Happy people are more likely to believe evidence of the supernatural and to sidestep black cats, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 5). This effect held true whether researchers manipulated participants' mood or tapped their existing moods, notes lead author Laura King, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
In the first of a series of studies, King and her colleagues inspired a positive mood in half of their 121 undergraduate student participants by asking them to imagine that they had helped a lost child find his parents in a mall. These students wrote for three minutes about how they felt after performing the good deed, while the control group wrote about the sights and sounds of their college town.
The participants also filled out a personality inventory, assessing whether they tended to have an intuitive style of information processing-trusting their gut instincts-or if they more often thought things through rationally.
Both groups of participants then watched a series of videos culled from the Internet, purporting to show evidence of ghosts and UFOs.
The students who had spent three minutes happily imagining themselves as heroes and tended to trust their instincts were more likely to believe the "evidence" in the videos, while the intuitive students in a neutral mood were more skeptical, the researchers found. The rationally oriented students didn't trust the videos, regardless of their moods.
"If you have these intuitive tendencies...when you are in a good mood, you have this internal 'go ahead' signal to follow your gut," says King. That makes sense, she adds, because your instincts are probably right on if circumstances are making you happy. In contrast, people in sad or frustrating situations may find it helpful to go into a rational, problem-solving mode.
In a follow-up study, the researchers surveyed the mood and information-processing style of 208 participants, and then asked them to throw six darts at an irregularly-shaped target. The researchers then replaced the target with a picture of a baby's face. The procedure tests participants' belief in the "law of similarity," in which people equate similar-looking things, notes King. It's the same belief that underpins voodoo dolls, and it's why her students sometimes tear up pictures of ex-boyfriends.
As in the first experiment, the intuitive, happy participants tended to be the most superstitious-their ability to aim darts declined sharply when the target was a baby picture. Intuitive participants who were not in good moods and all rational participants showed less of a decline in their dart-throwing accuracy.
Taken together, the studies show that mood and personality interact to affect people's susceptibility to superstitious beliefs, says King. What's more, the research suggests that such beliefs may be normal, natural and sometimes even adaptive.
"We can look at these patently nonrational processes in human life not as an exception to the ideal of human rationality, but as reflections of processes that allow us to engage the world in meaningful ways," she says.