Francis Bacon on the Psychology of Superstition

Francis Bacon

The human mind, uninstructed, has always been particularly liable to superstition. Throughout history, and even today, many people believe in a host of invisible entities and forces, including gods, angels, demons, ghosts, spirits, omens, miracles, telepathy, clairvoyance, and more. 

At the root of all superstitious beliefs are three related psychological biases, first identified by Francis Bacon, a 17th-century English philosopher and scientist. While Bacon had his own terminology (he referred to groups of related biases as Idols of the mind), the modern terminology is as follows: 

  1. Hyperactive agency detection – the tendency to attribute agency and intention to any event, as when someone assumes that the rustling in the bush is the result of someone or something’s presence, rather than the wind. This evolutionary adaptation, conducive to survival, is a strong candidate for the origin of religious belief. (This makes evolutionary sense: If the rustling in the bush is the wind and you think it’s a lion, it’s a silly mistake; if the rustling is a lion and you think it’s the wind, you’re dead.)
  2. Hyperactive pattern detection – the tendency to find patterns and meaning in completely random data, as when we see faces in the clouds. As Bacon put it, “The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.”  
  3. Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for evidence in support of a belief that we already hold, and to ignore, deny, or reject any and all contradictory evidence. As Bacon said, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.” 

And so we find agency, patterns, and meaning in random data and then seek to find positive evidence in favor of these superstitious beliefs, while ignoring any evidence that might suggest those beliefs are false. 

Bacon captured the essence of the problem—along with a potential solution—in the following anecdote:

“And therefore it was a good answer that was made by one who, when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods — “Aye,” asked he again, “but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?” And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by….it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human intellect to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives; whereas it ought properly to hold itself indifferently disposed toward both alike. Indeed, in the establishment of any true axiom, the negative instance is the more forcible of the two.”

While many people would look to the survivors of a shipwreck as evidence of a benevolent God, Bacon looked instead to the casualties. Bacon would ask, if a select number of people who took their vows were saved, then how can we explain the larger number of people who also took their vows but were drowned?

By teaching yourself to look for negative instances or failed prophecies/predictions, you can mitigate the appeal of most superstitious beliefs—and resist the urge to attribute supernatural causes to statistical commonalities.

For example, if you find that someone survives a seemingly irrecoverable illness, injury, or natural disaster, before you attribute this to divine intervention, consider two points. First, following Bacon’s shipwreck example, consider the innumerable individuals that died in similar circumstances and ask yourself why they were not also worth “saving.” 

Second, remember that in any large sample, there will always be statistical outliers. While the mortality rate may be very high for a particular type of cancer, for instance, there will always be the rare few individuals that “miraculously” recover. This is simply statistics, not divine intervention (or, if it is divine intervention, God seems compelled to, for some reason, abide by the laws of statistics).  

Finally, keep in mind that you can never disprove someone’s superstitions, but it is also unnecessary to do so, because, in addition to the burden of proof properly lying with the person making the claim, there is no rational reason for anyone to be more compelled by positive occurrences (a single dream that comes true) than by negative one’s (thousands of dreams that failed to come true), as Francis Bacon pointed out centuries ago.  

Further Reading

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