Why Are People Superstitious?

The second inning has just ended. Relief pitcher “Turk” Wendell quickly gets off the field and goes to… brush his teeth!

Not because he thinks that it will help him prevent rotten teeth, but because he believes it will help him win baseball games.

Wendell was voted the most superstitious player of all time by “Men’s Fitness”, but he is far from being the only athlete to have some weird little ritual.

Actually, if you look at it, most people are at least a little bit superstitious. Whether it’s black cats, that lucky pencil, or looking in the eyes when toasting, almost everyone has some belief that they have to do for good luck or to prevent bad luck.

It’s an irrational belief, but people accord this act a particular significance.

Why do people do this?

One explanation that has been proposed by researchers is called the uncertainty hypothesis. This means that people become more superstitious when they encounter things outside their control.

They feel like they don’t have power over the outcome and so they try to figure a way to control at least partially what will happen.

This hypothesis was initially proposed by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski when he studied the Trobriand Islanders in Melanesia.

He would follow them on their fishing trips and note down how they do things. Sometimes they would fish in shallow water and sometimes in deep water.

One thing that he noticed is that when the islanders would go on dangerous expeditions on the open sea, they would perform elaborate rituals. This did not happen when they fished close to land in shallow waters.

For him, these rituals showed that the fishermen tried to exercise at least some control over the conditions on the sea, which was often unpredictable and sometimes deadly. These rituals gave them a peace of mind that things would turn out all right.

You would think that these types of things just happen in primitive societies, and would die out in our modern society, but that is not the case. Superstition is going strong even now among different varieties of people.

A factor that is significant in this, is how often people rely on intuitive thinking (System 1) and emotions over rational thinking (System 2) in their daily lives. Research done by Marjaana Lindeman showed that people who relied more on the first also tended to be more superstitious.

So engaging in critical and rational thinking tends to lessen the tendency to resort to superstitious rituals.

One thing that research has found is that women tend to be more superstitious than men. This can be due to cultural factors as argued in this book, but also due to biological factors as argued by some other researchers.

Personality also plays a role in whether people are superstitious. A concept that is used in some of the studies on superstition is called “locus of control”. This refers to how much control over events in their lives people feel they have.

People with an external locus of control believed that they had little control over what happened to them and that outside influences such as luck or other people were the dominant factors in determining what happened to them.

On the other hand, people with an internal locus of control believed that they have control over events and that they had great control over what happened to them.

This concept is very similar to the NLP meta-programs that govern your behavior that I wrote about.

Studies have shown that people with an external locus of control had a much greater belief in superstitious rituals than people with an internal locus of control.

How do people develop these different superstitious rituals?

One explanation is culture and being taught them from others, but these can develop on their own as well.

A study conducted in 1963 sheds a light on this process. In that year, Charles Catania and David Cutts took a box with two buttons and sat students in front of it.

What these students had to do is look for a yellow light to flash and when it did they were to push on one of these two buttons. The goal was to get as many points as possible through this process.

If the student got a point, another light, this time green, would flash.

There was a trick that the students didn’t know. They weren’t told which of the two buttons to push and so they had to try both.

However secretly, only one of the buttons was wired to score points and these points were determined on a preset schedule of reinforcement.

What would happen is that the students would develop different patterns of pushing based on what “seemed” to work. For example, they might surmise that pressing the right button quickly twice and then waiting a few seconds to press the left button worked.

Other students developed totally different patterns of pushing. In their mind, they tied a certain random pattern of presses to the achievement of a desired end-goal. This was the first step towards developing a superstition.

What is happening is people are developing patterns internally. This is how the brain works. Your mind looks at two different things and tries to develop a pattern between them. Sometimes this pattern is real, and sometimes it is just imaginary.

As I mentioned in my article on survivorship bias, people oftentimes confuse correlation and causation and that’s why they develop weird explanations for why some things happened.

There is a very good evolutionary explanation of how this behavior evolved and why it is so deeply ingrained in you.

Remember the experiment on students pushing buttons? Well, this is based on a previous experiment conducted by a psychologist named B. F. Skinner, the founder of behavioral psychology. This time on pigeons!

Apparently when faced with the same types of boxes and buttons, pigeons too developed similar superstitious behavior just like humans!

So the basis for superstitious is entrenched not only in humans, but many other animals as well.

The reason could be to do with the cost of making mistakes. As this article explains:

In models described in 2009, Foster and Kokko compared superstition to a good wager. A mouse, hearing a rustle in the grass bets it’s a cat and dives underground. That the mouse also dives underground at the rustle of a wind-blown tree branch is not stupid, but more likely reflects that lack of data — the mouse can’t tell if the rustle is a cat in the grass or wind in the trees.

If it doesn’t cost you much and it might help, why not do it?

These little signs of proto-superstitions are even more pronounced among our close cousins, the chimpanzees. Maybe this is how religion got started?

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