A Review of “Believing in Magic” by Stuart Vyse

Reviewed by Mirari Elcoro, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, Armstrong State University (Savannah, GA)

Are you superstitious? Whether the answer is yes or no, Stuart Vyse, Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College, will show you that this seemingly simple question deserves careful examination. In his book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, winner of the William James Book Award, Vyse examines many aspects of superstitious behavior and how this behavior comes about. In the updated edition of this book (2014) Vyse includes new research and insights on the study of superstition as well as updated examples, and more cultural references. He also addresses the difference between superstition and religion.

The overarching position throughout the book and, to me, the take-home message is that “(…) we desperately need to promote scientific thinking” (p. xi). Vyse states the following in his introduction to this updated version of the book: “(…) as a society and a species, we would be much better off if we follow the path of evidence, science, and reason. At the same time (…) under some circumstances, magical beliefs can benefit the believer. These two ideas may appear antithetical, but they clearly coexist in our world. Our challenge is to find the right balance between them”(p. xi). Vyse takes serious consideration of this complex and real apparent paradox.

This book is filled with curious, entertaining, and interesting anecdotes and more rigorous scientific findings about superstition. This is a fascinating, accessible, and deep examination of superstition. Vyse provides a way to find comfort in understanding what may seem inexplicable by means of evaluating the evidence. After listening to many personal narratives that served as part of his research for this book, he confides to us whether he holds superstitions or not (you’ll have to read the book to find out). With understanding superstition via critical thinking and evidence, Vyse unites perspectives regardless of beliefs. The book invites excellent discussion and emphasizes generalities to build bridges between apparently contradicting ideas.

Superstition is ubiquitous, its impact highly pervasive in our lives. Sometimes superstition is a way to cope with conflict or stress. Vyse provides extensive descriptions and explanations that truly bring understanding to many of the types of behaviors classified as superstitious. In his book Vyse provides a comprehensive discussion on the definition of superstition, a concise review of the role of operant conditioning in learning superstitions such as having a lucky shirt, but also of more complex sequences of behaviors such as pregame rituals. Skinner’s work and groundbreaking publication on superstitious behavior are also described.

Vyse writes about how human nature seeks to impose order; how we tend to connect the disconnected; how some of us also tend to impart special meaning to coincidental events. Vyse offers a guide to understanding coincidence referencing from research on understanding randomness. He writes about heuristics, how the P. T. Barnum effect influences the belief in astrology, as well as how powerful are placebo effects and their connection to superstitious behavior.

In the chapter titled Growing Up Superstitious, Vyse describes how developmental variables and stages lead to becoming more or less superstitious. In this same chapter the role of social influence in the development of superstitions is described. In some cases, superstition may lead to suffering and be part of disorders. Can we say then that superstitious is irrational? Vyse provides a very complete discussion of this question. But superstition can also have positive effects that lead to improved performance, so it seems to be a matter of degree what makes superstitious beneficial or detrimental.

Throughout his book Vyse provides accounts about how people become superstitious and what maintains such behavior. This is a fantastic book that deepens our understanding of a very complex behavior. Whether you consider yourself superstitious or not, this is a topic close to all of us. Reading this book may make you think in more than one way about the answer to the question of whether you are superstitious.

Posted by Guest Author

ADI welcomes guest post contributions. In keeping with our founding principles and our mission to our readers, we require that the content relate to the science of Applied Behavioral Analysis.