The Psychology of Superstition

Stuart Vyse

Oxford University Press, 1997.

For anyone curious about why superstition is so common, Vyse's study is an essential addition to the library. The chapter on superstition and coincidence is a marvellous example of how laboratory psychology can throw light on everyday behaviour. In 1948, B. F. Skinner wrote a paper on superstition in pigeons, describing experiments where rewards were given at fixed intervals, like every 15 seconds, but the pigeon's behaviour showed operant conditioning, such that it associated an action, like pecking the floor or walking in circles, with the arrival of the reward. These conditioned behaviours were like rituals, and were performed in between rewards, even though there was no connection between doing anything at all and receiving food. Such behaviours were thus called superstitions.

Coincidence is described here as temporal contiguity: a behaviour occurring just as the reward is given is reinforced. Naturally, similar experiments have been performed with human subjects, with very interesting results. In Koichi Ono's 1987 experiment, subjects were asked to earn points in response to a signal light, and were faced with 3 levers, though they were not told to do anything in particular. They could see their score on a counter, but did not know that points were awarded completely irrespective of what they did.

Most subjects developed superstitious behaviour, mainly in patterns of lever-pulling, but in some cases in the form of elaborate or even strenuous actions of touching walls or jumping. Each of these superstitions began with a coincidence.

Vyse offers an evolutionary interpretation of conditioned superstition:

"When stakes are high, we are particularly susceptible to conditioning. There is a strong tendency to repeat any response that is coincident with reinforcement. In the long run, this tendency serves the species well: if turning in a circle really does operate the feeder, the bird eats and survives another day; if not, little is lost." (p.76)

The origins of magical thinking are discussed in a chapter on Growing Up Superstitious:

"As children learn the names of objects, they often exhibit what Piaget called nominal realism - the confusion of the name with the object itself. . . In children, nominal realism leads to the expectation that names and thoughts are connected with objects and can influence real world events." (p.153)

Unfortunately, of course, this childish tendency is not restricted to childhood. The counter to nominal realism is the old slogan, "the map is not the territory", but this simple notion is not understood by those who, to take a notorious example, practise dowsing by dangling a pendulum over a map of some land. How can this be anything other than infantile behaviour? This is part of the general issue of symbols, and will be discussed elsewhere on this site.



Paul Taylor 2001