Superstitious? It’s in your genes – It’s in your culture.
Halloween seems like an appropriate time to discuss superstition. What with ghosts and goblins and black cats and witches and all. But would not Easter or Christmas, or any other evening that a five year old loses a tooth be an equally appropriate time? In actuality, we massage magical thinking in our children with notions of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy. And recall if you will, some of your favorite children’s books and the supernatural forces employed to delight your youthful whimsies. Magic is, along with the thinking employed to delight in it, seemingly a rite of childhood, and in some ways the essence of what it is to be a child.
Much as magical thinking has its roots in childhood fantasies, superstition too has its roots in our species’ youth. In that nascent time we lacked the capacity to understand the forces and whims of the natural world around us. Our ancestors struggled to survive, and living another day in part depended on their ability to make sense of the forces that aided or impinged upon them. We must not forget that our forefathers lived much like the non-domesticated animals around us today. Survival was a day to day reality dependent upon the availability of life sustaining resources like food, water and shelter, and was often threatened by predation or the forces of nature. Death was a real possibility and survival a real struggle. The stakes were high and the hazards were plentiful. As it turns out, these are the very conditions under which superstition is likely to thrive.
So what is superstition? Bruce Hood, author of The Science of Superstition, notes that superstition is a belief “that there are patterns, forces, energies, and entities operating in the world that are denied by science…“ He adds that “the inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.” It involves an inclination to attempt to “control outcomes through supernatural influence.“ It is the belief that if you knock on wood or cross your fingers you can influence outcomes in your favor. It is the belief that faithfully carrying out rituals as part of a wedding ceremony (e.g., wearing something blue, something new, something borrowed) or before going to bat or before giving a big speech will improve outcomes. It is also the belief that negative outcomes can come as a result of stepping on a crack, breaking a mirror, or spilling salt. Hood argues that supersense goes beyond these obvious notions and surfaces in more subtle ways associated with touching an object or entering a place that we feel has a connection with somebody bad or evil. For example, how would you feel if you were told that you had to wear Jeffery Dalmer’s T-shirt or that you were living in a house where ritualistic torture and multiple murders took place? Most of us would recoil at the thought of this. Most of us also believe (erroneously) that we can sense when someone is looking at us, even when we cannot see them doing so. These beliefs and much of the value we place on sentimental objects stems from this style of thinking.
I explored the deep evolutionary roots of superstitious thinking in a previous post, The Illusion of Cause: Vaccines and Autism. The principle underpinnings are the same. In that post I noted the following:
Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons (2009) note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.“
From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:
“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).
Bruce Hood takes this notion further and adds that the cultural factors discussed at the opening of this piece and other intuitive inclinations such as dualism (a belief in the separation of mind and body), essentialism (the notion that all discernible objects harbor an underlying reality that although intangible, gives each and every object it’s true identity), vitalism (the insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things), holism (that everything is connected by forces), and anism (the belief that the inanimate world is alive) shape adult superstition. These latter belief mechanisms are developmental and naturally occurring in children: they are the tendencies that make magic and fantasy so compelling for children. It is when they lurk in our intuition or are sustained in our rational thought that we as adults fall victim to this type of illusion.
It is interesting to note that much like our ancestors, we are more prone to this type of thinking when faced with high stakes, a low probability of success, and incomprehensible controlling circumstances. Think about it. In baseball, batters often have complex superstitious rituals associated with batting. The best hitters experience success only one in three times at bat. And the speed at which they have to decide to swing or not and where to position the swing defies the rational decision making capacity of humans. On the other hand, these very same athletes have no rituals when it comes to fielding a ball (which is a high probability event for the proficient).
Superstition is a natural inclination with deep evolutionary and psychological roots embedded deeply in our natural child development. These tendencies are nurtured and socialized as a part of child rearing and spill over into adult rituals in predictable circumstances (particularly when there is a low degree personal control). When one deconstructs this form of thinking it makes complete and total sense. This is not to suggest that reliance on superstitions is sensible. Often, however, the costs are low and the rituals therein can be fun. There are some potential costs associated with such thinking. Some of the dangers are materialized in notions such as vaccines cause autism and homeopathy will cure what ails you in lieu of scientific medicine. Resignation of personal power in deference to supernatural forces is a depressive response pattern. Reliance on supernatural forces is essentially reliance on chance and in some cases its applications actually stack the deck against you. So be careful when employing such tactics. But, if you’re in the neighborhood, NEVER EVER walk under my ladder. I’ve been known to drop my hammer.
Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.
Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press: New York.
Gelman, S. A. (2004). Psychological Essentialism in Children. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 404-409.
Hood, B. (2008). The Science of Superstition (Formerly Titled: Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable). HarperCollins Publishers: New York.
Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762
Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman/Henry Holt and Company: New York.