We believe in it even though it’s irrational


As you all, know today is the notorious Friday 13th. While some people stay at home and perform dances and rituals to prevent misfortune, others go through the day like any other day of the year.  For a non- believer Friday 13th might be the biggest mumbo-jumbo there is. All they see is wacky behaviour and goofy dances due to the delusion of superstition.  Friday the 13th is after all a classic example of superstition. Nevertheless, superstition is not limited to classic and world-wide known examples that bring bad luck; it can be all sorts of beliefs. For example, I saw an acquaintance spin three times and spit on the ground because her daughter said a word that brings misfortune in her religion. You might wonder, as I did, why she would perform such odd  behaviour for such an irrational belief. To slake your curiosity, be sure to read the rest of the article!


Skinners’s notification of Superstitious behaviour
Are Humans No Different From Pigeons?

In 1948, B.F. Skinner was one of the first who notified superstitious behaviour in his Journal of Experimental Psychology. In this operant conditioning experiment food was given to pigeons at random intervals. The pigeons reacted in a ritualistically way (e.g. repetitive turning in cage, swinging heads or other behaviour) that is seemed like they gave a response to receive the food. In other words; the pigeons behaved in monotonous patterns so that they could earn food as a reinforcer for the displayed behaviour. They learned that their random behaviour caused the food, even though in reality this relation does not exist. From this, Skinner logically concluded that superstitious behaviour is defined by outcome-based behaviour.


Skinner’s Superstition vs Superstition of Causation
When Awareness Creates False Causations

According to the principle of causation, you have to consciously be aware of relation between the stimulus and the outcome. This makes humans able to avoid the situations with negative consequences.  For example, after you looked a black cat in the eye, you got hit by a car. Next time you see a cat you don’t look his way, because you don’t want another car accident. Even though the relation is irrational, the belief that the relationship between the cat and the car accident is real causes you to fear the cat. Thus this example is real superstition according to principle of causation , because it includes a psychological relationship. Skinner on the other hand focused on the output that behaviour gives, the action gives simply a reaction. This does not take in account the subjective intervention that causation stresses.  Here you can see that human behaviour is too complex for the superstition that Skinner described. Animal behaviour cannot be generalised to humans that easily.

The Adaptive View of Shermer
Evolution Strikes Again

Last but not least, we will discuss the adaptive theory of Shermer. In this theory type 1 error and type 2 error are the most important concepts.  When a person makes a type 1 error, he or she accept something as the truth when it is in fact untrue. For example if you saw someone die after he ate a walnut, you might think all walnuts causes death. In the end you would be the one who acted nuts, because this fear does not makes sense.  On the contrary when a person makes a type 2 error he or she rejects the truth.  Shermer stated that when the costs of the type 2 error risks are too high natural selection choses to the make a type 1 error more frequently.

We have discussed the definition of superstition according to Skinner, Causation and Shermer. We see that humans are not that rational after all, because we see a nonrealistic link between a stimulus and effect. Of course these explanations are only theoretical. So It’s up to you whenever you believe it or not!
By Melissa de Gast


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