The Science Behind Superstition

Illustrative Stories

Story 1 : A priest was once in a beach.   He was wearing a dhoti with all his tilaks everywhere on his body, looking just like a saint. He was carrying a pot with him. There were other people with similar pots with them. They saw our priest, touched his feet and took his blessings. Then, he filled his pot with some sand ( itwas empty before) , kept it on the shore and went to take a bath. After his bath, he returns to the place where he had kept his pot and what does he see? There are hundreds of pots filled with sand! Which one was his? He had filled his pot with sand to recognize it and there was no tantras or mantras involved in it. People did not reason out for a moment why he had done this. 

Story 2 : Somebody went to the house of  alady for lunch. She had kept a stick right in front of the dining table. The guest asked her the reason. She told, ” I don’t know, my mother used to keep a smaller stick whenever a guest came for lunch.” The same guest visited her mother’s house. She also served lunch. As expected, there was a stick, the size of a tiny branch right in front of the dining table. This guest was curious. She asked this lady also the reason for the stick being present. Even she did not know and told that her mother used to keep a small, tiny stick of the size of the little finger on the dining table. The mystery of the dining stick had to be solved. Luckily, the mother of the second lady was still alive living with her daughter. The guest asked her the reason. Guess what? The small stick on the dining table was meant to be a toothpick. 

What Are Superstitions? 

Oxford dictionary defines superstition as “A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.”( Oxfordonline). It is something that exists only in the minds of the humans. Events may just occur as co incidences for a few times and they become connected to each other. 

Classical Conditioning to be Blamed 

In the first story, people are conditioned to follow what the priest or holy people do. They follow him without nowingthe reason for what he does. 

In the second story, both the daughters have associated lunch with a guest with the stick nearby. So, without even contemplating the reason or the usefulness of the stick, they followed their mother. What more, they even improvised it. They simply paired lunch with stick. In these cases, a psychological process called classical conditioning is  involved. 

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical Conditioning is basically a psychological phenomenon where a person or an animal connects two events. Ivan Pavlov’s experiment on a dog is a classic experiment demonstrating classical conditioning. Here, Pavlov taught a dog to salivate to the ring of a bell. For many times (“Trials” for nerds), he rang a bell before feeding the dog. After some time with such trails, dog, which did not salivate to the bell before now salivates to the bell without food given. This is because the dog has paired the food with the ring of the bell. Pavlov also demonstrated that this conditioning can be continued with a bell, then a light and so on. Food is something that gives pleasure to the dog. It can also be replaced with something that gives it pain, for example, an electric shock.                   

This is exactly what happens to humans. If, for example, a cat crosses the road of a person and he/she misses the bus, and this happens multiple times, cat will be considered the reason for missing the bus, where the cat does not stop he/she from catching the bus. 

The same principle applies when people conduct marriages of frogs and donkeys to get rains, slaughter animals in the name of the deity, fearing that the deity may become angry if they do not offer animals and a lot many more.  

Why do people do this? 

Pain and pleasure are the two forces that motivate a man. Nobody wants to have a bad day or even a bad moment. If somebody has had a bad moment or a bad day, he reasons it out. Obviously, people who blame everything except themselves tend to have more superstitious beliefs. Before getting into details, let us look into some of the weird and funny superstitions. 

Weird superstitions 

  • It is believed that if somebody crosses a person, who is lying or sitting, it stunts their growth. What if the person drinks Complan?
  • A black cat should not cross the road while someone is on the way to his work. Now, the cat thinks the.”I crossed a human while searching for food..I found nothing..meaww!!”
  • If someone sneezes once or thrice before another person nearby leaves, something bad will happen to the leaving person. Who can control sneezes?
  • If somebody chokes while eating or drinking, somebody must be cursing them.
  • One is not supposed to cut nails or have a nail cut after 6 in the evening.
  • One should not take a shower after 12 in the noon. Or else somebody will die in the house.

Tens and hundreds of such blind beliefs can be seen. There are a variety of such beliefs which differ from place to place. 

Daniel Kahneman’s Systems 

In 2013, a psychologist called Daniel Kaghnemanpublished a book called Thinking Fast and Slow. In this book, he puts forward his theory explaining why people tend to think in superstitious way.  

        According to him, there are two systems of thought in people. The first of them, System 1, represents our immediate reactions to the world. This is the part which makes us give snap judgements. In case of superstitions, there are a few things that this system does. 

  • Establish the cause and effect relationship

This is thinking like, ” My exams went well because I wore my lucky shirt.” 

  • Threatens Not to tempt fate

System 1 come up with the worst scenario for our actions. It makes us think like,” If I don’t wear my lucky shirt, my exam will not go well.”          

  • Creates Confirmation Bias

System 1 comes up with past experiences to testify such thoughts. For example, ” Last year when I had exams, I wore my lucky shirt. Most of my friends flunked, but I passed, what a magic!” 

        System 2, in contrast to system 1, is the slower rational brain. It jumps in to tell us,” Don’t be stupid. Shirts don’t matter in the exams but your hard work does.” 

        The problem here is that we most often tend to ignore the System 2 because we are evolutionarily made to think less.(lessen the Cognitive Load and go for the simplest  of things). That is, we tend to think in a superstitious way even when we know that it sillogical.  

        One study clearly shows this. The participants were rewarded for throwing darts at a board. In spite of the rewards, they found it difficult to dart at the board when there was a photo of a baby on it  thanwhen there was a photo of Hitler on the board. It is evident that the participants know that it does not harm either baby or Hitler. 

Why do we resort to System 1? 

In Riesen’s view, why we go for system 1 of thinking is because superstition is less costly than the unfavourableoutcome. For example, not washing the lucky shirt is not a big issue when compared to exams not going well. 

        “Even people who report that a magic spell cannot cause damage are less willing to allow an experimenter to say a magic spell if their hand is at risk than if some other, less valuable object is at risk,” Risen writes.            

If the worst of the worst scenarios is really easy to think of, and really hard to ignore, then superstitions come up. If a person knows his exams weren’t really well for many years, it is easy to think that he will fail again, but the consequences cannot be ignored.    

 Another theory which appeals to the common sense of a lay person is that superstitions comfort us. It feels better to have superstitions despite of knowing that they are meaningless. Life and world is so unpredictable, so that is a comfort which cannot be resisted. Superstitions are what make us humans.         

Food for Thought

Did you know that humans are not the only ones to show superstitious behaviour? Pigeons also exhibit superstitiousbehaviour. B.F.Skinner, the Father of operant conditioning, after training the pigeon to operate a lever to get food pellets. Then, he started putting the food pellets randomly. The pigeon operated the lever even without getting the food pellets hoping that it will get pellets sometime. It knew that the food pellets do not come every time it operates the lever, yet it operated it. 

Author: Ms. Nayana M R