Even if it comforts, superstition ain't the way


Taken too seriously, superstition and magical thinking can erode confidence in science, writes PAUL O'DONOGHUE

ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? Do you throw salt over your shoulder after spilling it accidentally? Do you count magpies, read astrology columns, avoid walking under ladders or raising an umbrella indoors? Do you touch wood for luck, carry a lucky charm, cross your fingers or perform other apparently irrational rituals?

If so, you are not alone. Such practices are widespread.

Recent discussions in the media as to whether the number 13 on next year’s car registration plates would lead to a decrease in sales started me thinking about the origins and prevalence of superstitious behaviour.

Triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13 – has resulted in odd anomalies and behaviours such as the absence of 13th floors in buildings, the absence of a number 13 shirt in some sports teams and the refusal by some to fly on Friday 13th.

It has been suggested that next year in Ireland, cars will be numbered 131 if registered between January and June and 132 if registered during the remainder of the year to ensure the superstitious will not be deterred from handing over their hard-earned cash to the motor industry.

Superstitious behaviour arises as a consequence of a range of factors. We have all been raised with fantastic stories of myth and mystery that encourage the development of magical beliefs, from ghosts and banshees to the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

Many of us have also been raised within religious belief systems that encompass a wide range of supernatural stories and claims that fly in the face of a rational, scientific world view, with the miraculous beliefs of one religion often seen as misguided superstition by the practitioners of other faiths.

While such cultural influences may lead to an increased likelihood of accepting supernatural explanations, our biological makeup further contributes to our tendency to make false associations between unconnected events. If event B follows event A, we tend to assume that A caused B.

For example, an athlete who wears a red jersey and wins a golf tournament may associate the winning with the wearing of the jersey. This may then become their lucky jersey and be worn at all similar tournaments. Athletes are notoriously superstitious and often develop elaborate rituals that are employed in advance of competition.

It has been argued that the utility of such rituals lies in the creation of an illusion of control in a context where the outcome is uncertain and anxiety-inducing. The perception of control is seen in psychology as a central pillar in maintaining psychological wellbeing.

Superstitious behaviour has also been observed in other species. BF Skinner, the well-known behavioural psychologist, has demonstrated superstitious behaviour in the pigeon.

A hungry pigeon was placed in a cage where food was delivered at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behaviour. Skinner noted the birds developed a variety of patterned behaviours in response to the presentation of the food. Whatever the bird happened to be doing just before the food was presented was reinforced.

Some birds would turn a number of times and take a number of steps, others would carry out a pattern of head thrusts, while others developed a pattern of head tosses. The response pattern was not always reinforced, but often it was, and this resulted in a strong association. Compare this situation with that of the golfer.

Superstitious behaviour is not related to intelligence level, it is not pathological or abnormal and often is inconsequential to the individual, so should we be concerned about it? Overall, I would argue yes. There can be more serious consequences to adopting a superstitious and magical view of the world, which requires a more critical response.

If a person with a significant illness believes some magical treatment will cure him, he may lose his life as a consequence. Steve Jobs has been cited as a victim of such a misjudgment. Superstition and magical thinking, taken too seriously, can erode rationality and confidence in science and medicine.

It has been argued that because people may get comfort from irrational beliefs, we should not challenge them. The Russian-born American science-fiction author and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov disagrees: “It is no defence of superstition and pseudoscience to say that it brings solace and comfort to people . . .

“If solace and comfort are how we judge the worth of something, then consider that tobacco brings solace and comfort to smokers, drugs of all kinds bring it to addicts, cruelty and violence bring it to psychopaths. Judge by solace and comfort only, and there is no behaviour we ought to interfere with.”

Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founding member of the Irish Skeptics Society; contact@irishskeptics.org

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