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Why we evolved to be superstitious - Comments

Bruno's Avatar Comment 1 by Bruno

I am not sure if I fully understand this article or study. I understand how attributing danger to any sound in the bush and running away could be beneficial. But how does attributing supernatural characteristics to the sound in the bush make one safer? Did I miss something?

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 10:49:00 UTC | #232816

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 2 by DamnDirtyApe

Any links to the original papers? The mathematical models sound interesting.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 10:50:00 UTC | #232819

D'Arcy's Avatar Comment 3 by D'Arcy

Perhaps the words "superstitious" and "suspicious" are being wrongly used as interchangeable. The garden birds that vamoose when I get too close probably don't regard me as a ghost, just a possible predator. Humans with our language and culture can and do reinforce irrational fears of the unknown. Just look at the LHC scaremongering, all based on culturally reinforced ignorance.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 10:51:00 UTC | #232820

Mr Blue Sky's Avatar Comment 4 by Mr Blue Sky

Seems sensible but how can we spread this knowledge and get the right types to act on it? Are we yet bright enough to see what drives our actions and built our instincts? I fear not. Such a shame too as religion continues to thrive and grow...

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 11:39:00 UTC | #232874

blueollie's Avatar Comment 5 by blueollie

I think that the gist of the article is something like this: you see a friend eat a black berry and then your friend gets sick.

You conclude that the black berry is bad for you.

But the friend may have already been sick, or this berry might have had something on it, or maybe this friend was allergic to these berries.

But, at that time in our existence, it would be beneficial to conclude that the berry was harmful.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 11:44:00 UTC | #232879

Koreman's Avatar Comment 6 by Koreman

"there is no such thing as a healthy superstition"


Thu, 11 Sep 2008 12:11:00 UTC | #232914

Isherwood's Avatar Comment 7 by Isherwood

Bruno, I took it that attributing a superstition to a noise or other occurrence tends to make the event into something more fearful, increasing the likelihood of avoiding danger.

In other words, if a primitive person hears sounds at night, decides that they're from a demon or ghost, he's more likely to clear out of the area, preventing something more common like a lion attack from occurring. This assumes, of course, that the demon is more fear-inducing than the lion.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 12:13:00 UTC | #232916

Hellene's Avatar Comment 8 by Hellene

I brought a "country" dog into the city once. He tried to chase a deer lawn ornament. Totally freaked the poor dog out. It looked like a deer. But smelled wrong, and didn't move. Dog had all its hair standing on end, and was shaking like a leaf. Kept looking at back me and wimpering. " Do you see this too?". I'd say he saw the equivalent of a ghost.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 12:49:00 UTC | #232954

Quetzalcoatl's Avatar Comment 9 by Quetzalcoatl


I think it's a combination of factors. In our brains we tell ourselves stories to explain things and make sense of what we see, and tend to make connections and see conscious intent where there is none. Thus the howling of a distant wolf followed by the death of a tribe member becomes linked, and the howling is seen as a portent.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 13:05:00 UTC | #232966

jamesstephenbrown's Avatar Comment 10 by jamesstephenbrown

Has it occurred to anyone else that this...

"believe that alternative medicines work" because in doing so, one will benefit from the few that are effective and suffer little cost from using those that do not work."

... sounds a lot like Pascal's Wager.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 13:07:00 UTC | #232967

NewEnglandBob's Avatar Comment 11 by NewEnglandBob

3. Comment #245755 by D'Arcy:

Perhaps the words "superstitious" and "suspicious" are being wrongly used as interchangeable.

I agree with D'Arcy. The leap from the examples are silly. Careful and superstitious are not in the same solar system.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 13:12:00 UTC | #232970

jamesstephenbrown's Avatar Comment 12 by jamesstephenbrown

"But how does attributing supernatural characteristics to the sound in the bush make one safer?"

As danger almost always comes in the form of agency, it is evolutionarily better for us to assume agency. Now a bush with agency is supernatural is it not? Same with thunder with agency, earthquakes with agency, the list goes on.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 13:12:00 UTC | #232971

Simonw's Avatar Comment 13 by Simonw

Reminds me of a discussion about why rabbits jump about just before you run them over, it evolved as a strategy to avoid death by predators and it works badly when faced with a car, which generally doesn't want to hit the rabbit anyway.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 13:32:00 UTC | #232984

MakingBelieve's Avatar Comment 14 by MakingBelieve

This seems correct. It would appear that the supernatural arises when agency is attributed to random chance, to the outcome of a series of contingencies or to explain events of unknown origin. This questionable practice is so common that some form a selection pressure is likely to have reinforced it over the generations.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 13:53:00 UTC | #233004

Apeseed's Avatar Comment 15 by Apeseed

I think it's easy to get bogged down with terms like 'supernatural'. Primitive people didn't separate natural and supernatural. For example smallpox in India was considered to be caused by the smallpox goddess.
When the cause of something was invisible it was attributed to spirits, but spirits were considered to be part of the natural world. The original word for spirit in many languages was breath or air. It was more that the world encompassed entities that ran the gamut from the gross and perceptible to the subtle and imperceptible.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 14:06:00 UTC | #233011

adlards's Avatar Comment 16 by adlards

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 15:16:00 UTC | #233058

petermun's Avatar Comment 17 by petermun

I tried to rid myself of all obvious superstitions years ago and, touch wood, I've felt great ever since.

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 21:10:00 UTC | #233199

hubris's Avatar Comment 18 by hubris

As Jamesstephenbrown said, this article is totally about Pascal's wager. It doesn't say so very clearly in the article. But what it means when it says we take into consideration any loud noise and act on it as a threat, even when it might not be, is us prefering to be safe than sorry. It is understood that we have evolved necessary reactions to preserve ourselves in our environment. Now that we have developed such high brains and can even conceive of an afterlife, that instict transfers to beleifs in superstition so that we may be preserved even after death.

This article is saying that Pascal's Wager is an evolved instinctual response which accounts for much belief in the supernatural as long as it promises the preservation of our being. Better safe than sorry.

This is the kind of thing when you look back on with hindsight after it has been mentioned by someone else before you and go "Oh duh! That's so easy to see!" But you didn't see it...

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 21:48:00 UTC | #233215

godspot's Avatar Comment 19 by godspot

The arguments remind me mostly of another Pascal: Boyer, author of religion explained. I read that book years ago. What new data do the guys in this article bring to the table?

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 23:35:00 UTC | #233256

dochmbi's Avatar Comment 20 by dochmbi

This could be a new argument against God: Show superstition in many animals with lots of research.

Fri, 12 Sep 2008 00:46:00 UTC | #233268

Quetzalcoatl's Avatar Comment 21 by Quetzalcoatl

I don't think it's entirely about Pascal's Wager. I think Pascal's Wager is just an offshoot from the underlying concept, that it's in essence better to be safe than sorry.

Fri, 12 Sep 2008 00:50:00 UTC | #233269

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 22 by DamnDirtyApe

My conclusion to the Pascals wager and evolution point:

Really big teeth can keep you alive, but they can't help you build a rocket.

Fri, 12 Sep 2008 01:08:00 UTC | #233278

bitbutter's Avatar Comment 23 by bitbutter

Although this kind of 'playing safe' has something in common with pascals wager, this article is not describing pascals wager, which considers a very specific potential reward/cost.

This is the 'intentional stance' that Dennett describes in Breaking the Spell.

Scrappy article. Why are we told nothing about the study? (except for the conclusions drawn from it).

Fri, 12 Sep 2008 07:05:00 UTC | #233395

ColdFusionLazarus's Avatar Comment 24 by ColdFusionLazarus

The conclusions they have drawn seem highly plausible, that "worrying about dangers that are not there, and pinning hopes on mostly harmless placebo medicines/actions, can give a slight evolutionary benefit"

But it doesn't mean we can't be cleverer than that. People who rely on placebos for all their cures will surely not successfully produce the next generation as well as those that accept genuine cures for illnesses. And as DamnDirtyApe says, big teeth can't help you build a rocket.

Fri, 12 Sep 2008 08:16:00 UTC | #233440

carbonman's Avatar Comment 25 by carbonman

The article reads as though it's been over-simplified. Either the journalist didn't read the study well enough, or didn't 'get it', or maybe deliberately dumbed it down to make it digestible. It's not automatically clear that running scared from every noise in the bushes will be a survival advantage. Those who fear everything may end up cowering in caves and dying of old age or starvation without issue while their more gung-ho compatriots are out hunting and reproducing. Rather, natural selection is more likely to favour the development of software that can distinguish between false and genuine danger with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

I think it likely that superstition (including religion) is an inevitable by-product of the virtual reality software our brains routinely run. Our whole world is imagined, based on sense data and a good deal of guesswork to fill in the missing bits. Where are your friends and family now? Can you picture them doing whatever they're doing at this moment? Yes, of course, we all can. The amount of time we spend in actual visual contact with those people is much smaller than the time we spend running simulations of them in our brains (i.e. knowing they are alive and well). Brains that can do that, can easily simulate non-existent stuff, and very convincingly.

I'd like to bet that the real, undiluted study says something a bit like that. Sorry this has gone on a bit.

Fri, 12 Sep 2008 22:25:00 UTC | #233757

Border Collie's Avatar Comment 26 by Border Collie

A few thousand years of indoctrination probably had something to do with it also, esp. when the rustling in the bush might have been an inquisitor, a crusader, a sacrificer, a feathered priest with a heart-extracting or flesh peeling knife or whatever other fear-inducing visage and weaponry one of them adopted to put the fear of death in us. At least it seems to me that if the savage heart wasn't to be tamed by fear of hell or God or Satan or demons or whatever, then the minions of the priesthood and or their soldiery would be quick to give the resistant a little taste of hell on Earth.

Sat, 13 Sep 2008 17:31:00 UTC | #234036

mikeshin's Avatar Comment 27 by mikeshin

"It is clear that many medicines in these contexts do not work, but some do," says Dr Foster.

No they don't! Alternative medecine is crap. Apart from a small placebo effect there is no real effect. Alternative medecine is not medecine. If a treatment actually worked it would be real medecine.

Mon, 15 Sep 2008 06:16:00 UTC | #234827

Pete H's Avatar Comment 28 by Pete H

I looked that the original article - but balked at the mass of equations. I must have picked up some kind of maths superstition - perhaps from a childhood link between seeing mathematical equations and the fear of exposure to extreme boredom.

The authors seem to be saying that irrational risk aversion is inevitable because the impact of dying totally outweighs any momentary gain or minor avoidable cost. This explains why natural selection results in asymmetrical cost and benefit processing using different parts of the brain. But people can also be superstitious about winning and cultivating positive luck. So there is more to superstition than just avoiding losses.

Reframing information so that it is differentially routed via the different brain functions makes a significant difference to how people act to avoid potential losses or pursue potential gains.

The irrational aspect of a superstition doesn't imply supernatural assumptions. It just indicates that the complexity of the perceived relationship exceeds the capabilities of convenient rational analysis. Even things like scientific progress depend on insights arising via these irrationally perceived links.

Mon, 15 Sep 2008 15:43:00 UTC | #235109

latsot's Avatar Comment 29 by latsot

The model shows what circumstances must exist in order for a tendency towards superstitious behaviour to evolve. 'Superstitious' here has a slightly different meaning to belief in ghosts etc. - a superstition is a false assignment of cause and effect and an animal is behaving supersitiously if it acts as though that false correlation were true (e.g. Skinner's pigeons.)

The model says that natural selection can favour organisms that make frequent errors, providing that the occasional 'correct' response has a sufficiently high payoff.

What we tend to think of as superstitious behaviour in humans may well be partly a result of an environment where this was the case. It is a misfiring of an evolved rule of thumb.

There's nothing new in any of this and the paper doesn't suggest that there is. It just presents a simple mathematical model showing the conditions under which it could and couldn't occur.

Mon, 15 Sep 2008 22:08:00 UTC | #235200

Red Foot Okie's Avatar Comment 30 by Red Foot Okie

I'm late on this one, but the article reminds me of something that I thougth of a few weeks ago. I have an apple tree in my backyard that is a favorite haunt of the local squirrels-- when it has apples on it.

Although I'm not 100% sure, I think to the squirrels' view the tree either has apples or it does not. They don't realize that it is an apple tree and if there are no apples now, there might be in the future.

Humans, however, can do that. We can't predict the future, but we can guess at it pretty well. But those guesses require a good bit of confidence (or "faith") especially if the tree in question doesn't have apples on it. Are we willing to wait another year for the apples? Or, too our monkey ancestors is it worthwhile keeping the troupe near this particular valley because those trees are going to have apples on them?

Once you get from basic foraging and huntng (which rely on foraging or hunting things you can see and eat right now), into farming and trapping you've crossed the line to betting on the future. The tree will have apples next summer same as it did this one, even though you see no apples now. Ditto for the wheat crop. There are no animals in the trap, but it is likly that an animal will wander into it soon.

Just some thouhts.

Sat, 20 Sep 2008 13:14:00 UTC | #237736