When you believe in things that you don’t understand
Then you suffer
Superstition ain’t the way
– Stevie Wonder
I have always found it odd that airplanes don’t have a 13th row and hotels don’t have a 13th floor. Well, of course they do, but they are not labeled that way. Many people would hesitate to sit in the 13th row of an airplane since 13 is such an unlucky number. At least many people in the United States think the number 13 is unlucky. Thirteen is just a number in much of Asia. There, the number 4 is just as threatening as 13 is to us.
Superstitions like these are familiar to all of us.
One of my favorites is the belief that vacuum cups attached to the skin will somehow draw out toxins and generally improve health. “Cupping,” as the practice is known, is endorsed by several celebrities and famous athletes. After the treatment, a cupped patient exhibits circles of hyperemia, and no other apparent harm. I suspect that about a third of cupped patients truly think they have benefited from a good cupping, about the same number that would benefit from an orally administered placebo.
Superstitions are everywhere. Whether it is a black cat in the United States, infinite reflecting mirrors in Mexico, going back to your house after a wake in the Philippines, or whistling indoors in Lithuania, superstitions are pervasive, deeply held, and generally harmless. They are good for a good laugh as we recognize how ludicrous these unfounded fears are.
Some superstitions, though, are no laughing matter. They can be quite harmful. They are pathologic superstitions.
For example, some people believe vaccines cause autism in children. That pathologic superstition has consequences. A recent CDC report revealed that the population of unvaccinated children in the United States has quadrupled since 2001. This comes as no surprise as we hear about more measles outbreaks – and the deaths associated with them – in populations of unvaccinated children every year. A similar and pervasive pathologic superstition is the fear that an influenza vaccine will cause the flu. I wonder how many people die from this misconception.
Other people believe that their cancer can be treated, if not cured, with unproven, unconventional treatments. I cannot understand how this pathologic superstition developed. The purveyors of unconventional treatment hold much of the blame, but gullibility and ignorance may play a larger role. The consequences are tragic. A recent report demonstrated an approximately twofold increased risk of death in patients who used complementary therapies, compared with those who did not (JAMA Oncol. 2018 Oct 1;4:1375-81).
These are sobering data for those of us who have in the past relented when our patients asked if they could take this or that supplement because we did not think they would cause significant harm.
Superstitions apparently are part of the human condition, evolved to attribute causation and provide order. They are a learned phenomenon. They are learned by reasonable people with normal intelligence and rational thinking. A superstition is born when someone is exposed to a false statement by someone or something they trust – a trusted other.
Trusted others exude certainty. Once established, superstitions are regrettably difficult to remove by those who are less certain, like physicians. How willing are we to say that the flu vaccine is 100% safe? Without certainty, how can a physician debunk a superstition? The techniques that we have been taught usually work, but not when faced with a pathologic superstition.
Science and experience teach us that firmly held superstitions cannot be broken with logical, stepwise reasoning. Jonathan Haidt provides a useful metaphor for this problem in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” (Basic Books, 2006). He describes a rider on an elephant. The rider represents our rational thought and the elephant represents our emotional foundation. The rider thinks he controls the elephant, but the opposite is more likely true. In order to move the elephant in a certain direction, the rider needs to make the elephant want to turn in that direction. Otherwise, all the cajoling and arguing in the world won’t make the elephant turn. A rational argument made to someone emotionally invested in the counter argument will fail. That is why we cannot convince antivaccine parents to vaccinate their children by trying to persuade them with facts. Neither can we convince global warming skeptics to stop burning coal, gun advocates to vote for restrictions on gun ownership, or cancer patients to accept curative treatment if their values and morals are being challenged.
In a later book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” (Vintage Books, 2012), Mr. Haidt expands his hypothesis to declare that to change minds, we must appeal to underlying moral values. The challenge is to identify those moral underpinnings in our patients in order to develop an appeal likely to resonate with their emotions and values.
Superstition derives from something people learn either from trusted others or from personal experience. It does no good for physicians to deride patient beliefs and denigrate their agency in an attempt to persuade them to abandon what we consider irrational beliefs. For physicians to penetrate pathologic superstitions, they will have to become the trusted other, to understand moral foundations, to emotionally connect. That does not usually happen the first day we meet a new patient, especially a skeptical one. It takes time, and effort, to reach out and bond with the patient and their family. Only then can pathologic superstitions dissolve and a better patient-doctor relationship evolve.
During this season rife with superstition, remember that your patient’s own superstitions are part of their belief system, and your belief system may be threatening to them. Make your beliefs less threatening, become a trusted other, and appeal to their foundational values, and you can successfully break a pathologic superstition.
Dr. Kalaycio is editor in chief of Hematology News. He chairs the department of hematologic oncology and blood disorders at Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute. Contact him at email@example.com.