Everyday beliefs about food refuse to give way to scientific evidence

Thursday, 31 August, 2006


Marieke Saher's recent doctoral dissertation for the Department of Psychology at the University of Helsinki analyses everyday beliefs about food and health. By these beliefs she refers to people's ideas about whether certain foods are healthy, what might have caused a stomach upset or whether a medicine really works.

"People can sometimes be so convinced of their ideas that it is impossible to disprove them, even if rational expert evidence exists to do so," Saher said.

Such beliefs can seldom be shaken by rational arguments. It has been suggested that some of these beliefs come close to superstition. Saher's surveys focused on some everyday beliefs: the concept that "you are what you eat", attitudes toward genetically modified (GM) and organic food, and belief in alternative medicine.

The first survey revealed that people draw conclusions about each other solely based on dietary habits: those who ate healthily were considered to be more disciplined in general but were also presumed to be less likable. The survey did not, however, establish whether this phenomenon was based on a superstition whereby food is believed to somehow taint the personality or on normal everyday ideas.

Saher detected a weak correlation between attitudes toward organic and GM food and superstition, in that those who were prone to superstition were more negative toward GM food and more positive toward organic food than respondents on average.

Strong correlations were detected between superstition and belief in alternative medicine " the more a respondent believed in alternative medicine the more likely he or she was to also believe in paranormal phenomena such as astrology, telepathy or palm reading.

Belief in alternative medicine and paranormal phenomena was also linked to a willingness to disregard the boundaries between biology, physics and psychology, and to apply the concepts of one discipline to another.

According to Saher, such thinking does not necessarily indicate that a person is poorly educated, because rational knowledge is not linked to these beliefs in any way. Some respondents simultaneously held conflicting superstitious and rational notions about certain phenomena, without the rational thoughts exercising any overriding effect on the superstitious elements. This might go some way toward explaining why certain everyday beliefs are so hard to overthrow with any rational argument.

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