Post No.: 0523
Many of us – even those whom consider ourselves otherwise rational and scientifically-minded – believe in superstitions.
Superstitions are beliefs or behaviours that pertain to claimed supernatural forces acting via specific objects or events that, without a scientific or rational basis, apparently affect or control things like luck or the foretelling of the future e.g. a mirror breaking at home then the aeroplane one needs to catch in two weeks time crashing, or crossing one’s fingers then one’s team scoring a minute later. So superstitions concern the irrational belief in having control where there’s no such control – usually along the lines of ‘doing some thing will lead to some great/terrible unrelated thing happening down the line’.
Luck does exist but charms or rituals won’t affect it. We cannot control luck, at least for oneself – otherwise it’s not by definition luck. If one could potentially affect an outcome by doing something then that something would just be called work (thus if crossing one’s claws made a difference then it’d be classed as doing work, and you can tell your boss that when he/she’s waiting for you to finish that report(!)) We can affect someone else’s luck though, such as by throwing a water balloon on an unsuspecting random stranger’s head – you cannot reasonably say that it’s their fault, they deserved it or should’ve known it’d likely happen to them!
Superstitions might start when young when people are told there may be bad luck to doing/not doing certain things – it only takes a few seconds to ‘touch wood’ for example, so it doesn’t seem worth the risk to not follow the superstition because of the potential feared consequences.
Superstitions typically arise from conflating correlation with causation, mixed with a belief in magic or the fear of powerful and unknown forces. If someone is present who’s not normally present, or if someone does something that he/she doesn’t normally do like wear a hat, then if something goes wrong or right, it doesn’t mean that he/she jinxed things or that the hat was a lucky charm respectively if that person or that hat didn’t have a causal bearing on the outcome – that’s confusing correlation with causation.
So correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. And with superstitions, there’s often no correlation anyway (‘illusory correlation’) – they’re associations that don’t exist except in our own minds. Something could be down to just pure random chance e.g. superstitious beliefs that link wearing a charm with an effect like good luck arise because our cognitive machinery for pattern detection and causality over-fires. It’s over-firing because the link between the action (wearing the charm) and the outcome (good luck) is spurious, and the correlation is illusory because, via confirmation bias, we take note of all of the times a good luck event occurs and ignore all of the times a bad luck event occurs whilst we’re wearing the charm. Not every behaviour or trait we naturally express evolved to suit some specific advantageous purpose.
Mirrors, ladders, coins, cards, etc. are human-invented and human-made things – how come only certain human-invented and human-made things are imbued with supernatural powers to affect luck if they break, people walk under them or whatever, and not others? It’s seemingly all made up! Broken bits of glass, or objects falling from people working up a ladder or knocking that ladder over, can be dangerous though, so there are good reasons to not break mirrors or walk under ladders, but there’s no need to wrap superstitions around them about any wider effects, such as how they’ll affect an event up to seven years later.
We’re naturally good at linking things or finding (what we think are) patterns and correlations, particularly under conditions of uncertainty e.g. sportspeople and actors who have to perform well within a certain window of time. We can sometimes think there’s a correlation after a single event e.g. wearing a new collar and then finding a juicy bone and so attributing the luck to that collar.
One or two data points aren’t enough to reveal a pattern. ‘Paranormal’ would just be ‘normal’, and ‘alternative medicine’ would just be ‘medicine’, if they were scientifically proven to be true or work. Conspiracy theories need a holistic consideration of all of the information and not just a narrow confirmation-biased view. Unfalsifiable (cannot be proven to be false) reasoning is an unreasonable basis for believing something to be true – rather than expect others to prove something to be false, we must either prove it to be true, prove all of the alternative answers possible are false, or employ mathematics e.g. proof by contradiction.
We tend to automatically read into intentions, causality and/or teleological explanations even where there are none or when something is random. We frequently mistake games of chance as games of skill, such as when blaming others for picking the wrong card from a random and blind selection(!)
Coincidental or synchronous events tend to be attributed with cause-and-effect, especially the nearer in time the events are to each other – we tend to assume one event causes another close event in time and maybe place e.g. wearing a particular shirt then one’s team winning a match. Yet we tend to fail to attribute genuine causes to distant effects in time and maybe place e.g. driving a petrol or diesel-powered vehicle and understanding how this contributes to climate change many years later. So, in general, we can heuristically connect events too much if they’re close to each other, and connect events too little if they’re not.
If you stick your hand in a fire then get burnt then you’ll receive an immediate feedback of pain, which will likely successfully teach you to not do it again. We learn best when feedback is immediate, clear and consistent. If you were brought up with junk food for most of your formative life and you don’t know any differently then you may never learn from your own personal experiences that it’s the food consumption over time that contributed to your type 2 diabetes because the ill effects of consuming too much junk food take years to manifest; thus making it hard to intuitively link the causes to their effects. Fortunately, many other contemporaries and people before you will have been through the same thing and so you can be convinced that too much junk food is a problem. But still, unlike avoiding putting your hand in a fire again, you’ll find it hard to adapt your behaviours because your instincts underweight long-term considerations – especially because that junk food still tastes great and gives you an immediate feedback of pleasure.
Causes and their effects are even harder to intuit, to believe and to modify our behaviours for when they take many generations to manifest i.e. more than a single person’s lifetime, such as unfettered materialism leading to planetary resource depletion. The longer the time between an action and the feedback of its consequences, the less likely we’ll connect the two events, hence learning from personal experience becomes even harder or impossible to achieve (especially if this materialism is personally giving us an immediate feedback of pleasure again). In other words, we cannot always trust our own personal experiences, intuitions and desires because they don’t work well when sussing out long-term or intergenerational effects – we must listen to scientific research (which overwhelmingly reveals that humans are polluting environments, reducing biodiversity, depleting resources faster than they’re being replenished and accelerating global warming).
In fluffy fact, we don’t tend to sufficiently plan for or modify our behaviours to optimise the distant future, or mitigate for, even foreseeable, far future disasters enough, due to many different biases – including the tendency to follow the crowd (if others around us aren’t changing their lifestyles then so won’t we) the status quo bias (resulting in an inertia or resistance to change), myopia (hyperbolic discounting), the optimism bias (believing that we’ll personally be fine even if others won’t be), over-simplifying things (such as the single-action bias, or doing just one good thing is enough to make us feel like we’ve done enough) and amnesia (forgetting the lessons of the past).
This all relates to superstitions because most superstitious behaviours are of the ‘something (un)lucky will happen soon because of something that I am doing/just did’ rather than the ‘something (un)lucky will happen within seven years time because of something that happened today’ variety. However, the latter allows more ambiguity and scope for the interpretation of events because anything (un)lucky happening within this very long time period could be counted as caused by the superstitious behaviour. ‘Post hoc ergo propter hoc’ (after this, therefore because of this) implies that any momentous event at any time in the future could be counted as ‘proving’ a particular superstition as true.
Believe in a prophecy – especially the more cryptic it is and therefore the more latitude it allows for (re)interpretation – and you’ll almost always eventually be able to find something that appears to at least half-support it. But it’s not the most sensible way to look at the world unless you like being tricked.
Many people think they’re great at predicting future events, and if they want to put their money on it then that’s basically gambling. There’s a certain amount of ego involved in thinking that one can predict uncertain outcomes, especially based on intuitions alone (rather than primarily on gathered data and statistical tests – see Post No.: 0478). And with superstitions, the belief that one can control what one cannot – at least in the manner that a superstition purports to control it – can increase one’s confidence in one’s predictions too.
In some contexts – psychological solutions can work for psychological problems though. Well ‘thinking’ isn’t going to, say, heal a lost limb, but thinking in the right way can make you feel less stressed and happier. ‘Mind over matter’, ‘believe in it and it’ll be true’ are what placebos are about. Woof!
This suggests that we can turn this to our advantage for free if our beliefs are strong enough i.e. we don’t necessarily need to pay for expensive charms and/or perform lengthy rituals if we can believe that cheaper/free and/or quicker placebos work too because, after all, there’s no external active ingredient but the mere power of one’s internal beliefs at work. However, evidence suggests the opposite – more expensive placebos and more elaborate placebo rituals work better. I guess the mind needs help to be convinced, and the heuristic applied here is ‘more means more’.
It can be dangerous to think that the mere power of belief, faith or conviction can make absolutely anything happen, morally right or true though e.g. ‘I believe my faith will vindicate my forthcoming actions, and if I believe this then this’ll be true’.
In my own furry opinion, superstitions overall limit your life because they can make your confidence depend on external things, such as charms, which if lost, can make you feel powerless. And sometimes things can be controlled but just not in that way hence we’re being distracted by superstitious beliefs e.g. a superstitious ritual that’ll apparently ward off viruses, when we should be getting vaccinated instead. So superstitions can be dangerous for they distract us from the real solutions to problems. Believing in jinxes or ‘if we talk about a tragedy then it’ll definitely happen’ isn’t good if we need to address those issues head-on to work to prevent them. We can consequently blame the wrong things or people, which can lead to injustice.
Woof. But I can understand that some superstitions really make people feel better, and the sense of control they offer against the unknown can reduce any otherwise overwhelming chronic stresses, and that’s beneficial for one’s health. It’s sometimes just a habit too – something people do even though they don’t really believe it’ll affect the intended outcome. So, if you have them, please share with us your superstitions by using the Twitter comment button below.