13 February 2009

Don't fall for easy explanations or answers ~ It will be a tempting

The credit crunch will create a bull market in irrational belief....

"SCIENCE has allowed us to smooth over many of the natural ups and downs of human existence. We have predictable harvests, food on supermarket shelves, savings and pensions that will help us get through difficult times, and economies that provide most people with what they need to survive. Alongside these developments a rational, scientific world view has become the dominant mode of thought.

Take the comforts away, however, and the rationality often evaporates too. When human beings lose control over their lives, they become more prone to superstition, spiritual searchings and conspiracy theories.

Some of these losses of control are self-inflicted: studies show that people in risky professions - deep-sea fishermen and sky-divers, for example - perform a greater number of superstitious rituals than those with safe desk jobs. Others, though, are a response to circumstances. For example, people living in high-risk areas of the Middle East, such as Tel Aviv, are much more likely to carry a lucky charm or avoid walking under ladders. A 2007 study showed that the growth rate of evangelical churches in the US jumps 50 per cent with the downturn of each economic cycle. The global downturn is no different: church leaders (and psychics) are now reporting brisk business.

Uncertain times cause us to cast about more widely for explanations of our circumstances - and rational reasoning, alas, does not always come naturally when we are desperate for answers. It is ironic that science is revealing our modern, sophisticated, scientific world view to have a fragile hold on our minds. But there are also lessons to be learned. First, we ought to be more understanding of seemingly irrational world views. Many psychologists now see irrationality as the default state of the human mind. No wonder the idea that life arose spontaneously has such a hard time trumping creationism: overcoming that "natural" perspective takes a lot of cognitive effort. Research into irrationality may also provide insights to help guide the treatment of those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and related mental illnesses.

The other lesson is more direct: be careful. In a recession, or any other time of uncertainty, you are more likely to make bad decisions. By all means play the lottery if it provides a momentary diversion from the gloom. But keep your head. However seductive and comforting the idea of a win, and however tricky your circumstances, playing the lottery is not a rational path to riches. Even if God did tell you this week's numbers."

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