Tag Archives: superstition


New research takes a look into how superstitions develop and enshrine themselves

A new study is looking into how superstitions pop up — and why they endure.


Image credits Benjamin Nelan.

If we’re being honest, we’re not always the most logical of species. Roman leaders looked to the patterns of flying birds for guidance on important decisions, and builders today still sometimes omit the thirteenth floor from building plans. Humanity has harbored superstition for a long, long time now, and we’ll probably keep doing it for a while yet.

We know the number 13 doesn’t really invite bad luck, so why do we keep these superstitions going? Well, in a surprising twist of fate, a new paper reports that it is, sometimes, rational, to hold onto irrational behaviors. That is, if most other people hold onto them, too.

We’re wrong, but we’re wrong together!

“What’s interesting here is that we show that, beginning in a system where no one has any particular belief system, a set of beliefs can emerge, and from those, a set of coordinated behaviors,” says Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology at Penn, and the paper’s second author.

The researchers analyzed superstitions by applying the principles of game theory. They devised a model that shows how groups of people, each starting with distinct belief systems, can evolve a coordinated set of behaviors. These behaviors, in time, become enforced by consistent social norms.

Game theory is a branch of science that tries to model and predict how people interact and how they make decisions in a group or social setting. Akçay, alongside Bryce Morsky, a postdoctoral researcher, focused specifically on ‘correlated equilibria’ — scenarios in which all actors are given correlated signals that dictate their response to any given situation — to look into the issue.

A classical example of a correlated equilibria scenario, Akçay explains, “is a traffic light.” If two people are approaching an intersection, he goes on to say, one will see a ‘stop’ signal and the other one a ‘go’ signal, and both actors know this is the case. The rational way forward, then, is for both actors to obey the signal they see. In this example, the traffic light acts a ‘correlating device’ or a ‘choreographer’, as it informs the behavior of all actors combined.

What the team wanted to see was how this would go down if the correlating device was taken out of the picture. If people had to pay attention to other signals that could direct their actions, and then shape their beliefs according to the success of their actions, would coordinated behaviors arise? Essentially, this would show the team whether evolution can act as a “blind choreographer” of sorts.

“What if a cyclist is riding toward an intersection, and instead of a traffic light they see a cat,” Akçay says. “The cat is irrelevant to the intersection, but maybe the person decides that if they see a black cat, that means they should stop, or that maybe that means the approaching cyclist is going to stop.”

What color the is cat obviously has no bearing on anything else happening in the intersection. A black cat won’t make it more likely that a cyclist enters the intersection any more than a white cat would make it less likely that he wouldn’t. But, and here’s the crux, different colors of cats would have a consistent effect if enough people believed different-colored cats had an effect. It’s a type of conditional strategy that might result in a higher payoff to the cyclist if it is correlated with superstitions of other cyclists, the team explains.

The team’s model assumes that individuals are rational and don’t blindly follow norms, but will do so when the norms seem to have a beneficial effect. They would thus change their beliefs to more closely resemble those of successful people. In effect, this creates a dynamic similar to natural evolution where norms “compete” against one another inside the group.

This process eventually leads to the formation of new social norms. Whether or not these norms are stable, the team also found, comes down to whether they are consistent — meaning that they successfully coordinate individual behavior even in the absence of an external “choreographer.”

“Slowly, these actors accumulate superstitions,” adds Morsky, the study’s first author. “They may say, ‘Ok, well I believe that when I observe this event I should behave this way because another person will behave that way,’ and over time, if they have success in using that kind of a strategy, the superstitions catch on and can become evolutionarily stable.”

“Sometimes it may be rational to hold these irrational beliefs.”

Norms that are able to prescribe how one actor should behave while also giving them a reliable idea of how others will behave in any given situation give rise to superstitions because they help us coordinate large groups even in the absence of outside choreographers, such as traffic lights. To further explore their findings, the researchers hope to engage in social experiments to see whether individuals might start devising their own superstitions or beliefs when none are provided.

“What I like about this work,” says Morsky, “is that these beliefs are made-up superstitions, but they become real because everybody actually follows them, so you create this social reality. I’m really interested in testing that further.”

The paper “Evolution of social norms and correlated equilibria” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

black cat

The science of superstition – and why people believe in the unbelievable

black cat

Credit: Pixabay.

The number 13, black cats, breaking mirrors, or walking under ladders, may all be things you actively avoid – if you’re anything like the 25% of people in the US who consider themselves superstitious.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a particularly superstitious person, you probably say “bless you” when someone sneezes, just in case the devil should decide to steal their soul – as our ancestors thought possible during a sneeze.

Superstition also explains why many buildings do not have a 13th floor – preferring to label it 14, 14A 12B or M (the 13th letter of the alphabet) on elevator button panels because of concerns about superstitious tenants. Indeed, 13% of people in one survey indicated that staying on the 13th floor of a hotel would bother them – and 9% said they would ask for a different room.

On top of this, some airlines such as Air France and Lufthansa, do not have a 13th row. Lufthansa also has no 17th row – because in some countries – such as Italy and Brazil – the typical unlucky number is 17 and not 13.

What is superstition?

Although there is no single definition of superstition, it generally means a belief in supernatural forces – such as fate – the desire to influence unpredictable factors and a need to resolve uncertainty. In this way then, individual beliefs and experiences drive superstitions, which explains why they are generally irrational and often defy current scientific wisdom.

Psychologists who have investigated what role superstitions play, have found that they derive from the assumption that a connection exists between co-occurring, non-related events. For instance, the notion that charms promote good luck, or protect you from bad luck.

For many people, engaging with superstitious behaviours provides a sense of control and reduces anxiety – which is why levels of superstition increase at times of stress and angst. This is particularly the case during times of economic crisis and social uncertainty – notably wars and conflicts. Indeed, Researchers have observed how in Germany between 1918 and 1940 measures of economic threat correlated directly with measures of superstition.

Touch wood

Superstitious beliefs have been shown to help promote a positive mental attitude. Although they can lead to irrational decisions, such as trusting in the merits of good luck and destiny rather than sound decision making.

Carrying charms, wearing certain clothes, visiting places associated with good fortune, preferring specific colours and using particular numbers are all elements of superstition. And although these behaviours and actions can appear trivial, for some people, they can often affect choices made in the real world.

Superstitions can also give rise to the notion that objects and places are cursed. Such as the Annabelle the Doll – who featured in The Conjuring and two other movies – and is said to be inhabited by the spirit of a dead girl. A more traditional illustration is the Curse of the Pharaohs, which is said to be cast upon any person who disturbs the mummy of an Ancient Egyptian person – especially a pharaoh.

Numbers themselves can also often be associated with curses. For example, the figure 666 in a licence plate is often featured in stories of misfortune. The most famous case was the numberplate “ARK 666Y”, which is believed to have caused mysterious vehicle fires and “bad vibes” for passengers.

Sporting superstitions

Superstition is also highly prevalent within sport – especially in highly competitive situations. Four out of five professional athletes report engaging with at least one superstitious behaviour prior to performance. Within sport, superstitions have been shown to reduce tension and provide a sense of control over unpredictable, chance factors.

Superstitions practices tend to vary across sports, but there are similarities. Within football, gymnastics and athletics, for example, competitors reported praying for success, checking appearance in mirror and dressing well to feel better prepared. Players and athletes also engage with personalised actions and behaviours – such as wearing lucky clothes, kit and charms.

Famous sportspeople often display superstitious behaviours. Notably, basketball legend Michael Jordan concealed his lucky North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls team kit. Similarly, the tennis legend Björn Bork, reportedly wore the same brand of shirt when preparing for Wimbledon.

Rafael Nadal has an array of rituals that he performs each time he plays. These include the manner in which he places his water bottles and taking freezing cold showers. Nadal believes these rituals help him to find focus, flow and perform well.

Walking under ladders

What all this shows is that superstitions can provide reassurance and can help to reduce anxiety in some people. But while this may well be true, research has shown that actions associated with superstitions can also become self-reinforcing – in that the behaviour develops into a habit and failure to perform the ritual can actually result in anxiety.

This is even though the actual outcome of an event or situation is still dependent on known factors – rather than unknown supernatural forces. A notion consistent with the often quoted maxim, “the harder you work (practice) the luckier you get”.

So the next time you break a mirror, see a black cat or encounter the number 13 – don’t worry too much about “bad luck”, as it’s most likely just a trick of the mind.

Neil Dagnall, Reader in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University and Ken Drinkwater, Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Cognitive and Parapsychology, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.