Sticky Superstitions

September 7, 2006 | By | 10 Replies More

A week or two ago, Erich provided a link to a page entitled, “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”. The site has a number of excellent videos, among them a 10-minute short that equates prayer with any other form of superstition. If not equal in terms of dogmatic obedience, prayer and superstition at least share the same degree of efficacy: absolutely none whatsoever. So why do superstitions form, and in spite of their pointlessness, stick?

For some background, let’s rewind to the 1940’s. In this decade B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who essentially founded behaviorism, conducted the most groundbreaking studies on behavioral conditioning this side of Pavlov’s salivating dogs. Even if you can’t recite his findings from rote-memory like a Psych 101 student, you know some of the terminology his studies created- positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and the concept of “behavioral conditioning” itself.

Not as well known, Skinner’s research on pigeons also suggested one way superstitious behavior comes into practice. Skinner placed some of his infamous pigeons in a cage attached to a mechanism that delivered food at a totally random interval. The birds soon began to associate their own behavior with the food delivery, and kept repeating whatever they had done at the time food entered the cage, as though this would initiate more food.

The conditioning led to a variety of bizarre bird “superstitions”. Skinner reported birds that “turned counter-clockwise about the cage”; “thrust [their heads] into one of the upper corners of the cage”; and “developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head…swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a much slower return.” All of these behaviors continued repeatedly, the birds always expecting their bobbings and spinnings to cue a reward. This may not sound fully like human superstitions. To hear Skinner explain it:

“The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point.

These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing–or, more strictly speaking, did something else.” –Skinner, B. F. (1948). ‘Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168–172.

And thus we have the formation of a superstitious act. You wear a pair of socks to a winning game, and they become your “lucky socks”. You give an actor a strange well-wishing before a successful performance, and everyone from then on says, “Break a leg.”

Speaking of leg, let’s return to the God Hates Amputees example. You can pray to God, you can wish on a lucky horseshoe, and you can sprinkle salt over your shoulder in hopes to grow a detached limb back, but none will do the trick. Even though they don’t work, we continue to follow (and trust) superstitions. Shouldn’t they phase themselves out, a kind of psychological natural selection?

Superstitions don’t rapidly fall into extinction for several reasons. First, a quick return to Skinner. As part of his research on conditioning, Skinner also studied the way people and other animals respond to receiving rewards for their behavior. Paradoxically, we follow a behavior with more devotion if we don’t get rewarded reliably or all of the time. This makes more sense when you consider the following examples:

A vending machine. You insert money into the machine (a behavior), you get a refreshment (a reward). You can rely on a vending machine to reward you for inserting money every time. Unless of course the machine breaks. If you feed money into a vending machine and don’t get to purchase a refreshment, you probably won’t risk paying into the machine again.

But suppose a vending machine didn’t claim to guarantee a reward for every payment received. Then you’d have:

A slot machine. You insert money into a slot machine (behavior), and often, even usually, win nothing. But sometimes, seemingly at random, the machine will give you a payout (reward). You can’t trust a slot machine to pay you all of the time, but you know it will pay you sometimes. You (and any other animal for that matter) will stay at an unreliable, unpredictable slot machine much longer than a once-reliable vending machine that has somewhere gone wrong.

Skinner called the way a slot machine rewards gambling behavior a variable-ratio schedule. Clinging to a lucky penny or sacrificing a goat to a god works the same way- sometimes it pays off (or so it seems), and sometimes it doesn’t. But like Skinner’s dancing, starving pigeons, it often seems worth the risk.

Superstitions also stick because of the sheer evolutionary psychology defending them. What? That doesn’t make sense! And yet it does- remember that natural selection only weeds out things that prove harmful to a species’ prolonged existence. Prayer and other superstitions may often prove utterly ineffective, but rarely do they have an adverse effect. A recent book describes this phenomenon, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. The answer- essentially- Why not?

And in that limbo superstitions remain, the psychological equivalent of the human appendix or men’s nipples. Too useless to truly influence results, too harmless to fade away. But they leave a legacy, in the form of a culture filled with good luck charms, religions that fall back on prayer, and other bizarre rituals that make us look, well, bird-brained. For past discussion on the psychology of silly beliefs and behaviors, see here and here.


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Category: Culture, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (10)

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  1. Ricky Koppel says:

    This is further proof to me that humans have not progressed as a species. Rather, culture has advanced. Culture grows and changes, but human behavior has remained essentially the same since prehistory. Nowadays, human behavior uses society to pursue the biological function of finding a mate.

    Human advancement has been, more or less, a transition from mating strategy (mating with multiple partners in order to produce offspring) to parental investment strategy (investing resources into one offspring to insure its survival.) Yet it is not proven which is the more effective method.

    Has humankind truly advanced?

  2. Jennifer says:

    Very interesting post! For what it's worth, I was a Christian and faithful prayer for 34 years up until just a few months ago. (Long story) Anyway, I'm frequently annoyed to find myself praying still. After 34 years, it's a hard habit to break. I'll be in the middle of praying and go "oh yea – no one's listening!" It's a strange feeling.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    I often present this point of Erika's in discussions of faith.

    Here are Two thoughts:

    Aside from sexual selection and slave breeding, human evolution stopped as soon as social organization reached a level of complexity and profitablility (agriculture and urbanization in late pre-history) to allow society to promote the welfare of the weak at neligible cost to the strong. The wealthier the group, the more obvious is the proportion of normally harmful genes that survive to reproduce. Compare the comeliness and abilities of the average royal to the average commoner in societies where these groups (nominally) don't interbreed.

    Unfortunately, there is biological selection pressure from churches. Those who are the most gullible (er, faithful) follow the edicts to multiply wantonly, and only to mix with others of similar faithfulness. In its malignant form, the church armies go out and kill off individuals or groups that feel differently, like the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Jihadists, and so on. And what do churches try to do with the best and brightest? Into the monasteries with them!

    The Agent Fallacy — the apparently instinctive belief that anything that happens was caused by some entity — is deeply rooted in our minds. I was raised as an atheist, yet I still find myself internally blaming "them" for random displeasing occurences. This is despite the fact that both my intellectual and emotional cores know (believe) that there is no one watching.

  4. Heather says:

    Exactly Erika, I often find myself encouraging people to go to church, read the bible, etc. It's not going to hurt them, and because of what they have been taught to believe, and because of the "god gene", it will probably make their lives a little more fulfilled. I know that it would be the smart thing to encourage freethought in everyone, and trust me I want to, but everyone is not the same. Some people really do NEED religion.

  5. Erika Price says:

    Heather- some people really do NEED religion, just like I NEED my trusty lucky [whatever]. Of course, sometimes I slay thousands of people in the name of spreading belief in my lucky [whatever], and sometimes my lucky [whatever] inspires me to prejudge and hate people who have different lucky [whatevers], but I have the utmost confindence in it- because sometimes it gives me what I want. George Carlin swears by sun worship on the same principle.

  6. Heather says:

    Erika, you're talking about crazy sociopaths. I am talking about normal people who can only find comfort in life by believing in a higher power. Ok, maybe they're sociopaths too, but in a different way. FYI-George Carlin is my god.

  7. Erika Price says:

    If only people could let religious belief remain as innocuous as faith in lucky tokens and Santa Claus. Some individuals do, of course, but the organized aspect of religion leads to that level of pigheadedness, I think, that sprouts religious persecution.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Does prayer work? It gets a bit complicated for me, because people who pray wear two kinds of hats (sometimes both hats at the same time).

    Hat A is worn by someone who is asking a supernatural being to miraculously intervene in the world. Whether this actually happens has been repeatedly and carefully studied. There is no reason to think that this function of prayer (known as intercessory prayer) has ever worked for any person at any time. Here’s one example of a carefully controlled study.

    Hat B, however, is also worn by many people who pray. These (Hat B) people use prayer to seclude themselves from distraction, thereby giving themselves a chance to recharge and reorient. While praying, they are taking advantage of a quiet time and place to contemplate important issues facing them. They are thinking through those issues, speaking to “God” the same way that I might think through problems imagining that I had the audience of real-life people who I respect.

    It would make sense to me, then, that some of the people who pray (those who wear Hat B) truly benefit from the experience. It follows that their experiences would be reinforcing. This would be true whether or not God was actually listening.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erika was a step ahead of me with this post: I was about half-way through drafting a post on this very same subject (even using a vending machine example), but she pre-empted me with a post that I like better than the one I was writing. So, instead, I'll add a comment.

    Finding comfort in religion (or, at least, in a "higher power") is almost universal in humans, but what I find interesting is that this power to comfort is so independent of the content of the religion. For example, I was watching one of the Christian television stations this week, and heard a preacher ridiculing the Hindu belief in reincarnation. When he finished, his very next topic was how lucky Christians are that Christ died for our sins, so that Believers in Christ can be resurrected. I was amazed. To any objective observer, reincarnation is just as incredible as resurrection, so it makes just as much (non)sense to believe in one as the other. Yet, to this preacher, reincarnation is ridiculous, while resurrection is unquestionably true.

    Finding comfort in religion, thus, does not depend on the content of the religion, but rather on something else. Maybe it is combination of the extent to which the Believer believes it, and the extent to which the Believer's relatives and neighbors believe it.

    Whatever the cause, I am amazed that Belivers of any religion will find comfort in their own superstitions, while at the same time ridiculing the comfort that people of other religions find in their superstitions, even though both religions might have virtually equal numbers of believers and, thus, presumably equal capacity for providing comfort.

  10. Jason Rayl says:


    One group dissing another's extremely similar concept about something is an example of the Not Invented Here syndrome. Industry is rife with it, as is politics, and, well, just about everything human.

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