Inducing Superstition

The human brain is a belief-forming machine. It is what defines us as a species: we guide our actions by creating mental models of the world and using those models to hypothesize about what will happen under a given set of circumstances. Our ability to create such models far surpasses that of any other species, and accounts for our unprecedented degree of deliberate technological control over the world.

However, though we are intelligent, we are not infallible. Humans of every culture and level of civilization can show remarkable astuteness in drawing inferences from scarce evidence, but we do make mistakes, and the principles of scientific reasoning appear to be far too complex for evolution to endow us with an instinctual grasp of them. Instead, as with so many other things, evolution has given us a jury-rigged solution that works more often than not. When two events frequently occur together, we make the inference that they are causally connected. This is usually the correct judgment, but the problem comes when events in our environment are random, when there is no pattern to be found. Under those circumstances, our belief-forming brains struggle to find a causal association – and if by chance there seems to be an association, the brain will seize on it. Apparently, it is better to perceive a pattern that doesn’t actually exist than to miss a pattern that does exist.

The brain’s susceptibility to finding patterns in noise was demonstrated in animal experiments by B.F. Skinner and his famous pigeon superstition experiments. Skinner set up an experiment where pigeons would be fed on a predetermined schedule, regardless of what they were doing at the time. With no reliable correlations to be found, the pigeons’ brains found unreliable correlations, assuming that whatever they were doing at the time they were fed was what caused them to be fed. As a result, the pigeons eventually formed “superstitions” about what caused the release of food: some repeatedly turned in circles, others pecked at the cage’s floor, others made peculiar head-bobbing or jerking motions toward one corner of the cage.

But surely, only pigeons and other animals of low intelligence would commit such a transparently simple error of judgment! Human beings are far smarter than that. We are creatures of magnificent reason, in possession of a brilliant and incisive mind that can carefully observe the evidence and draw the most likely conclusions. We could never be taken in by such a trick!

Could we?

Koichi Ono, a Japanese psychologist, set up one of my favourite experiments in which subjects were asked to sit at a desk on which were placed three coloured levers. In front of the subjects on the partition wall behind the desk was a signal light and electronic counter, which was apparently to keep track of points. Each session lasted forty minutes, and the subject was told to earn as many points as possible, though it was not explained how she was expected to do that. In fact, the points display on the counter had nothing to do with the levers on the desk, and was designed just to display new points at various intervals independently of anything the subject might do.

…After a while the Japanese volunteers could be seen repeating elaborate or simple combinations of lever-pulls, banging the sides of the partition, or even jumping up to touch the ceiling until exhaustion set in.

I first read about this delightful experiment in Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind, from which I draw the above excerpt, and was happy to find that the original study is available online. Similar results have been observed in the past. For example, my post “Seeking the Hidden Switches” showed another study where children instinctively searched for hidden causes rather than assume that events might happen at random.

So strong is the human brain’s pattern-seeking bias that it can lead us to believe in causal associations that a rational evaluation would dismiss as far too unlikely to be plausible. Does it make any sense to believe that a simple partition around a desk, or the ceiling above that desk, with no obvious means of manipulation or connection to the digital points display, could nevertheless influence that display? Yet that is just what some of Ono’s volunteers were driven to conclude.

Granted, not all the participants in this experiment developed stable superstitious responses. Only a few developed the persistent responses described above, while many more developed superstitious responses that did not persist, but eventually died out. This can be explained by noting that, as in all things, humans vary. Some people will be more or less predisposed than others to infer patterns in noise, while others will be more sensitive to evidence. Not everyone needs to be predisposed to superstitious belief for that tendency to have an effect on society. It’s tempting to wonder if, under other circumstances, the volunteers that did act in this way could have been the founders of a new religion.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Great post. I’m really glad that you mentioned Tricks of the Mind because I would have lost sleep wondering where I’d first read about it. I told a lot of people about that pidgeon experiment when I first finished the book, but I’d completely forgotten about it. It really does make people stop and think.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Great post. I’m really glad that you mentioned Tricks of the Mind because I would have lost sleep wondering where I’d first read about it. I told a lot of people about that pidgeon experiment when I first finished the book, but I’d completely forgotten about it. It really does make people stop and think.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    Thats sort of what David Hume said. There’s no sure way of knowing that the sun will rise tomorrow from the east or that it will rise at all just on the basis that it has done so for 4 billion (?) years. All that we can ever have are habits and as long as they work for us in everyday life that’s all we need.

  • Alex

    The entire field of professional hockey is a huge Hidden Switches experiment. Wayne Gretzky leaves the left side of his jersey untucked, scores about half a dozen goals in a game, and leaves it that way for the rest of his career. Martin Brodeur leaves his water bottle in one corner of the net, gets a shut out, and just about punches a ref who orders him to move it. One team doesn’t shave for the duration of the playoffs and wins the Stanley Cup. Now everybody grows a big, ugly playoff beard.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Alex said:

    The entire field of professional hockey is a huge Hidden Switches experiment

    Football (soccer, to you, I think) in Britain is the same. Fans and players alike have rituals and superstitions aplenty. There are also many players across Europe who cross themselves before coming on to the pitch.

  • Alex

    In strict defiance to the rest of my continent, I call it football too. Given the choice, I would much rather watch football than hockey, but the sports channels hereabouts aren’t crazy about broadcasting the Premier League.

    [/off topic]

  • The Vicar

    Strictly speaking, the experiment does not have direct relation to the start of religions, since the subjects were led to believe that relationships existed between their actions and the number of points scored, while presumably humans didn’t start off believing that about the universe.

  • The Vicar

    Strictly speaking, the experiment does not have direct relation to the start of religions, since the subjects were led to believe that relationships existed between their actions and the number of points scored, while presumably humans didn’t start off believing that about the universe.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Alex,

    Last comment off topic (promise!), but that’s encouraging to hear (that you like football, not that the networks won’t broadcast it). If you want to discuss “footy”, there’s an email address on my blog.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Alex,

    Last comment off topic (promise!), but that’s encouraging to hear (that you like football, not that the networks won’t broadcast it). If you want to discuss “footy”, there’s an email address on my blog.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    …the subjects were led to believe that relationships existed between their actions and the number of points scored, while presumably humans didn’t start off believing that about the universe.

    I don’t necessarily agree. Yes, no one told early humans that they could control the workings of the cosmos through their actions, but I’d argue that humans instinctively believe this; it doesn’t have to be taught. If a primitive group of people performed some action and noticed that a good result happened soon afterward, it’s a natural tendency to think that the two are somehow connected. If they repeated the behavior and, by chance, the good result repeated also, this association would only be reinforced.

    And once a superstition of this kind gets going, people can be amazingly resilient in overlooking or explaining away the times when it didn’t work. (“The rain dance would have worked, if only I had taken one more step to the left!!”)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    …the subjects were led to believe that relationships existed between their actions and the number of points scored, while presumably humans didn’t start off believing that about the universe.

    I don’t necessarily agree. Yes, no one told early humans that they could control the workings of the cosmos through their actions, but I’d argue that humans instinctively believe this; it doesn’t have to be taught. If a primitive group of people performed some action and noticed that a good result happened soon afterward, it’s a natural tendency to think that the two are somehow connected. If they repeated the behavior and, by chance, the good result repeated also, this association would only be reinforced.

    And once a superstition of this kind gets going, people can be amazingly resilient in overlooking or explaining away the times when it didn’t work. (“The rain dance would have worked, if only I had taken one more step to the left!!”)

  • The Vicar

    You’re probably right, but for purposes of intellectual honesty, that assertion has to be labelled “untested hypothesis” and we have to keep that in mind. After all, it’s possible (unlikely, but possible) that humans do not have this assumption built in, that it is culturally induced, and that it appeared through a fluke (or via divine/alien/other unlikely being intervention). Yes, I’m nitpicking, and I know it.

    I’m not even sure how you could go about testing the idea, without hitting an ethical wall. Children raised by other humans (parents or otherwise) would learn the expectation from their parents — there’s no way around it, really; proper childcare involves reacting to what the children do — and you can’t leave a bunch of babies alone to see what happens when they grow up, because they wouldn’t.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Let me tell you about something my youngest sister did when she was two or three weeks old.

    We hung up this mobile above her changing table. After a while she seemed to have noticed that she could make the mobile move. She was repeating a pattern of behaviour that went like this:
    1. Kick legs for a while
    2. Pause
    3. Wave arms
    Upon the arm-waving stage, her hand would usually hit the mobile at some point and it would move.

    Eventually I think she must have figured out that the first two stages were unnecessary. Still, I think this tells you something. My own hypothesis would be that pattern-recognition is a fundamental part of how the brain works, not just in terms of how we gain conscious knowledge about the world, but actually in how we learn all sorts of things. Riding a bicycle (or walking!) involves finding and getting used to the right pattern of movements. I suspect the early stages of learning to talk have a lot to do with children learning that they get particular reactions when they repeat particular sounds (Mumumumumum… is sure to get a reaction whether the baby knows it refers to his/her mother or not). I’d guess that pattern recognition is built into us at a far deeper level than the one on which we do scientific induction. Mind you, I don’t to what extent that hypothesis has been tested.

  • NM

    What an excellent post! Except that I think I am now more alarmed; how on earth does one even confront a superstition that is so widely shared and so deeply embedded that it has immunised itself from challenge? I should add that of course the superstition has a chance, however infinitesimal, of being true.

    There seems to be a sort of breakdown even in the possibility of a bridgehead lexical understanding between atheists and the religious (which disturbs me because they are big and strong and rich and bullies. so there.) We can’t agree on a common conceptualisation/provenance/domain of any of the following words really, as far as I can see: fact, evidence, theory, cause, logic, argument, proof, fallacy, contradiction, existence, matter, religion, morals, history, meaning, people, superstition, rationality and probability, just off the top of my head. It’s like two perfect strangers who speak different languages trying to communicate over a bad land line through a defunct exchange.

    So here’s my question: shall we all just run screaming from the building? I can see how dialogue, discussion and debate would be important for atheists who have been feeling isolated, or agnostics who aren’t sure, or even the doubting religious. However, I just don’t see the point in carrying out any further conversation with committed believers, and I find that deeply shocking somehow. It’s impenetrable.

    How do people get to a post-superstition stage? I was trying to remember things I was superstitious about, and I couldn’t (probably proving that I have so many superstitions that I can’t keep them straight.) How does one communicate across gaps of surrealism? Sorry for the rambling on, but I just cannot get a handle on this.

  • AJS

    This is interesting.

    I’m guessing it probably worked well for our prehistoric ancestors. “Good superstitions” (which resulted in a survival advantage and may have contained a grain of truth; the two are not necessarily correlated) would be reinforced by natural selection and, over the years, as knowledge advanced, refined until eventually a rational explanation emerged. “Bad superstitions” (which resulted in a survival disadvantage) would be rapidly selected against, and so would perish along with their believers.

    What has changed is that it’s a lot harder for us today to get killed accidentally than it would have been for our cave-man ancestors. “Indifferent superstitions” (which would not affect your survival chances one way or the other whether you believed and acted upon them or not) are no longer selected against, and have a chance to thrive.

  • Polly

    Loved this post! suggested alt title: PRAYING PIGEONS! I hold no superstitions…other than a belief in my own rationality.

    At work, when I first took over my current position from a co-worker whose intellect I greatly admired, I found irregularities that some would have called “mistakes.” He’s no longer around to ask. I steadfastly stuck to a presumption that anything odd probably had a sound, logical basis. (This guy was very invested in his work) In the face of evidence to the contrary I trusted his work and tried to figure out what it was he was tying to accomplish. In the end, I changed the way things are done because it was simply wrong.
    When you start out presuming there’s order, you end up looking for explanations, any explanations and, by golly, you WILL find them.

  • http://chadmacspeaks.blogspot.com Chad

    Very nice post. As for Lynet’s thoughts:

    My own hypothesis would be that pattern-recognition is a fundamental part of how the brain works, not just in terms of how we gain conscious knowledge about the world, but actually in how we learn all sorts of things. Riding a bicycle (or walking!) involves finding and getting used to the right pattern of movements. I suspect the early stages of learning to talk have a lot to do with children learning that they get particular reactions when they repeat particular sounds (Mumumumumum… is sure to get a reaction whether the baby knows it refers to his/her mother or not). I’d guess that pattern recognition is built into us at a far deeper level than the one on which we do scientific induction. Mind you, I don’t to what extent that hypothesis has been tested.

    Everything I have studied about the brain (keeping in mind that I am not a full-fledged neuroscientist) points to this kind of situation. If you’re interested in reading more, Vernon Mountcastle proposed a common modular architecture throughout the human cortex in 1978. More recently, based on Mountacstle’s idea, Jeff Hawkins postulated a memory-predicition theory about how all parts of our cortex basically store spatio-temporal patterns and use these stored associations to predict what will happen next in any given situation. Our larger cortex essentially allows us humans to store much more abstract and complicated patterns (ie: language, culture, scientific reasoning, religion etc) than other animals. I highly recommend reading Hawkins’ book On Intelligence.

  • Mikko

    The result of the japanese experiment may not be the effect of “superstition”, but “avoiding mistakes”. The most simple example is that of asking someone to continue the set 2,4,6,8,… and then deduce the rule behind that set. Most people would answer the continuation to be 10, 12, 14,… and so on, and the rule be the even numbers or increments of 2. Now the trick-answer is that the rule is: “The next number must be greater than the previous”, allowing almost any continuation. Most people wish to stick to the “obvious” rule in order to avoid mistakes. Of course the correct strategy to find the rule would be to make deliberate mistakes to find the “limits” of the rule (a bit like the Mastermind-game). But that´s just not what we like to do, is it?

    So those poor test subjects tried to do their best (and yes, I think they were led to think, though not explicitly, that the levers had, or should have had effect on the result), in order not to be embarrassed and lose face.

  • misanthropope

    by and large, during most of the period of human evolution, failing to observe an actual pattern was considerably riskier than imputing a pattern where none existed.