Trick or Treat: The Psychology of Superstition

I’m a big fan of this time of year. No, not fall, Halloween. I like Halloween because it’s got something for everyone. Kids, of course, get to dress up however they want, perform low-level acts of mischief, and get rewarded for it. Adults who want to relive their childhoods can also don silly get-ups if they so choose, if not, they can be bemused by answering the doorbell and rewarding those tiny ghosts, goblins and other sundry spirits that go bump in the October 31 night. And finally, adults who don’t want to be bothered by it all can turn off all the lights in the house, heads down the basement and get in some good cuddling’ time with a loved one.

Halloween also offer reminders to those of us who like to study how humans act that the process is not always as logical, rational and deliberate as we sometimes think. Superstition poses a challenge to anyone who adheres to the theory that humans detect cause and effect relationships with perfect acumen. So where does superstition live and how does it breed? It may come as a surprise to some that these are questions that have, and still do, occupy the concerns of some very eminent scientists.

Take the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner, for example. In 1948, Skinner published the results of a very simple, and yet elegant, experiment. He put hungry pigeons into a chamber and presented food to them every 12 seconds. The pigeons did not have to do anything in particular for the food, this was manna from the heavens delivered on a consistent and regular basis. Despite this, what Skinner found is that most of the pigeons developed ritual and repetitive behaviors. Some flapped their wings, some would peck at the floor, others did head-jerks, and others would turn around in circles (and always in the same direction). Skinner called this phenomenon superstition, and argued that it occurs because this was the behavior that the animal was engaging in at the time of the first food presentation. Thus, the animal associated the behavior with food-delivery, and the frequency of this behavior increased.

When you think about it, one of the underlying assumptions to this explanation is that pigeons cannot tell the difference between events that they cause, and events that occur outside of the animals’ control. According to this explanation, it doesn’t mater to the pigeon whether or not turning in circles is the real cause of food delivery, it only matters that there is a close temporal connection between turning in circles and the delivery of food. But is this actually true? Let’s jump ahead 30 years, when an investigator named Peter Killeen actually took the time to test this assumption. The experiment here is a little more complicated, but even more elegant then Skinner’s.

Killeen first trained pigeons to peck a lighted disc. For each peck, there was a 5% chance that the peck would cause the lit disc to turn off, and at the same time two other discs, one located on the left, the other on the right, would be illuminated. At the same time Killeen had programmed a computer to generate “fake-pecks’” at the same rate as the pigeon was pecking. These fake pecks also had a 5% chance of turning off the center disc and turning on the two side discs. The pigeons task was to determine whether or not its own peck turned off the disc, or whether the computer did so. If the pigeon thought that it was responsible for turning off the center disc, it had to peck the left-hand disc. If the pigeon thought the computer was not responsible for turning off the center disc, then it had to peck the right-hand disc. Correct responses were rewarded with food. So, if the pigeon pecked left when in fact it was responsible for turning off the center disc, it got food. If the pigeon pecked the right disc when the computer turned off the center, it also got food. If the pigeon made a mistake, it got no food.

What Killeen found was that the pigeons were pretty good at deciding whether or not their behavior turned off the center disc. And the pigeons’ decision was based on a good criterion, in fact the same one that people use: the amount of time that elapsed between the pigeons’ response and when the light turned off. So, for example, if the pigeon pecked, and 2 seconds elapsed before the disc turned off, it concluded that the computer was responsible for the outcome. If the disc went out immediately after the pigeon pecked it, the pigeon concluded that it was responsible. If there was a brief belay between the peck and the event (day a quarter of a second), that’s when the pigeons made the most errors, because the time delay was so short.

So Killeen showed that pigeons can tell the difference between events they are responsible for and those that occur independently of their behavior. What, then could be used to explain the superstition that Skinner first observed? What Killeen then did was something simple: he simply doubled the amount of food he gave the pigeon whenever the pigeon correctly decided that it was responsible for the center disc to go out. And what he found when he did this is that the animal was much more willing to make an “I caused this event” response. In short, what Killeen showed is that the decision is significantly influenced by a simple cost-benefit analysis: if it doesn’t cost you much to engage in superstitious behavior, but there is potentially a very big pay-off for doing it, you’ll take that bet.

And when you think about it, this makes sense. Throwing salt over your shoulder, not walking under a ladder, or wearing the same “lucky” shirt prior to a hockey game doesn’t really cost us much. But what about sacrificing a human being to appease the Gods and end a drought? The cost here is more significant (especially if you are the sacrificial lamb), but the potential pay-off is higher. This is especially germane if you are living in a community that depends heavily on agricultural production for survival. Thought of in this way, you should be able to see that superstitious behavior has little to do with logic or reason, but has a heck of a lot to do about motivation.

Some of you are probably thinking right now that this may be applicable for organisms with bird brains, but clearly this isn’t the case for us humans, at least those of us humans who have been able to evolve supra-avian brains. My answer to those who are thinking this way is the following: Stop being such a species-supremacist! The importance for motivation in determining superstition, even in humans, was highlighted very recently by a paper that appeared in the prestigious journal Science, and authored by Jennifer Whitson, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Adam Galinsky, from Northwestern University.

If you want to stress a colleague or an enemy, one of the best ways to do it is to put him in a situation that he cannot predict or control. Simple proof of this?: We nasty and evil scientists have discovered that the best way to drive the levels of stress hormones through the roof in our test subjects is to put them into unpredictable and uncontrollable situations. This explains why, for example, job interviews are so stressful, we are not exactly sure which questions will be asked (we can guess, but there will always be those 2-3 questions that come out of the blue). In addition, it is the people on the other side of the desk, the ones posing the questions and making the final hiring decision, who are in control. Most of us hate unpredictability and uncontrollability, and so the motivation to try to gain control is a very potent one.

Given this fact, Whitson and Galinski asked a very simple question: Does uncertainty influence pattern perception? What they found was that putting people in uncontrollable situations made them more likely to see objects in ambiguous figures, to see patterns in stock market information that aren’t real (a particularly poignant finding given the current financial crisis), to form and believe in conspiracy theories, and to develop new superstitions.

How can uncontrollability promote all of these diverse illusionary phenomena? As Whitson and Galinski suggest, all of these phenomena reflect our attempts to build “a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” In short, it brings some degree of meaning to a senseless world, structure to a shapeless cluster of information; it affords order out of chaos, conviction out of hopelessness, and power out of helplessness. And the benefits of certainty are that it increases our self-worth and reduces our anxieties…

And so, tonight when the doorbell rings, if you haven’t committed yourself to an evening of squeezing your honey in your dark, damp subterranean vault, open the door, and revel in the fact that those little brains standing in front of you are not condemned to a lifetime of unfounded and irrational beliefs. They know what they are doing, and they know that it’s a little silly. They’re just trying to make a little sense of their world, and that’s an inherently perfect thing to do.

For those of you who might want to access the articles cited in this post, you can use the information below tofind them:

B.F. Skinner (1948). “Superstition” in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 38, pp. 168-172.

P.R. Killeen (1978). Superstition: A Matter of Bias, not Detectability. Science, Volume 199, pp. 88-90.

J.A. Whitsoon and A.G. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases illusory Pattern Perception. Science, Volume 322, pp. 115-117.

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Posted in Brain, Human.

Posted on 31 Oct 2008

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