619: Superstitious

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
619: Superstitious

Are you superstitious? About what?

Full episode script

Superstitions are not a purely human phenomena. Almost surprisingly, it’s one of the things I’ve done a lot of research on that nobody argues is a particularly human experience. That’s largely thanks to the research done in the 1940s by B.F. Skinner. Skinner found that when you expose pigeons to situations where they are inconsistently fed, they’ll quickly develop behaviors that look very much like superstition. They’ll bob their heads, turn in circles, or otherwise try and get food to appear based on what they had been doing before food previously appeared.


As Eric Wargo wrote in the Association for American Psychological Science Observer magazine, quote:

post hoc ergo propter hoc — “after this, therefore because of this.” Temporal contiguity does not imply causality, as every good scientist knows, but the brain is a voracious and often indiscriminate pattern detector, always on the lookout for connections among phenomena and between the individual’s own actions and favorable or unfavorable outcomes. Superstition arises from the natural tendency to seek connections that could, even remotely, be useful in controlling the world.


Chris French from University of London, in an interview with Ella Rhodes  of the British Psychological Society, put it this way:

There is also evidence to suggest that superstitious thinking might provide a psychological defense against learned helplessness. In an apparently hopeless situation, a superstitious person is more likely to keep trying to achieve success than a non-superstitious person. If the situation changes in such a way that efforts to succeed suddenly become effective, the superstitious person is more likely to take advantage of this change. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, influenced by irrational tendencies that probably have their roots in our evolutionary history – such as the idea that good or evil influences can somehow be transmitted by mere physical contact. Many smart, even sceptical, people might find it uncomfortable to wear the jacket of a mass murderer even though they know on an intellectual level that this is irrational. Similarly, many of us would be thrilled to own something that once belonged to one of our heroes.’


That doesn’t mean that superstitions are always a bad thing. There are some situations, where a superstition isn’t damaging or potentially damaging, that it can be useful because it allows someone to express a modicum of perceived control over something that would otherwise be anxiety-producing. But – sometimes superstitions can create a higher cognitive load. As two researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found, quote:

The results showed that people in the high-cognitive-load group ​“behave exactly the way people in superstitious tasks groups behave, This finding jibed with the results of the previous experiments: when people devote fewer cognitive resources to a risky choice, they don’t play the odds — instead, they focus on the most extreme possible outcomes.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.