People may override rational thought when they think that a particular occasion is special, or when the cost of ignoring the superstition may be more than the cost of correcting irrationality, researchers have found.
The study by researchers including Jane Risen, Associate Professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in US found that even when people recognise that their belief does not make sense, they can still allow that irrational belief to influence how they think, feel and behave.
Detecting an irrational thought and correcting that error are two separate processes, not one as most dual-system cognitive models assume, Ms Risen said.
This insight explains how people can detect irrational thought and choose not to correct it, a process she described as "acquiescence."
"Even when the conditions are all perfect for detecting an error - when people have the ability and motivation to be rational and when the context draws attention to the error -the magical intuition may still prevail," said Ms Risen.
Although the suggestion to decouple detection and correction was inspired by the findings from research on superstition and magical thinking, Ms Risen suggests there are broader applications.
Understanding how acquiescence unfolds in magical thinking can help provide insight into how it is that people knowingly behave irrationally in many other areas of life.
Certain variables create situations in which intuition is likely to override rational thought. For example, people may acquiesce if they can rationalise their intuition by thinking that a particular situation is special.
Acquiescence may also be more likely if the costs of ignoring rationality are low relative to the costs of ignoring intuition - as with people who receive a chain letter; they acknowledge it is irrational to believe that breaking the chain brings bad luck, but still forward the letter.
The research has implications for how people make decisions at home, at work and in public life. It also suggests how to help people fix their errors.
Interventions to effectively change behaviour need to target the appropriate cognitive process, which Risen suggests starts by acknowledging that detection and correction are separate processes.
The study appears in the journal Psychological Review.
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