The Psychology and Economics of Superstition Through the Eyes of Devi

(Readers’ submissions: Celebrating one year of the Indigenous Blog)

By Moumita Roy

“Superstition is really black marketing in the business of faith.”


Narendra Dabolkhar, social activist and rationalist.

One of the most spectacular scenes in Devi (1960, Satyajit Ray) is when Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) realizes that he has lost the argument with his father, Kalikinkar (Chabbi Biswas) who has de-humanized his wife and transformed her into an avatar of Goddess Kali. In the film, Kalikinkar is a long-time devotee of Goddess Kali and in one of his dreams, sees his youngest daughter-in-law, Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) as a manifestation of the Goddess. And thus starts the process of superstitious beliefs reigning over rational thoughts, of de-humanizing Dayamoyee and putting her on a pedestal.

Sharmila Tagore in Devi

Superstitions are irrational, unfounded, or vague beliefs. They are universal. No one is immune to them. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist, and an awardee of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, popularized the concept of ‘System 1 and System 2’ thinking in his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘. Decisions are based on System 1 short-cuts which Kahneman calls heuristics. A heuristic is a guesstimate, intuition, or more commonly, the gut feeling. System 1 is quick to generate superstitious beliefs, which, once activated, serve as the default for judgment and behaviour. But these heuristics can be wrong or biased, and System 2 may or may not correct the initial intuition or heuristic. Jane Risen, a University of Chicago Booth School of Business psychologist’s research shows that the interaction of these two systems can explain how superstitious thoughts originate. A two-system perspective helps illustrate why superstitions are widespread, why particular superstitious beliefs arise, and why the beliefs persist even though they are not true. Risen tells us that, if System 2 fails to engage, this superstitious belief will guide people’s responses, resulting in our System 2 becoming a slave to our System 1.

On top of that, the existence of confirmation bias among biased believers makes matters worse. Confirmation bias is the tendency to recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs, or values. Superstitions thrive on confirmation bias. In Devi, Umaprasad attempts to make his father, who had already developed a biased belief, see reason. While the father and son are engaged in a heated debate about the possible divinity of Dayamoyee, a poor villager brings his terminally ill son to her, hoping that Goddess Kali’s avatar will cure the child. As fate would have it, the child is cured after drinking charnamrit (a sweet drink which is prepared from the milk used to wash the Goddess’s feet). And this, sadly, is the moment that provides a false confirmation of Dayamoyee’s divinity to all the biased believers.

A false confirmation

Early research on superstitious belief claims that people who do not believe in fate still refuse to tempt it, sensing that ‘the universe punishes such modest acts of hubris.’ Dayamoyee found this dubious idea of her being an avatar very unsettling. Even then, she was unwilling to ‘anger’ Goddess Kali lest her disobedience becomes the cause of the Goddess’s wrath on her family. ‘Tempting fate would bring bad luck’ was her belief even though she could not provide the rationale for that thought. If we believe that our rebellious acts can cause a tragedy in our lives, who would not believe in these superstitions? And this is how the logical, analytical, reasoning part of our brain (System 2) takes a backseat while we cave in to our System 1 thinking.

Since the early 2000s, behavioural and experimental economists have been actively working on this area of research. Superstitions can influence human behaviour and decision-making, and thus impact economic outcomes and social preferences. Researchers have found that a preference to conform to the existing social norm may lead people to act as if they believe in superstition, and, in turn, validate the beliefs of those who do. For example, in Devi, neither of the sons of Kalikinkar purposefully raise their voice against their father’s absurd ideas. The social norm of that era was to be an obedient son and not go against the father’s wishes. The older son, Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee) is appalled at the idea when his wife requests him to question his blind faith in his father’s decisions. He prefers to conform. Following Kalikinkar, he falls at Dayamoyee’s feet, fuelling his father’s beliefs in Dayamoyee’s divinity. The younger son, Umaprasad, even though he cannot reconcile with his father’s beliefs, is also unable to break the norm and stand up to his father with enough grit.

Victimization and de-humanization through superstitious beliefs

Narendra Dabholkar, a social activist who focussed on the eradication of superstitions from the Indian society had once said that “Superstition is really black marketing in the business of faith”. People are provoked if their superstitions are criticized by people who they deem as outsiders. Kalikinkar is visibly disturbed when Umaprasad calls him out on his superstitious beliefs. Superstitions create a divide between an affectionate father and a dutiful son, converting them to a biased believer (Kalikinkar) and a rational thinker (Umaprasad). The socio-economic costs of superstitious beliefs can be disastrous. When bigotry can easily be made into a social norm, believing in superstitions can quickly escalate into religious, gender, or caste discrimination.

 It is therefore both interesting and economically relevant to understand the significance of superstitions and avoid falling into its trap. Through Dayamoyee, Devi shows us how superstitious beliefs can result in the victimization of people. She loses her innocence, her status as a flesh-and-blood human being, and eventually her sanity when her ‘powers’ are unable to cure her beloved Khoka, and the child dies. 

With superstition affecting every sphere of life, even to this day and age, it is essential to spare it some thought. The best way to reduce confirmation bias and its resulting superstitious beliefs is to take some time before executing our decision. This would mean giving precedence to our System 2 logical thinking over the automatic System 1 thinking. Our perspective may still be incomplete, but it will be much more balanced.  More importantly, we need to find the inner strength and courage to speak up against behaviours and biased beliefs that are perpetuated by negative social norms.

Moumita Roy is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ahmedabad University. She is in equal parts a Behavioral Economist and a cinephile, and has managed to find a middle ground through her Instagram page and blog, Filmynomics. In her free time, she is watching films, planning weekend trips, or listening to soulful music.

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