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Why do we engage in superstition?

My thought is that if you want to know something about the world or how things work you put the effort in to learn about it. Then after some time of study you genuinely know about the subject you were interested in.

I want to know people's opinions on why superstition still pervades even at a time where the resources for understanding are literally at our fingertips.

*By superstition I mean anything from luck (don't walk under a ladder) to more elaborate ideas and rituals.

  • Jul 20 2011: I've been interested in this matter since watching a programme by Derren Brown a while ago, which was the finale of the second series of his programme "trick or treat" (you can still watch it on 4od). In this programme he demonstrates the power of superstition by shutting a group of people in a room and telling them that if they score a certain number of points before the doors open they will get a prize. They are not told how they get points, however we find out that the screen that shows them how many points they have is actually randomly generated. The people in the room start looking for correlations between things they are doing and when the points go up. Derren uses this as an example of how silly superstiton is and implies that those doing the challenge are being slow not to realise that their actions are having no influence on the points.

    I had issues with the way he was doing this and the conclusions he was drawing. Firstly, he had set it up like a game, and games generally have rules and points are generally awarded for acts rather than being randomly generated. Considering this it is unsuprising that people assumed what they were doing were affecting the points.

    Secondly, the idea that there is something wrong with looking for cause and effect is deeply flawed. I feel that this is something that is deeply built into humans (and other animals, consider Pavlov's dog) as an important survival mechanism. Obviously the link we percieve between events may actually be false, or may currently be untrue. We can see results of the second of these in psychology; for example, if someone as a child was told off or otherwise punished for talking loudly and asserting themselves, it is likely they will have trouble asserting themselves as an adult as they still feel like they will be punished if they do so.

    As far as I'm concerned, superstician is a mostly harmless price that we pay for the ability to understand cause and effect and see the link between events.
  • Jul 21 2011: Part 3:
    But people have different world views. Most people acquire a large portion of their world view from their parents. If the parents believe in lucky stinky socks, or in the power of prayer, then there is a great likelihood that the child's world view will incorporate those beliefs. So suppose that instead of wearing lucky stinky socks I had tried prayer (along with resetting the router and rebooting the computer) and had achieved a cure. In my world view the use of prayer in this circumstance would constitute superstitious behavior.

    But now suppose that instead of trying to cure an internet connectivity issue, I was trying to cure cancer. And now I tried prayer, chemotherapy and radiation therapy and achieved a cure. Which of the activities was casual? I don't really know, but based on my world view I would still classify prayer as superstitious activity. Your world view may differ.

    So I think a definition of superstition would have to be relative to one's world view. If your world view incorporates belief in Astrology or a Supreme Deity, then you would not regard (proper) rituals associated with those beliefs to be superstition. But I would, because in my world view there is no causal relationship between preparing a horoscope or performing a religious ritual and any particular outcome.

    So we arrive at the following definition for "superstition": Superstition is a causal belief that I don't have.
  • Jul 21 2011: Part 2:
    And should it be considered superstition if I know that there is a causal relationship, but I don't know what the causal relationship is? For example, suppose I have a problem with my computer. Earlier in the day it connected with the internet, but it doesn't connect now. I reset the router, reboot the computer and wiggle the internet cable, and tada, it now connects! So a week later when the computer doesn't connect to the internet and I'm in a hurry, what do I do? I don't know which of the three activities achieved the desired result, so I do all three again and once again the computer connects to the internet.

    If we assume that only one of the three activities cured the problem, does that mean that two of the three activities were superstitious behavior (i.e. behavior based upon false causality)? Some of you may say no, because in the circumstances it was rational to repeat all three activities rather than take the time to determine which activity was causal. But let's change the circumstances a little bit. Suppose that when the problem first happened I reset the router and rebooted the computer and then when the problem was solved I noticed that I was wearing my lucky stinky socks. And then when the problem occurred again a week later I fished my lucky stinky socks out of the corner, put them on, and then rebooted the computer and reset the router.

    I still don't know the causal activity, but I think most people would agree that putting on the lucky stinky socks was superstitious behavior. Why? Because in most people's world view there is no causal link between putting on socks (odiferous or not) and curing an internet connectivity issue.
  • Jul 21 2011: Part 1:
    I've read through all the postings and I saw many interesting and insightful comments, but I didn't see a real definition of "superstition". The discussion began with the intuitive but not very precise definition: "*By superstition I mean anything from luck (don't walk under a ladder) to more elaborate ideas and rituals."

    This implies a belief in a casual link between walking under a ladder and the increased probability of something undesirable befalling the "walker". (Presumably the "more elaborate ideas and rituals" concern similar causal links.) But there is more to our intuitive understanding of superstition than that. I think most of us would not consider such a casual link to fall into the category of superstition if the causal link was demonstrably real. I think a definition that would be closer to our intuitive understanding of superstition would be "a belief in a false causal link between two events".

    But even that definition doesn't seem to be completely satisfactory. Let me give an example. Suppose that long before germ theory was developed some surgeon engaged in "ritualistic" washing of his hands before performing surgery. His colleagues may have regarded that as superstitious behavior, yet we now understand that there is a causal relationship between the ritual and improved outcomes from surgery. So was the hand-washing never superstition, because the causal relationship is true? Or is it still superstition, because there was no good reason at the time to believe that the causal relationship was true? Or was the hand-washing superstitious behavior back then because there was no good reason to believe in that causality, but not superstitious behavior now because there is now good reason to believe in that causality?
  • Jun 27 2011: I think the fact that we have so much resources can work to promote superstition, like Luck. For example we receive so much information and we see/hear so many ways to get hurt or get in trouble, it's not surprising that some of the information spring to mind when you see a ladder in your path, and choose to walk around it.

    Mind you that some places or the world are still miles behind in terms of technology and people who live there are unaware of the newest breakthroughs in many fields, and this effect will amplify over time. For example some people still have no idea how planets came to be, so that community might turn to something else.

    - Ding
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    Jun 16 2011: "My thought is that if you want to know something about the world or how things work you put the effort in to learn about it. Then after some time of study you genuinely know about the subject you were interested in." - Deaven Morris

    I disagree with you on this assumption, Deaven. Instead I believe that 95% to 99% people do not choose the best rational path towards a goal, but rather the way that is emotionally most rewarding. That can even go so far that they rather do something useless that makes them *feel* right instead of doing something less satisfying that actually *helps*. Which is awesome if you are a rational person, because then you can outwit the others with just a ridiculous fraction of the time, energy and money that they invest.

    Try it out in MMOGs! To me, they are nothing less than socioeconomic simulations of reality :)
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    Jun 16 2011: There is a great anecdote that may shed some light. One of the most influential psychologists in human history was Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 - 1990) at Harvard University, USA. He invented the so-called Skinner box, in its simplest form a box for a small animal, euqipped with a lever and a food dispenser. If the creature uses the lever, food will drop. By modifying variables like the frequency of food one can gain insight in the patterns of learning.

    Now our lecturer told as the story of how in one experiment the food dropped at random, without regard to the pidgeon's actions. However, it increased the chance that the pidgeon would repeat the behavior it showed before getting the food. Since it is displaying the behavior more often, this in turn increases the chance that it will occur before the next food dropping - seemingly "proving" that it works! However, since it doesn't work every time, the animal will show other behavior too between two food droppings. That means it may develop quite complex rituals in its "hope" for food - the pidgeon has become superstitious!

    I was able to observe it on humans as well. There is a browser game where the destruction of a large spacefleet may result in the highly beneficial event of getting a moon, with a chance between 1% and 20%, depending on the size of the fleet. The actual formula for it is clear and simple, but users nevertheless developed bizarre ideas about what others aspects would play a key role. Their reasoning is always the same:
    "I tried it so often without success, but then I did X for the first time and it worked!"

    This is a perfect example for unjustified superstition, and it was even created artificially with most simple means :) Psychologists argue whether the pidgeon acted automatically (classical conditioning) or intentionally (operant conditioning), but I rather question whether that difference is meaningful at all. What's important in my eyes is that the "superstitious" behavior is real.
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    Apr 28 2011: Superstition can be a unique cultural idea or practice that often doesn't have to be seen as bad simply for the sake of superstition.

    For example outside of Mexico City there is an "Isle of the Dolls" widely believed to be haunted, and even if spirits do not exist it is a needless to say a creepy place. ( ) This place is allegedly haunted by both the spirits of a drowned girl (The reason locals and tourists bring dolls and candles and candy as "offerings") and by that of the man being interviewed by the reporter. Granted it's macabre and creepy and highly superstitious to believe in spirits, offerings or any of that but without said Superstition this cultural oddity might not exist.

    It is my contention that a little superstition is not a bad thing as it can give rise to the colorful and diverse cultural tapestry we enjoy on this planet. How superstition arises is a mystery to me, maybe it is our brains tendency to see patterns or to wish to control destiny or random chance?
  • Apr 26 2011: Superstition is something that is learned, good luck and bad luck just come from babies hearing that a black cat is bad luck or a four-leaf clover is good luck. i suppose that the reason people believe these things in the first place was coincidence, ages ago someone found a four-leaf clover and good things happened to him, not by luck though given that this man is the first to have the four-leaf clover in his area, no one thinks that it is lucky until word spreads that good things happened to him after finding that clover.

    As Debra said superstition is learned, not gained. Do something and good things happen so why not always do it? that's why superstition is so prominent, because the human brain isn't all knowing and therefore we have to guess what will happen, and if by chance something good happens we will keep doing it, and if something bad happens then we will stop.
    • Apr 26 2011: But the very definition of superstition is that even if the bad thing happens we continue to believe in the idea.If we stopped when the bad thing happened it wouldn't be superstition, it would be natural observation.
      I'm not proposing that superstition isn't natural, I think Skinner actually proved that even chickens can display superstitious behavior. My question is why as beings capable of intelligent and discriminating thought to we partake in rituals which we should rightly know are incorrect.
      Take for example astrology, I'm sure the people who believe in it have come across a lot of LIbras who don't quite fit the bill. But instead of scrapping the idea, they let the idea influence and bend their perception. I read once that there was actually a lot of problems with this sort of thinking in the beginning of quantum mechanics, people would come up with models, experiment would show they we incorrect so the people who were coming up with these ideas would just add layer after layer, to stop from being wrong I suppose.
      I am very interested in peoples idea on this. But just to reiterate superstition is the belief in ideas even after observation shows them to be incorrect.
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        Apr 26 2011: Ah- the answer to that problem is called the 'confirmation bias'. It is as though we stop having a file drawer in our brain for anything that disconfirms our belief (such as in our lucky stinky socks). All occurances that disconfirm our superstition are not recorded or remembered while all evidence that confirms our superstition sticks like glue and is highlighted. Thus it is self perpetuating and impossible to disconfirm. There was an evangelist here in Canada who was clearly denounced and proved to have been cheating in his prophetic wisdom about people and their illnesses. He was caught- on tape that was televised- using a scam which included plants in the audience and a mike in his ear from the attic of the church which gave the details of people's lives and problems. He was utterly proven to be a fraud and yet with a little time- he is back at it with a huge following again!
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    Apr 26 2011: Being superstitious is built into the way our brains work. Whenever 2 things happen together in time our brain tells us that they are connected. It works OK sometimes but it can lead to some weird and superstitious connection like stinky lucky socks or fear of some strange objects. It can even creep into science and that is why there is the maxim that "correlation does not equal causation."
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    Apr 26 2011: Superstition comes from one of the most basic human desires -- the desire to control one's future. This could be an attempt to make something good happen, or an attempt to prevent something bad from happening.

    I think the prevalence of superstition is actually very natural, given that it's based on positive or negative reenforcement/ If a student studies at home and passes a quiz, studying has been positively reenforced, right? But what if next time this student studies at the library instead, and fails miserably? While the truth likely has something to do with level of focus or difficulty of material, or a hundred other influences, what is the most obvious difference to the student? Why the library, of course. So in this example blaming poor results on the library can be thought of as analyzing a complex situation and coming up with a lazy answer. But it is also based on conditioning, the most fundamental human motivator.

    Other times superstitions can arise because they are just so simple ... if a soccer player rubs his bald coaches head before entering a game and scores the winner, you could analysis the unlikeliness of the two events having any connection all you like, but doesn't it seem natural to do the same thing again? Even if the bald head doesn't do anything, the confidence the player gets from a superstition may very well make a difference.

    EDIT: I could feel myself rambling, so hopefully my ideas come across semi-coherently. I've never really thought about this before, and it's an interesting question. I'm glad you brought it up.
    • Apr 26 2011: Your ideas do make sense, but may I just add something here.

      If the soccer player rubs the coaches head and the team wins then that's fine. If they win 2 or 3 games then it's still fine, but if they then go on a 5 game loosing streak even though he continues to rub the bald head but the soccer player insists on retaining the ritual that is when it becomes superstition.

      Superstition is holding on to the belief in defiance of cause and effect.
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        May 13 2011: Probably because at some stage the very act (considered as superstition) becomes fact, and then mind starts to find reasons to explain when it is in its own defiance; e.g. myth of geocentric model of universe couldn't explain the erratic movement of other planets in solar system, and that was explained by considering other planets are wondering heavenly beings (asteres planetai, "wandering stars"). Or to explain the concept of Dualism, Rene Descartes proposed that Pineal should be seat of the rational soul.
        These examples are of myths/superstition that were carried for long in science considering them as facts.