On the Origin of Superstitions

by Jesse Galef

Why are dirty underwear, mutant clover, and amputated mammal appendages associated with good fortune?  How did humans develop our “lucky” rituals? And why are they usually gross when you think about them? I hope to address two of these three questions, read on to find out which.

A lucky charm I made in college: card laminated with a 4-leaf clover

Tonight I will be watching my beloved Baltimore Ravens playing the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football.  It should be an easy game but I don’t want to leave anything to chance (my fantasy team also needs a strong showing from the Baltimore defense).  I’ll be doing everything in my power to help my team win: that is, nothing in particular.

I am on the record publicly disbelieving in luck.  But I am fascinated by the power the belief in luck has over us.  Even very rational and scientific people have rituals and “lucky’ charms.  As Neils Bohr is credited with saying, “I don’t believe in luck, but I hear it works even if you don’t believe.”

Why are we so beholden to the belief in luck?

Superstitious Pigeons

The famous psychologist BF Skinner once did an experiment on hungry pigeons. In one test, he conditioned them to react to the word “peck” or “turn” and rewarded the correct behavior by giving them food. Interestingly, they would perform the action more if the reward happened at a variable rate – not every time the bird pecked, but every three times or ten times. Their behavior was used to learn about the human capacity for conditioning – slot machines are so addictive because they operate on the same principle.

What was more interesting was another experiment in which the researchers rewarded the pigeons at intervals that had no connection to what the birds were doing. The pigeons instinctively try to repeat whatever action they did which caused the food to come. Superstitions arose:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.

How cool is that?

Superstitious Humans

She’s either doing the Gangsta Lean or trying to make her ball move

Are we better than the pigeons? Well, yes, in various ways, but not when it comes to the superstition.  Our brains evolved with the strong urge to see causation and pattern.  It’s how we learn about the world.

But we get a lot of false positives.  Even for things out of our control, there’s still the impulse to do what you can to affect the world.  A classic example is in bowling.  It’s extremely common for people to lean one way or the other in a desperate attempt to make their ball stay out of the gutter.  Why do they do it?  No doubt in the past the ball curved while someone was leaning that way and they unconsciously made a connection.  I’ve caught myself doing it, and it… feels right.  I feel like I’m affecting the ball even though I rationally know I’m not.  The urge to find causation is that strong.

Bowling is a particular case in which the actions taken after the ball is thrown have nothing to do with the result. Other rituals might genuinely have an effect – but on the person’s confidence, not on external reality. An athlete wearing the same dirty underwear before playing in a baseball series might be more relaxed and confident, leading to better performance. The connection between the underwear and the win is reinforced, and forms an upward spiral.

Perhaps a hiker found a clover with four leaves instead of the normal three and picked it up for the novelty, only to have good fortune later in the day. A faulty connection is made and a superstition is born.

Don’t ask me about the rabbit’s foot; I have no idea where that sick idea came from.

Religious Implications

Daniel Dennett makes the point in Breaking the Spell that this tendency could explain many religious rituals.  If a society doesn’t understand what caused the rain to come, elaborate rain dances will follow. As time goes on and the illusion of causation is semi-reinforced by random events, the rituals get more and more elaborate.

How many times have you heard someone say “I prayed for my brother to get better and his fever went away! Explain THAT!” If the human mind is frantically figuring out possible ways to understand and affect the world, faulty connections like this are very likely. We just have to foster better understanding and internalization of probability, the scientific method, and psychology.

What superstitions did you used to (or still do) practice?

Here’s a test I’m trying tonight: every time I take a drink of beer, I expect the Ravens to have a good play. It’s for science!

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About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • http://www.olympicartichoke.blogspot.com thewarfreak

    I don’t believe I ever had any superstitous beliefs outside of those that came with religion (which are many). But the beer one sounds pretty good to me, let me know how it works so I can try it on next baseball season.

  • http://infidelicacy.blogspot.com/ Steve

    I had one superstition I used to practice that involved Disneyland. When I was eleven I always wore the same outfit to go to the park. Always. This was the beginning of the eighties and I had purple shorts with an explosion of crazy shapes on them and a Chargers t-shirt. I would do a wash the night before just to make sure I had them ready to wear. It was to ensure an awesome time and it lasted about a year.

    Now, whenever I get on an airplane, I touch the outside of the plane as I board it. I honestly don’t know why. I started doing this about four years ago, and if I forget to do it, I sit there for a couple of seconds irrationally thinking about catastrophe and then I pull out my book and start reading.

    Weird, huh?

  • http://www.houseofzot.com Zotmaster

    I’m the opposite of you since I’m a Browns fan: every time the Browns do something bad, I take a drink.

    I’m usually comatose by halftime.

    • http://blogs.geniocity.com/eby/ mahousniper

      Amen, brother.

      All the little chicks with the crimson lips say

  • trj

    I don’t think the example of the bowler leaning/bending while observing her ball roll towards the pins has anything to do with superstition. Instead, she’s simply displaying agitation and empathy, the same as spectators do in most sports. Sports are more fun to watch and play when you give into your feelings, and that’s what the exemplified bowler is doing. It’s not a superstitious ritual.

    • Jesse Galef

      It’s certainly a learned ritual to me, both in bowling and in racing games. I lean the more I want the ball/car to go a certain direction. Does nobody else experience that?

      • trj

        I do the same thing myself in bowling, but I see it as simply a physical outlet of emotion. Much like when you yell “Come on, come on!” at, say, soccer players, on the TV – nobody expects it to make a difference, but we do it anyway.

      • Confused

        A learned ritual in that you used to not do it, saw someone else do it, and now you do too? Or something that just came on gradually?

        Unless you’re sure you didn’t do it until you saw someone else doing that and thought you’d give it a try, I’m pretty skeptical about the idea of it being a learned superstition. Like with the pigeons, if it was something you learned from “sometimes it worked”, why is it so stereotyped an action? Why don’t some people lean the other way, or wave their arm in the air or stand on one leg?

        I think it’s an empathic connection with an inanimate object, possibly intensely visualising yourself as part of that object (like moving the control pad left and right while you’re playing a computer game). If you empathically see yourself as the ball, leaning to one side is urging it to go in the direction you want it to. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be learned as you learned to bowl, so new players don’t do it and more experienced ones do.

  • http://www.cleanslateproject.wordpress.com Anthony D Jacques

    “Here’s a test I’m trying tonight: every time I take a drink of beer, I expect the Ravens to have a good play. It’s for science!”

    Let’s make it a study. I’ll join in!

    • Jesse Galef

      Excellent! Welcome to the study. Thank you for your sacrifice for science.

  • jemand

    Well…. When I took the subject GRE test, I brought a penny in with me and flipped it quietly every time I eliminated to two choices I couldn’t determine between. Calmed me down, made random guessing faster, and generally makes for a good story. I got a fairly decent score too, so guess it worked! I do like flipping pennies and watching them in many contexts, sometimes if in a group pretending to ask them questions, but it’s more a stress reliever and just entertaining. I only *believe* it when I’m very stressed and need something to keep the most emotional and irrational part of my brain busy with when I’m trying to get something done. (Like the GRE again.)

    Lol, so how much of that was rational explanation for a behavior and how much was raw superstition?

  • Devysciple

    Don’t ask me about the rabbit’s foot; I have no idea where that sick idea came from.

    AFAIK the rabbit’s foot is derived from the proverbial keeping one’s fingers crossed, which at some (early) medieval point in time did not mean keeping your fingers crossed but the ones that were chopped off from hanged people. As far as I can recall, people used to “get” the thumbs of executionees and carried them around as a lucky charm. Through time, the dead human thumb became a dead rabbit’s foot, became a life human thumb.

    I have absolutely no idea whether this is an actual explanation or just another urban myth. It is simply the explanation that is stuck inside my head since the day I first heard it. So if anyone knows better, feel free to wipe out some more erroneous “knwoledge”.

  • Jesse Galef

    It’s working so far! When I drink beer, we get first downs. I better keep drinking!

  • http://stuart-randomthoughts.blogspot.com/ Stuart Resnick

    If a primitive man noticed that people who ate a certain berry tended to drop dead within a few days, he’d avoid eating those berries himself, thus surviving and possibly procreating, having offspring to whom he passed on his pattern-recognition skills.

    A primitive man thinks that dancing makes it rain. So he dances excessively. A bit of a time-waster, but it doesn’t necessarily reduce his chances of procreating (unless he’s a *really* unattractive dancer).

    Bottom line, evolution-wise: failing to see patterns that are there is a big problem. Seeing patterns when they’re not there, isn’t so big a problem. So evolution tends to make us see patterns, whether or not they really exist.


    • http://www.cleanslateproject.wordpress.com Anthony D Jacques

      Well, so long as your reaction to the patterns you think you’re seeing don’t result in the slaughter of millions of animals and/or heretics. That doesn’t exactly help survival.

      • Francesc

        Yes, it does. It helps the survival of your particular set of genes by eliminating a rival group ;-p

        • http://www.cleanslateproject.wordpress.com Anthony D Jacques


  • Confused

    I superstitiously avoid horoscopes. This is a hangover from my days as a Christian.

    The logic runs thusly: while I know that horoscopes are rubbish, if I read my horoscope and then something in it comes true, then I will instinctively give credit to the pagan ritual and disrespect god. For Pratchett fans, it runs something like Granny Weatherwax’s advice for curses: “make it long, make it complicated, and make it up if you have to – he may laugh at the time but he’ll remember you when he bangs his head tomorrow.”

    I now believe in god precisely the same amount as I believe in horoscopes (i.e. not at all), but I’m left with a vague sense of discomfort whenever people try to work out my horoscope.

    • Custador

      I get around it by claiming to be so old that the astrological symbols in the sky have since changed. When people don’t believe that, I ask why they won’t believe my word but will believe the word of an astrologer (i.e. a fiction writer) working for the newspaper.

    • http://www.dctouristsandlocals.wordpress.com DCtouristsANDlocals

      I usually read all of the horoscopes, just to see which ones come true and which don’t. I guess that’s similar to Daniel’s prayer experiment… count how many things happen with or without prayer.

  • http://www.cleanslateproject.wordpress.com Anthony D Jacques

    You should check out the skeptoid podcast, he did one on this I think.

    Basically, there are so many versions of astrological charts, and some make up for the movement and some don’t… most charts that are static are about 23 days off, or over three weeks, meaning about 3/4 of the signs people think they are… are wrong by one.


  • http://metroblog.blogspot.com Metro

    I’ve always felt that the way construction workers heckle women is a fine example of superstition.

    Clearly one particular construction worker, back in about 1890, saw an attractive woman walking by and began to catcall and whistle at her. She stopped, backtracked, and immediately took the lucky guy home with her. And every other navvy since has been desperately trying to replicate his success.

    • Jesse Galef

      You might enjoy the most recent AbstruseGoose comic: http://abstrusegoose.com/a/209.htm on the law of large numbers…

      • http://www.dctouristsandlocals.wordpress.com DCtouristsANDlocals

        I always wonder if that actually works for any of them!

  • Kodie

    I do have some things I keep which comfort me for no particular reason. I had this rock with a hole in one end of it, and I don’t remember when I started it, but I stuck a ribbon through and hung it from the doorknob. Seems to be doing ok so far keeping evil away from my door. Or just decorative. I like seeing it there. I also have another rock, this one I bought many years ago. It is a smooth rock with a horse painted on it, and there were other animals, but I chose the horse. There were cards to go along with what the animals “mean” and horse was for traveling or safe travel. I’m a little extra superstitious about safe travel. I put the rock in my pocket within an hour before I go on a trip, set it out when I arrive, and remember to put it back in my pocket when it’s time to go home. If I know someone is taking a trip also, I say “have a safe trip.” I might also say “have a good vacation,” “good luck*” or “call me when you get in,” etc., but I don’t feel very strongly about anything except “have a safe trip.”

    *I’m involved in a competitive sport (more as a hobby for me now), where many people have trained for years, and yet I might still say “good luck” if someone is competing – I think this is more of a conditioned response, like saying “thank you” when you check out at the cashier, or “who is it?” when someone knocks at the door, rather than superstition. It is not so much that I am wishing them oogy kind of LUCK, but rather that I hope they win, I hope their opponents turn out, by chance, to be weaker and maybe forget to eat breakfast or something. Hope you get all the breaks and have the timing and reactions you need to prevail – in a succinct and possibly empty familiar phrase, I feel it’s expected me to acknowledge their upcoming meet, and that’s what works. If they are competing out of town, I primarily send them off with “have a safe trip.” It’s important to me to let them know I want them to win, but regardless, I don’t want anything bad to happen to them while they are away from home, and the results of the competition are secondary.

    Yeah, so I feel safe when I’m in my home, and a little nervous about being far enough away from it that I might be away overnight or many miles away. I don’t put the rock in my pocket for a trip to the grocery store for example, or wish people a safe trip if they’re on their way home after work.

    I don’t think I have any other superstitious rituals. I like to touch the lion’s tail (by the look of it, I’m not alone) and other surfaces in the Boston Public Library coming in from the McKim side as I walk up the stairs, but it’s not lucky, I just like putting my hands on the marble and brass and granite. Hate the Johnson side, the handrails are awful and there’s no lion!

  • http://www.dctouristsandlocals.wordpress.com DCtouristsANDlocals

    My grandma believed that if you put the statue of Mary in the window (looking out) the week before a big event, that you’d have nice weather. It always worked – or at least we always had good weather. I think my mom still does it on the off chance that it helps…