Sunday, November 1, 2009

Superstitious Beliefs Cemented Before Birth

he propensity to believe in paranormal phenomena and superstitions appears to arise in the womb, suggests new research.

The findings, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, further indicate that a reduced ability for analytical thinking may correspond with increased intuitive thinking, which has been associated with a belief in extrasensory perception (ESP), ghosts, telepathy and other paranormal phenomena.

Author Martin Voracek claims his new study's determinations "suggest (there are) biologically based, prenatally programmed influences on paranormal and superstitious beliefs."

"Or, paraphrasing the probably best-known slogan from the defining X-Files television series: It may well be that some of the truth is in the womb, rather than out there," added Voracek, a University of Vienna psychologist.

His study participants consisted of 1,118 Austrian men and women from diverse backgrounds. They ranged in age from 17 to 72.

Voracek first had the test subjects complete an established survey that psychologists and other researchers use to assess a subject's paranormal beliefs and experiences. The questions addressed related abilities, such as ESP and psychokinesis, which is the power to move something by thinking about it.

The study participants were next evaluated on their beliefs in both negative and positive superstitions. The negative superstitions included walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror and associating the number 13 with misfortune. The positive ones were crossing fingers, touching wood and carrying lucky charms.

Voracek then collected data on each participant's weight and length at birth, as well as their present age, education, adult height and weight. He additionally measured the lengths of the test subjects' ring, middle and index fingers.

Prior research had determined that relative finger length, also known as digit ratio, can be a marker for individual differences affected by hormones.

Men tend to have ring fingers that are slightly longer than their index fingers. In women, these fingers are usually about the same length, or the index digit is slightly longer.

In some cases, however, women exhibit a digit ratio more associated with men, while men may exhibit the ratio associated more with women.

The ratio is "a putative marker of prenatal androgen exposure, with paranormal as well as negative and positive superstitious beliefs," Voracek explained, mentioning that exposure to testosterone and other male sex hormones in the womb are thought to underlie the observed differences.

Voracek found that "higher feminized" digit ratio in men correlated with stronger paranormal and superstitious beliefs, "even when controlled for age, education, adult height and weight, and birth length and weight."

"Shorter feminized" digit ratios in women also correlated with a greater likelihood of superstitious beliefs, as did a woman's lighter weight at birth. For both sexes, shorter body length at birth was associated with later beliefs in superstitions and the paranormal.

The findings help to support the conclusions of Kia Aarnio and Marjaana Lindeman, both University of Helsinki psychologists who have extensively studied the propensity for paranormal and superstitious beliefs.

They found that women are much more likely to have such beliefs, which the researchers attribute to "higher intuitiveness and lower analytical thinking."

Based on the recent study, it now appears that men born with at least one feminine-associated characteristic may have greater intuitiveness as well, possibly explaining why these men, like some women, are more inclined to hold paranormal and superstitious beliefs.

Viegas, Jennifer. 2009. "Superstitious Beliefs Cemented Before Birth". Discovery News. Posted: October 30, 2009. Available online:

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