Reason‘s Ronald Bailey reviewed Michael Shermer’s excellent The Believing Brain for The Wall Street Journal. If you don’t feel like reading all 340 pages, Bailey summarizes them well:
Superstitions arise as the result of the spurious identification of patterns. Even pigeons are superstitious. In an experiment where food is delivered randomly, pigeons will note what they were doing when the pellet arrived, such as twirling to the left and then pecking a button, and perform the maneuver over and over until the next pellet arrives. A pigeon rain dance. The behavior is not much different than in the case of a baseball player who forgets to shave one morning, hits a home run a few hours later and then makes it a policy never to shave on game days.
It’s surprising how much of human behavior can be explained by what Shermer calls patternicity and agenticity. Like pigeons, we seek patterns and therefore find them. But we also have the ingrained instinct to believe that some kind of agent has to be behind those patterns: god, a politician, somebody, anybody. Every design must have a designer.
No wonder Hayekian spontaneous order polls so poorly, despite having the benefit of being true. Lessons abound.
I’m very much enjoying Michael Shermer’s new book The Believing Brain. It’s about how the brain forms beliefs, why people hold on to their beliefs so strongly, and why people believe in weird things like ghosts and conspiracy theories.
On p. 260, Shermer quotes from a study (pdf) by Drew Westen, et al, where his team ran fMRI scans on the brains of political partisans to see what parts of their brains were firing when engaged in political dispute:
We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up… Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidascope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.
There you have it: scientific proof that partisans aren’t quite right in the head.