Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Call for Participants: The Foundations of 'Superstitious' Beliefs

Dr. Jeff Rudski, an associate professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania is looking for participants to answer a short online survey for his research looking at the foundations of 'superstitious' beliefs. He has forwarded me the following request.


I'm looking for participants for a research project examining the basis for various beliefs often called "superstitious". Many scientists look at these beliefs and dismiss them claiming that there is no reliable scientific evidence to support the claims. While that may or may not be true, the beliefs still persist. Thus, the beliefs are real, and a better understanding of their foundations will help inform us on how beliefs work in general.

One theory of cognition states that we actually have 2 different modes of thought: rational and intuitive. For instance. I don't believe in ghosts. I haven't been persuaded by the evidence. However, I'm terrified of ghost stories and horror movies. This emotional reaction suggests to me that the belief in ghosts resonates within me, although not according to my 'rational' thought processes.

To examine this 'split belief' (rational versus intuitive), several students and I have constructed a survey (that takes most participants approximately 20 minutes to fill out) that asks for the basis of beliefs in various paranormal phenomena. Afterwards, was ask questions to assess your rational-intuititve orientation, as well as several questions addressing your beliefs on tensions between science- and faith-based ways of knowing. I also provide information on how you can be kept apprised of the results.

The survey can be found at http://www.zoomerang.com/survey.zgi?p=WEB226XW9V5KWV

The research has been approved by Muhlenberg College's Institutional Review Board. Thank you for your consideration. Your participation will be quite valuable.

Jeff Rudski, Ph.D
Associate Professor of Psychology
Muhlenberg College
Allentown PA


Anonymous said...

(I am a scientist by profession.) I took the test halfway and then realized that the terms "belief" and "superstitious" can take on different meanings that will lead to completely different answers. I wonder how these "psychologists" are going to interpret their results and decided that the test is not worth taking.

Anonymous said...

I am also trained as a scientist. I agree that one person's article of faith can be another person's superstition, but I think that part of what the Muhlenburg team is trying to get at through this study is what people define as 'superstition' and how they arrive at that. I would disagree that the survey isn't worth taking; I think they are going to have some very interesting data to work with. My only comp[laint is that the survey is quite long.

Unknown said...

I really dislike how this survey is implemented. Among my concerns (please forward to the author ... and I apologize for being somewhat incoherent; the textarea box needs to be bigger):

1. Each question contains several subquestions each with different scales. While the scales are included as part of each question, it would be less confusing to have the labels placed adjacent to the minimum and maximum value radio buttons, e.g.:

Strongly Agree [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] Strongly Disagree

Alternatively, each question could be phrased so as to use the same scale (strongly agree vs strongly disagree). Thus question 2 subquestion 3 could be stated as "My belief (if any) is rationally based".

2. The format doesn't seem to allow for a clear distinction among indifference (don't care), ambivalence (torn between two opposing views), and positive agnosticism (active assertion that a question is unanswerable). For example in question 2, answering subquestion 1 as "4" could mean "I'm not sure", "I have conflicting perspectives", or "It is not possible to know".

3. I think "skepticism" is being conflated with "active disbelief". For example, I'm skeptical about the soul; I'll neither believe in the soul nor in its absence until I see evidence one way or another (and any evidence I do find I'll try to scrutinize carefully without bias)

4. Subquestions 3 and 4 are not well defined or explained. It took me considerable time to decide whether by "your belief" you meant "your belief *about* the subject" or "your belief *in* the subject" (speaking of things being conflated). I had to assume the latter (and that by "skepticism" you really meant "disbelief"), because that's the only way in which subquestion 4 isn't redundant.

The "if any" possibilities in subquestions 3 and 4 could be coded with a separate "N/A" option. That might make analysis easier.

Conditions under which one's belief in a paranormal phenomenon are rationally-based and one's disbelief experientially-based are possible, I guess, but probably won't occur in the wild.

Basically I think that subquestions 3 and 4 aren't close enough to orthogonal, or well-defined enough, to be a useful tool for investigating belief.

You might want to include some answers to hypothetical different cases, such as:

"I'm sure leprechauns exist because I've seen them"
"I know there aren't leprechauns because I've never seen one"
"I know there's no leprechauns because the laws of physics say rainbows are actually circular, and circles have no ends where pots of gold can be".
"I think I saw a leprechaun once, but science is pretty compelling, so it was probably just those funny little mushrooms I ate."
"It is not possible to either prove the existence or nonexistence of supernatural beings, therefore nobody can know whether leprechauns exist or not".
"I've never really thought about it so I don't really know"
(and the rare)
"Well, our lab found indirect evidence for leprechauns in abnormally high concentrations of gold ions following rainbows and in the cereal aisle at grocery stores, but my gut tells me it's bunk."