Superstitions Have Evolutionary Basis
By CYNTHIA MILLS - LIVE SCIENCE
Added: Sat, 11 Jun 2011 17:53:10 UTC
How far will you go to avoid bad luck? Do you avoid walking under ladders, carry lucky charms, or perhaps instead perform special rituals before important meetings or sporting events?
If you do any of those things, hold your head up high and be proud, because researchers are finding evidence that superstitions may not be as pointless at all. By adopting a belief that you can -- or cannot -- do something to affect a desired outcome, you're among the cadre of beings that learn. By the way, that cadre includes pigeons.
Superstition is an evolutionary surprise -- it makes no sense for organisms to believe a specific action influences the future when it can't. Yet superstitious behavior can be recognized in many animals, not just humans, and it often persists in the face of evidence against it. Superstitions are not free -- rituals and avoidances cost an animal in terms of energy or lost opportunities. The question becomes how can natural selection create, or simply allow for, such inappropriate behavior?
"From an evolutionary perspective, superstitions seem maladaptive," said Kevin Abbott, biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario and co-author with Thomas Sherratt of a recent study published in Animal Behaviour.
The study suggests multiple reasons for such anomalies to exist: perhaps superstition is adaptive as a placebo, or for social bonding. Or maybe it really is maladaptive now, but is "the outcome of traits that were adaptive in ancestral environment; sort of like cognitive wisdom teeth," said Abbott.
The first description of superstitious behavior in animals came from psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1948. He put half-starved pigeons in cages, offering them a few seconds of access to food trays at regular intervals. As long as the intervals were short, the birds began offering up behaviors -- like spinning counter-clockwise, rocking from side to side or tossing their heads up as if they were lifting a bar. They would do these behaviors "as if there were a causal relation between [its] behavior and the presentation of food," wrote Skinner. Once the behaviors were established, they tended to persist, even as time intervals between feeding lengthened.
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