That Thinking Feeling

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Why do we have superstitions?

Did you know that pigeons can be superstitious? Seriously!

Back in the day, there was a psychologist called B. F. Skinner, who was very interested in conditioning. No, not the thing that comes after shampooing – I mean the process of trying to modify a behaviour. If you have a dog, you’ve probably used conditioning by rewarding them for desired behaviours – like sitting and giving you their paw. Because the dog doesn’t know what you want them to do to start with, you might at first give them a reward for sitting very briefly. Later, as the dog gets more skilled, you might only give them a reward if they sit for more than two seconds, then only if they sit for more than two seconds and lift their paw, and so on.

Skinner wasn’t so big on dogs; instead he used rats or pigeons, presumably because they take up less space and are cheaper to feed… and probably also because you don’t feel so bad being mean to a rat or a pigeon as you do a dog; Skinner was doing some pretty mean things sometimes.

Pigeons gathering by water

Pigeons gathering by water


Rare photo of delegates arriving at the 70th annual meeting of the B. F. Skinner Hate Club and Avenger Squad


Most of Skinner’s experiments involved getting the pigeon to do something like press a lever in exchange for food, but in 1948 he decided to see what happened if he just gave pigeons a bit of food at regular intervals, with no action required on the pigeon’s part [i]. After a while, he noticed that the pigeons were developing strange behaviours, like swinging their heads. These behaviours could evolve over time to become more elaborate: swinging the head to the left became turning to the left became hopping to the left while turning. Compare this to the dog who’s learning to sit and give their paw: over time, they both develop something like a belief, though it’s hard to say if it’s a belief in the same way that a human would have a belief, that they need to do more and more complex behaviours in order to get their reward. However, unlike the dog, the pigeon isn’t being rewarded for their behaviour. Their belief is a superstition – they have made an incorrect link between cause (head swinging) and effect (food arrival).

Superstitions come in two sorts. The pigeon is displaying a positive superstition: if I behave in this way, something good will happen. For humans, an equivalent superstition might be thinking that four leaf clovers are lucky. We can also have negative superstitions: if I behave in this way, something bad will be prevented. As an anxious person, I have a great affinity with negative superstitions. I salute every magpie I see, if I spill salt I throw it over my shoulder, and (one I picked up from my dad, formerly in the Merchant Navy) if I accidentally hit my glass with my cutlery, I will instantly slam my hand over the glass lest some poor sailor die.

Tables laid with wine and water glasses for a celebration

Tables laid with wine and water glasses for a celebration


Formal dinners and the associated glassware are an absolute fucking minefield for me


Superstitions evidently have value for me, because they help me feel like I am in control of things I am not actually in control of. Yes, you’re right, that’s not actually very healthy. I’ll add it to the list of things to talk to my therapist about.



The evolution of superstition

Along with lots of other species, humans probably evolved superstitious behaviours or beliefs because there are massive advantages to correctly linking cause and effect that outweigh the disadvantages of false alarms.

Consider a superstitious belief like ‘you won’t catch any fish if you take bananas aboard a boat’. If the superstition is wrong, well, then there are other things you can eat and there are probably going to be bananas when you get back on land again. If the superstition is right, though, then having bananas on board could mean that your trip is wasted and that you don’t have any fish to sell or to eat, a scenario with much worse potential consequences than simple lack of banana. Better to be safe and not take the bananas on board. Foster and Kokko [ii] have made a model that explains the maths behind this, if you want a more in-depth view.

A black cat sitting on a pile of paper

A black cat sitting on a pile of paper


Superstitions seem to be culturally dependent: black cats are traditionally considered lucky in the UK and Japan, unlucky in the USA, and somewhere in between in Germany.


OK, so what’s going on in the mind when a superstition happens? As I said, I automatically slam my hand over a ringing glass because it makes me think a sailor is going to die. Rationally speaking, this cannot possibly be true, and yet I still do it. Risen [iii] would say that I am acquiescing to an irrational belief.

Risen’s ideas are based on a model of thinking that Daniel Kahneman and his collaborators have developed over many years [iv]. The central point of Kahneman’s work is the theory that we have two systems of thinking, helpfully called System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, but prone to errors because it relies on emotions and stereotypes. System 2 is slow, but more accurate because it requires logical reasoning and effort. Risen says that superstitions are a type of (wrong) System 1 belief, and that we can have three types of reaction to them:

  • We don’t realise that the System 1 belief is wrong, so we accept it.

  • We realise that the System 1 belief is wrong, so we correct it.

  • We realise that the System 1 belief is wrong, but we don’t correct it: we acquiesce to it.

Risen thinks there are certain circumstances that make us more likely to acquiesce to wrong System 1 beliefs. This includes times when the wrong belief is particularly compelling (e.g. we can easily imagine the sailor dying), or when the cost of the belief actually being true is particularly high (e.g. it is a known sailor at risk rather than a stranger). It’s easy to see from this point of view how the glass-ringing-sailor-dying superstition might spread among sailors: thanks to personal experience, they know lots of sailors, and they know lots of ways sailors can die.

The thing is, though, acting on superstitions can actually have beneficial effects.


You what?

I don’t mean that I, personally, have saved a sailor from dying thanks to my ringing-glass superstition, or that I have averted bad luck by saluting a magpie or knocking on wood or never wearing new socks when going on a long car journey. (I made that last one up all by myself – told you I was anxious.)

Socked feet resting on the dashboard of a car

Socked feet resting on the dashboard of a car


Look at this fate-tempting fool


Instead, carrying out a superstitious behaviour can make you feel more in control of events in your life. This can be very useful, for example when you’re playing a sport and you need to reassure yourself that the outcome of a match or a race is under your control [v].

Damisch, Stoberock, and Mussweiler [vi] delved into what’s going on when a superstition is activated. They asked students at a German university to complete a variety of tasks memory tests and anagrams. Each person was asked to bring a personal good-luck charm to the experiment, which was then taken away to be photographed before the task. Some people got their charms back before the task, and some people got them back after the task. Those who had their lucky charms with them when they were doing the tasks were more likely to believe that they would succeed at the tasks than those who didn’t have their lucky charms – and they were right. The researchers found that this better performance was because participants set higher goals for themselves before the tasks and kept trying at the tasks even when they were struggling. All this from just having a lucky charm nearby.

Bowl of Coco Pops and milk

Bowl of Coco Pops and milk


[Dad joke face] I wonder if having a Coco Pop nearby would have the same effect?


Superstitions are clearly just in our head, but they just as clearly have real effects on how we interact with the world. I think what we need here is a quote from Albus Dumbledore: “Alas! Ear wax.”

Sorry, that’s the wrong one. Let me see, let me see… ah, here we go. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

So I guess my advice is this: if you have a positive superstition, it probably won’t do you any harm to act as though it can actually affect the world around you. Just, uh, leave the rabbit’s foot on the rabbit. It needs the foot more than you do.


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