at what they call the "bizarre" extent to which normal, rational people will go to protect their beliefs. Mental mechanisms, unsuspected even by those who employ them, enable such people to blind themselves to the truth when it challenges some cherished belief -- even when the truth lies plainly before them.

Describing their findings in The Skeptical Inquirer, the journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Singer and Benassi say they believe their findings "are of wide generality." They warn that "the psychological processes we have tentatively identified as being involved in supporting psychic beliefs are present and active in the general population."

They draw their conclusions from results of a series of experiments with classes at their university. A student accomplice, Craig Reynolds, who is skilled in stage magic, was introduced to a typical class in ways that, in some cases, suggested more or less strongly that he had psychic powers and, in other cases, indicated he would only perform tricks that imitate such purported powers. The regular class teacher gave the introduction, then admitted Reynolds to the room.

Reynolds, who has a magnificent beard, was wearing a choir robe. He looked mystical, but made no overt attempt to suggest he was exercising psychic powers as he performed various conventional magic tricks. These included such things as reading written messages while blindfolded and making a metal bar bend while gently stroking it, even though no one else had the strength to bend it.

In class after class, a heavy majority (58 to 77 percent) of students said they were convinced Reynolds had psychic powers. What startled Singer and Benassi was the resistance of this belief to debunking. No amount of explanation would change the opinion of more than a few students.

This tendency to believe that psychic forces were acting arose even when the introduction made it clear that only stage magic would be demonstrated. Summing up, Singer and Benassi say, "The results . . . suggest that people maintain a belief about someone's psychic powers when they know better."m

"Are we humans really that foolish?" they ask. "Yes," they explain, ". . . once we've chosen an incorrect hypothesis we stubbornly persist . . . ." They add that "our results differ from previous psychological research on reasoning deficiencies only in showing an especially stubborn and dramatic resis tance to the obvious truth."

Let the believer beware!

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