It's a well-worn saying here in the United States: "Denial isn't just a river in Egypt."
We all deny reality. We all prefer to feel good about a falsity rather than embrace a harsh truth.
But some people struggle against our human inclination to believe in things that aren't true, while others make little or no effort to resist the lure of denial.
A piece in the New York Times, "Believing What You Don't Believe," casts light on what's going on here.
How is it that people can believe something that they know is not true?
For example, Kansas City Royals fans, sitting in front of their television sets in Kansas City, surely know that there is no possible connection between their lucky hats (or socks, or jerseys) and the outcome of a World Series game at Citi Field in New York, 1,200 miles away. Yet it would be impossible to persuade many of them to watch the game without those lucky charms.
It’s not that people don’t understand that it’s scientifically impossible for their lucky hats to help their team hit a home run or turn a double play — all but the most superstitious would acknowledge that. It’s that they have a powerful intuition and, despite its utter implausibility, they just can’t shake it.
So our quick intuitions can lead us astray. The role of slower reason, logic, and deliberate consideration of evidence is to correct those intuitive errors.
Psychologists who study decision making and its shortcomings often rely on the idea, popularized by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” that there are two modes of processing information.
There is a “fast system” that is intuitive and quickly generates impressions and judgments, and a “slow system” that operates in a deliberate and effortful manner, and is responsible for overriding the output of the fast system when the slow system detects an error.
However, often this doesn't happen. So people continue to believe in things they know aren't true.
Strange? Yes. Weird? Yes. But the human mind is undeniably strange and weird. If it wasn't, religions wouldn't have the fertile mental soil in which superstition and dogmatism establish such deep roots.
But as one of us, Professor Risen, discusses in a paper just published in Psychological Review, many instances of superstition and magical thinking indicate that the slow system doesn’t always behave this way.
When people pause to reflect on the fact that their superstitious intuitions are irrational, the slow system, which is supposed to fix things, very often doesn’t do so.
People can simultaneously recognize that, rationally, their superstitious belief is impossible, but persist in their belief, and their behavior, regardless. Detecting an error does not necessarily lead people to correct it.