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Description: Imagine that as part of a psychology experiment you pour sugar into two bowls and you label one of them sucrose and the other sodium cyanide (which is poisonous) and then you place them both in your kitchen table. Even though you know that both bowls just contain plain old sugar which one do you think you’d be most likely to use when you add sugar to your coffee or tea every morning?

Source: Jane Risen and David Nussbaum, Believing what you don’t believe, Grey Mater, The New York Times

Date: October 30, 2015

Beleiving Not

Photo Credit: Golden Cosmos

Links: Article Link

In the experimental situation described above, avoiding the sugar bowl labelled sodium cyanide would be irrational given that you would know that both bowls just contain sugar. However, most people would not use the sugar in the pool labelled sodium cyanide in the same way that a baseball player on hitting streak might wear the same socks or underwear every day for fear that his luck would run out if he did not. So why is it that we often behave in these irrational or superstitious ways? Psychologists studying human decision-making build on the work of Daniel Kahneman focused on fast and slow decision making systems in the brain. Fast thinking is intuitive and leads to quick judgments without reflection while slow thinking is much more deliberate and effortful and is often used to correct errors that it might detect in decisions arrived at by the fast system. However, the way humans behave in areas involving superstition or magical thinking would suggest that our slow system is not always successful in correcting our thinking and making us more rational and in fact sometimes the slow system might even make matters worse by trying to rationalize decisions made by the fast system rather than attending to the data it is aware of that shows that those decisions are wrong. The authors of the article suggest that if we want to avoid the effects of these powerful intuitions that are very difficult to shake what we ought to do is make what amount to “policy” decisions that are intended to apply to all similar circumstances. So for example a baseball manager (yes, I know, the World Series are on) that calls for a sacrifice bunt despite knowing the data that says in the long run he will generate more base-runners and runs by having the batter swing away might benefit from deciding at the start of the season that he is never going to make such a call. That sort of “policy” decision will help avoid his strong intuition at a sacrifice pond is the thing to do in a tight game situation.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Come up here some examples from your own experience of beliefs that you hold or decisions that you regularly make that fly in the face of clear data regarding their irrational nature.
  2. What is the difference between what Daniel Kahneman refers to as the fast and the slow systems we use for making decisions?
  3. Looking back at the examples you potentially came up with in response to the first question above what sorts of general “policy” statements or decisions might you make to reduce the likelihood of your behaving irrationally in future?

References (Read Further):

Risen, J. L. (2015). Believing What We Do Not Believe: Acquiescence to Superstitious Beliefs and Other Powerful Intuitions. Psychological review.

Pravichai, S., & Ariyabuddhiphongs, V. (2014). Superstitious Beliefs and Problem Gambling Among Thai Lottery Gamblers: The Mediation Effects of Number Search and Gambling Intensity. Journal of Gambling Studies, 1-17.

Hamerman, E. J., & Morewedge, C. K. (2015). Reliance on Luck Identifying Which Achievement Goals Elicit Superstitious Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167214565055,

Strawson, Galen (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – review An Outstandingly clear and precise study of the “dual process” model of the brain and our embedded self-delusions, Science and Nature, The Guardian,

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