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Psychology Professor Ian McGregor explores links between anxiety and compensatory convictions

Psychology Professor Ian McGregor explores links between anxiety and compensatory convictions

Research sheds light on human belief in Friday the 13th, Bigfoot, fate, heaven and hell

It was during this week, in the lead-up to today’s supernaturally inclined date of Friday the 13th, that I learned the similarity between believing in Bigfoot and believing in The One, wrote columnist Micah Toub in The Globe and Mail May 12:

This somewhat unsettling information was delivered to me not by the Weekly World News, but by Ian McGregor, a York University psychology researcher [Faculty of Health]. With assistance from his grad student Chelsea Ferriday, McGregor has been studying what those in his field call “compensatory conviction”. I had been curious to find out about the usefulness of pinning one’s romantic hopes and dreams on things like astrology, synchronicity and fate. As it turns out, there is some.

In his lab, McGregor has his guests perform activities and answer questions that are meant to put them in an anxious mood. He then asks them to rate their level of confidence that they’ve found, as he puts it, “their soul mate or the person they are meant to be with.”

When they were rattled, subjects consistently rated their current relationship higher on the magic scale, using their partner as a balm to ease anxiety about other matters.

“If you’re feeling uncertain about a particular domain in your life – economics or academics or family, for instance – you’ll find another domain to find certainty,” McGregor explained. “Relationships can become an attractive domain for irrational conviction.”

Similarly uncertain subjects, McGregor told me, also calm themselves by exaggerating beliefs in supernatural phenomena, like heaven and hell. And yeah, Bigfoot.

. . .

In hindsight, it seems somewhat silly, but according to McGregor, a certain amount of silliness can be a good thing. He actually called it an “optimal margin of illusion,” which will also be the title of my first album. “People have a lot of illusions to protect them from anxiety,” McGregor told me. “But sometimes, positive illusions can actually come true. Sometimes people eventually develop better relationships because of them.” In other words, if your belief in astrology makes you optimistic about your current love interest, that superstitious optimism might be the thing that turns the two of you into a scientific fact.

For those who place themselves firmly on the skeptical side when it comes to the universal energy flow’s influence on love, McGregor pointed out that this doesn’t mean you're immune to illusion. “People can delude themselves about how great their partner is and how great they are,” he said, adding that these people who put too much faith in the awesomeness of their own will can become equally out of touch with reality.

He went even further: “The personal confidence illusions can spin into narcissism, where the person is living in their own mind, leaving a wake of rubble behind them as they flex their grandiose muscles.”

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.