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.)


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