The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year.  A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage.  The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role.  Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.


Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.


One article in particular far outpaced all other posts.  My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined.  Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list.  The other six were published in 2010.  Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.


Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year.  And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.


So here is the Top Ten list for 2011.

  1. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  3. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  4. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  5. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  6. Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing  (2011)
  7. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule.  (2010)
  8. Intuitive Thought  (2010)
  9. Effects of Low SES on Brain Development  (2011)
  10. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)

It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest.  And each was posted with great personal satisfaction.   This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011.  These other posts include:

One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention.   I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written.  As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.


The most emotional and personally relevant articles pertained to significant problems in healthcare in the United States and my wife’s battle with breast cancer.  These articles include: (a) What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps; (b) Up and Ever Onward: My Wife’s Battle With Cancer; (c) Cancer, Aging, & Healthcare: America, We Have a Problem; (d) We’re Number 37! USA USA USA!; and (e) Tears of Strength in Cancer’s Wake.  The latter pertains to perhaps the proudest parental moment of my life.


Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development.  Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.


One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live.  The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.


This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth.  It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings.   It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.


The bottom line:


The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.


Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.



When I hit the publish button for my last post Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing I felt a tinge of angst.  It took a few days for my rational brain to figure out (or perhaps confabulate) a reason; but, I think I may have.  Perhaps it should have been immediately obvious, but my outrage likely clouded my judgment.  Anyways, that angst wasn’t due to the potential controversy of the article’s content – I had previously posted more provocative pieces.  What I have come to conclude is that the nature of the controversy could be construed as being more personal.


It is not hard to imagine that there is a very real possibility that people I love may have been hurt by what I wrote.  This left me feeling like a hypocrite because what I have continually aspired to communicate is that “true morality” should promote human flourishing for everyone.  Although the overarching message was consistent with my goal, the tone and tenor was not.


I was inspired by a blog post written by a family member that touched the nerves of my liberal sensitivities.  Further, and more importantly, I believe that what he wrote was likely hurtful to others in my family.   A couple of my tribal communities (moral and kin) were assaulted, and I responded assertively.


The whole purpose of my blog How Do You Think? has been driven toward understanding such diverse and mutually incompatible beliefs that do in fact transcend my family and the world in general.  In this particular situation, however,  I placed several family members in the crux of just such a moral juxtaposition.


I am certain that much of what I have written over the last year may be construed as offensive to some from a variety of different tribal moral communities.  But one thing I am equally certain of, is that attacking one’s core moral holdings is not an effective means of facilitating enlightenment.


I responded to my relative’s pontifications with moral outrage and indignation.  I was offended and mad.  That is what happens when core beliefs are challenged.  We circle the wagons and lash back.  But this does nothing to further the discussion.  I should have known better.  And, that error of judgment may have lasting familial consequences.  This saddens me, and I am sorry.


So then, how are we to cope with such diametrically opposed perspectives?


If you have consistently read my posts you are likely to have come away with an understanding of the workings of the human brain, and as such, realize that it is an incredible but highly flawed organ.   What is more important to recognize, is that these flaws leave us prone to a variety errors that are both universal and systematic.  The consequences of these errors include Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Pareidolia, Superstition, Essentialism, Cognitive Conservatism, and Illusions of all sorts (e.g., Attention, Cause, Confidence, Memory, Efficacy, Willpower, and Narrative).  The down stream consequences of these errors, paired with our tribal nature, and our innate moral inclinations lead us to form tribal moral communities.  These communities unite around ideologies and sacred items, beliefs, or shared history’s.  Our genetically conferred Moral Instincts which are a part of our Human Nature lay the ground work for us to seek out others who share our beliefs and separate ourselves from others who do not.  This is how the divide occurs.  And our brain is instrumental in this division and the subsequent acrimony between groups.


This is perhaps the most important concept that I want to share.  Systematic brain errors divide us.  Understanding this – I mean truly understanding all of these systematic errors, is essential to uniting us.  Education is the key, and this is what I hope to provide.  Those very brain errors are themselves responsible for closing minds to the reality of these facts.  Regardless, the hopes that I have for universal enlightenment persist and I hope to endeavor ever onward opening minds without providing cause to close them.   I fear that I  have taken a misstep – spreading the divide rather than closing it.


Please know that Human Flourishing for all is my number one goal.  Never do I intend to come off as judgmental, hurtful, or otherwise arrogant or elitist.  When I do – please push back and offer constructive criticism.   We are all in this together – and time, love, life, peace, and compassion are precious.   This is the starting point – something that I am certain we share.  Don’t you think?


So really, what caused that earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan?  A quick Google search posing this very question yields a wide range of answers.  Fortunately a majority of the hits acknowledge and explain how plate tectonics caused this tragedy.  Sprinkled throughout the scientifically accurate explanations are conspiracy theories suggesting that the US government caused it through hyper-excitation of radio waves in the ionosphere (HAARP) and perhaps even planned radiation releases.  Other theories include the “Supermoon’s” increased tug on the earths crust due to the fact that it is at perigee (closest proximity to the earth in its cyclical orbit).  Solar flares (coronal mass ejections) were also blamed; and by some, the flares working in concert with the moon in perigee are believed to have triggered the quake.  Global warming also gets its share of the blame (but the proponents  suggest that real cause is the removal of oil from the crust leaving voids that ultimately trigger earthquake).   Some have even suggested that a comet or even God may have done this.


The problem with the scientific explanation is that plate tectonics is invisible to most of us.  Its motion is so gradual that it does not “on the surface” seem plausible.  We seemingly need a clear causal agent that fits within our understanding of the world.  Scientifically literate individuals are inclined to grasp the agency of tectonics because the theory and the effects do in fact, fit together in observable and measurable ways.  Others reach for causal explanations that better fit within their understanding of the world.


Our correlation calculators (brains) grab onto events temporally associated with such events and we then conjure up narratives to help us make sense of it all.  It is easy to understand why folks might assume that the moon at perigee, or increased solar activity, or even an approaching comet might cause such events.  Others, who are prone to conspiracy theories, who also have a corresponding belief that big brother is all powerful and sadistic, will grab onto theories that fit their world views.  The same is true for those with literal religious inclinations.  Unfortunately, this drive often leads to narrative fallacies that misplace the blame and sometimes ultimately blame the victims.


History is filled with stories drawn up to explain such tragedies.  In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were spun to explain famine, plagues, and military failures.  All of this occurred prior to our increasingly complex understanding of the world (e.g., germ theory, plate tectonics, meteorology), and it made sense to blame such events on vengeful gods.  How else could they make sense of such tragedies?  This seems to be how we are put together.


A study published in 2006 in the journal, Developmental Psychology, by University of Arkansas Psychologists Jesse Bering and Becky Parker looked at the development of such inclinations in children.  They pinpointed the age at which such thinking begins to flourish.   They also provided a hypothesis to explain this developmental progression.  This study was summarized in a March 13, 2011 online article at Scientific American by the first author titled: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.


In this study of children ages three to nine years of age, the psychologists devised a clever technique to assess the degree to which individuals begin to assign agency to events in their environment and subsequently act on those signs.  What they found was that children between three and six years of age do not read communicative intent into unexplained events (e.g., lights flickering or pictures falling from the wall).  But at age seven, children start reading into and acting on such events.  So why is it that at the age of seven, children start inferring agency from events in their environment?  Bering suggests that:


“The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads!”


So as it turns out, this tendency to read signs into random events is associated with the maturation of cognitive processes. Children with less mature “Theory of Mind” (click here for a very basic description of Theory of Mind) capabilities fail to draw the conclusion that a supernatural being, or any being for that matter, knows what they are thinking and can act in a way that will communicate something.


“To interpret [capricious] events as communicative messages, … demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: ‘What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?’ [These] findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice ‘talking’ to him.”


When a capricious event has great significance, we are seemingly driven by a ravenous appetite to look for “signs” or “reasons.”  We desperately need to understand.  Our searches for those “reasons” are largely shaped by previously held beliefs and cultural influences. Divine interventions, for example, have historically been ambiguous; therefore, a multitude of surreptitious events, can be interpreted as having a wide variety of meanings. And those meanings are guided by one’s beliefs.


“Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic [wandering] thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.”


The implications of this understanding are profound.  We are by our very nature driven to search for signs and reasons to explain major life events, and we are likewise inclined to see major events as signs themselves. The ability to do so ironically depends on cognitive maturation. But, given the complexity and remoteness of scientific explanations, we often revert to familiar and culturally sanctioned explanations that have stood the test of time.  We do this because it gives us comfort, regardless of actual plausibility.  As I often say, we are a curious lot, we humans.




Bering, J. (2011). Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. Scientific American.


Bering, J., & Parker, B. (2006). Children’s Attributions of Intentions to an Invisible Agent. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 42, No. 2, 253–262



Narrative Fallacy

13 March 2011

Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things.  We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures.  We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet.  Our feats have been wondrous.  We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space.  We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind.  We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter.  This list could go on and on.  We are very capable and very smart beings.


Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible.  Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable.  I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week.  I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.


It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years.  Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct.  What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it.  But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”


We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology.  The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years.  What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.


Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes.  These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment.  We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force.  Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years.  I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control.  And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.


Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today.  Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments.  Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did.  As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.


We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world.  Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.”  All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be.  We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.


It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is.  Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior.  And how about bad behavior and acts of nature?  Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism.  One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy.  I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent.  Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us!  If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima?  Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness.  I could go and on about our silly inclinations.  We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence.  In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.


Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion.  We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts.  Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances.   We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story.  This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.


Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind.  For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly.  We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails.  Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting.  Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up.  Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness.  Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence?  I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.


I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination.  Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of  them.  This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories.  At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms).  I’m guessing that it will be informative.


Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief?  Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own?  If so, then this blog is for you.  I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue.  I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people.  I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant.  There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking.  And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be?  I  have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made.  I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.


Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought.  Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception.  I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand.   As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.


As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:

  1. Attribution Error
  2. Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
  3. Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
  4. Moral Instinct
  5. Pareidolia
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability
  7. Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
  8. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
  9. Illusion of Punditry
  10. Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?

What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet.  It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.


I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration.  Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell.  Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs.  Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.


Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.  Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs.  These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.


There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above.  Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention.  This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot.  Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.


The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience.  Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling.  I’ve covered other topics such as  happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.


The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.


Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents.  Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.


Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:

“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”

We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness.  Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps.   Are you ready to move forward?  How do you think?


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.


Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman/Henry Holt and Company: New York.