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Superstitions Have Evolutionary Basis - Comments

Tony d's Avatar Comment 1 by Tony d

I strongly disagree with this article. Repetition of odd behavior in animals does not mean the animal is superstitious. It just indicates a miss understanding of cause and effect in the animal.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 18:08:24 UTC | #637259

Michael Austin's Avatar Comment 2 by Michael Austin

When you are on the lookout for danger, a false negative is a lot worse than a false positive. That's why I think we're superstitious.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 18:17:12 UTC | #637261

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 3 by ZenDruid

There seems to me to be a fine line between superstition and OCD.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 18:22:04 UTC | #637263

Kim Probable's Avatar Comment 4 by Kim Probable

Isn't a misunderstanding of cause and effect the basis of superstition, though?

Superstitious behavior is a term often used in animal training. It usually occurs when an unwanted behavior is inadvertently rewarded, usually because it happens in conjunction with the wanted behavior. The animal ends up thinking that a certain behavior results in a desired reward, even when it's not what the trainer initially wanted.

It may not fit what people commonly think of as a superstitious belief, but I think it's still valid.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 18:28:51 UTC | #637271

sbooder's Avatar Comment 5 by sbooder

What a load of old bollocks!

If you want to influence the outcome of any activity then practice that activity, that is what will provide the outcome you desire not wearing a silly hat.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 18:47:23 UTC | #637277

Tony d's Avatar Comment 6 by Tony d

@Comment 4 by Kim Probable Isn't a misunderstanding of cause and effect the basis of superstition, though?

I agree with you but the article starts out by talking about lucky charms and not walking under ladders.Then the author go's on to talk about learnt behavior in animals, being superstition in the same way. The article finished off by talking about a Psychologist who in 1948, three years after the end of the war. Didn't have enough human trauma to deal with so spent his days torturing pidgins.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 18:58:11 UTC | #637278

Stevehill's Avatar Comment 7 by Stevehill

Tony d

You grossly and unfairly misrepresent the seminal importance of Skinner on a wide range of topics... I seriously suggest you research him a little before rushing to uninformed judgement.

But his article did remind me of Tom Lehrer's opus on this topic...

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 19:59:33 UTC | #637296

Jason72's Avatar Comment 8 by Jason72

Sorry but isn't the example of the pigeons just associated learning? The pigeons did things and this presented them with food so by association doing certain things means they get fed. The same with a dog, if you give the dog a treat for sitting it associates sitting with treats. Nothing superstitious there!

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 20:02:18 UTC | #637297

Stafford Gordon's Avatar Comment 9 by Stafford Gordon

Michael Austin, you have it.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 20:14:26 UTC | #637300

The Plc's Avatar Comment 10 by The Plc

It's all slightly misleading this title, as when you talk about any aspect of a human being it's virtually a tautology to say there is an evolutionary basis for it, as all humans evolved. Better to ask what selection pressures may be involved. Skinner and the radical behaviourists did some seminal work, but the stake was driven though the heart of a lot of their assumptions and conceptions and methodology about half a decade ago.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 20:43:36 UTC | #637311

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 11 by Jos Gibbons

What is the point of nonsense like this? As in the case of religion, some irrational thing for which an adaptive explanation existed when Dawkins mentioned it in TSG, TGD etc. (whether or not he invented it) but which Dawins rightly still disapproves of because "evolutionary adaptation" is not synonymous with "virtue" is defended by people who not only fail to notice that distinction, but repeat the explanation as if it is a new one of which we've been hitherto unaware, Dawkins et al included. It's an utter waste of time.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 21:12:42 UTC | #637317

Munski's Avatar Comment 12 by Munski

Comment 3 by ZenDruid :

There seems to me to be a fine line between superstition and OCD.

I fully agree with that comment. As a person who did suffer from mild OCD, I found that I was highly susceptible to creating superstitions as a kid, and even ones that prevailed until young adulthood. For some reason, I had convinced myself that the number '4' had some sort of special power, and had begun to count off doind certain things in '4's. I can't even remember where it started. And, I had also convinced myself (this one was for obvious reasons) that when I finished walking, I needed to do it on the right foot, because it was 'right'. I wasn't severe OCD, so I was able to talk myself out of it, but I also suffered from social anxiety disorder and was often anxious of bad things happening, so it's not hard to see how the three were so connected. Even to this day, I get the odd, small urge, but I simply write it off as what it is . . . a nonsensical act that means nothing or will do nothing to change the outcome, because I've observed no positive or negative correlation to the outcomes with any of the rituals.

If it is evolutionary, perhaps people who aren't superstitious are the ones that are the 'mutation' that will eventually become the 'survival strain' of our population . . . provided the superstitious ones don't nuke us back to the stone age.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 21:24:43 UTC | #637320

Tony d's Avatar Comment 13 by Tony d

@ comment 7 You are quite right i should not have criticised Skinner.I,m sure his work was vitally important during those dark post war days.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 21:40:47 UTC | #637329

green and dying's Avatar Comment 14 by green and dying

When I do superstitious things it is definitely about wrong associations with cause and effect. It is the same as the pigeons. If I feel like I've done well in an exam I feel better using the same pen for the next one than a different pen. It's trying to keep as many of the variables the same as possible when trying to achieve the same outcome. I have much stupider exam rituals but they honestly make me feel better.

The ability to understand cause and effect can't be perfect and is going to result in wrong associations and pointless behaviours sometimes. Presumably the amount of good it does is higher than the amount of time wasting.

Comment 12 by Jeff Munroe :

For some reason, I had convinced myself that the number '4' had some sort of special power, and had begun to count off doind certain things in '4's.

I have a friend who used to do the same thing with 4s. I think this kind of thing is really common. It only becomes a problem when it's severe and it affects your ability to live a normal life.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 22:28:40 UTC | #637337

huzonfurst's Avatar Comment 15 by huzonfurst

Starving any animal for the sake of research is pushing the moral envelope to the breaking point, if you ask me. Unless there's a pressing need as in some medical research I can't see how this is justified. I'm no fan of the guerrilla tactics of groups like PETA, however, who are famous for "liberating" animals who can no longer fend for themselves. The worst of the worst is, on the other hand, is the testing of cosmetics on live animals to see how fast they die from an overexposure, the notorious "lethal dose 50" technique. Humans are sick fucks sometimes.

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 22:35:52 UTC | #637338

foundationist's Avatar Comment 16 by foundationist

I say evolution has a superstitious basis! Ha!

Sat, 11 Jun 2011 22:45:21 UTC | #637341

raytoman's Avatar Comment 17 by raytoman

Since humans invented superstition and religion before the scientific method, most humans are still religious and superstitious (basically the same thing).

If when they observed a phenomena or a relationship and they had tested it to confirm what made it happen, we would be about 20 millennia ahead of where we are now as a species.

Don't confuse superstition with common sense. If you walk under ladders you increase the probability that you will be hit by a falling ladder, something dropped from a ladder, or collide with some aspect of the ladder, Nothing to do with luck, everything to do with probability.

If you pour acid on yourself, you will get burnt (the severity dictated by the type, strength, amount and duration of the contact). This is a probability of 1. Anyone who survives can subsequently test and explore the properties of acid and utilise their effect. People did this.

Superstition is basically about control. If you go into the dark forest the bogeyman will get you. If you are good, Santa will leave you a present on Xmas. People survive death and can visit you in an apparition if you do not treat them well when they are alive. If you don't do what your religion says, you will burn forever in hell. If you blow up infidels and kill yourself you will go to paradise with 74 virgins for your exclusive use for eternity (even if there are muslims amongst the collateral damage).

It is my understanding that people from the Middle East do not eat pork since it is a meat that goes off more quickly in the heat than other meats.

Catholics used to go to hell if they ate meat on a Friday. There must be millions of them there now even though it stopped being a sin decades ago (they can't be excused their "crime" and go to Heaven since once in Hell there is no return (apparently)). This is a clear case of religion exercising it's control, just because they can.

What we need to do is extract the common sense from superstition and expose the idiocy and the elements of religious power and control..

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 01:18:38 UTC | #637375

SimonG's Avatar Comment 18 by SimonG

what a poor arguement. what the birds developed was a learned behaviour which in many ways is the same as a religion. The only evolutionary aspect required is for the animal to have a sufficently developed brain to learn that a certain action (ritual) has a strong probablity of producing a certain result. Early humans developed this as they evolved, throwing pointy sticks at animals may produce a carcass they consume, other times it may not but the probability of the desired result is initially good enough good enough that its worth repeating when it fails to work. All religion does is use less tangible rituals and results to controll the masses/make money etc. If you prey to god in x manner, y might happen. if you live by the rules we say, good things will happen when you die. The only difference is religeon cant prove their claims so rely on influencing the conregations rational. If a minister blesses someone who has been indoctrinated but is on hard times the human brain is complex (evolved enough) to draw even tenous links to even minor good things and prove to themselves that there is divine invervention. Out brains have simply evolved to process more complex thoughts, not to accept a god or superstition, these are simply learned from stories told to us when we are young, from the like of aesops fables and even then grimm fairytales which carry moral and even general advice on staying safe to the pure fiction that is the bible.

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 02:43:58 UTC | #637394

Munski's Avatar Comment 19 by Munski

Comment 14 by green and dying

I have a friend who used to do the same thing with 4s. I think this kind of thing is really common. It only becomes a problem when it's severe and it affects your ability to live a normal life.

Thanks for that. I dunno what it was about that particular number. Now I don't feel so odd. And yeah, it never really effected my life too badly, or the whole 'Step on a crack, break your mother's back thing', which I took literally, and avoided them. Even today, I still tend to avoid them, but that could just be the mind's need to want to instinctively step on a solid place, or some survival trait. Dunno. I recall one day as about a six-yr old, I was really mad at her, so I went stomping down the sidewalk on every crack for about twenty paces.

But I was so horrified at what I had just done, I quickly 'back-stepped', avoiding the cracks in order to undo what I had just done in the hopes that I hadn't just crippled my mom.

Needless to say, it wasn't the sort of OCD that Jack Nickleson's crack-stepping inability in the 1997 movie 'As Good As It Gets'.

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 05:38:17 UTC | #637428

mmurray's Avatar Comment 20 by mmurray

Comment 14 by green and dying :

When I do superstitious things it is definitely about wrong associations with cause and effect. It is the same as the pigeons. If I feel like I've done well in an exam I feel better using the same pen for the next one than a different pen. It's trying to keep as many of the variables the same as possible when trying to achieve the same outcome. I have much stupider exam rituals but they honestly make me feel better.

I few years ago I read a couple of books about the guys involved in building the various rovers that explored Mars. They are super rational engineering types. When they get to the launch though they are putting maybe 15 years of really hard work on the line and they couldn't resist doing things like wearing the same shirt they wore last time they had a safe launch or bringing in the pen they used last time etc. You can see the same thing on the Apollo 13 movie. It seems to be something we find really hard to resist.

Michael

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 07:48:57 UTC | #637448

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 21 by ZenDruid

I few years ago I read a couple of books about the guys involved in building the various rovers that explored Mars. They are super rational engineering types. When they get to the launch though they are putting maybe 15 years of really hard work on the line and they couldn't resist doing things like wearing the same shirt they wore last time they had a safe launch or bringing in the pen they used last time etc. You can see the same thing on the Apollo 13 movie. It seems to be something we find really hard to resist.

Michael

They acknowledge Murphy's Law by doing these things. It's not superstition....

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 08:03:35 UTC | #637455

Tony d's Avatar Comment 22 by Tony d

@ comment 7 Thanks again for your link : Skinner on a wide range of topics... It was very informative i was particularly interested in his involvement in the Pigeon-guided missile project. It reminded me that during a visit to the Military museum in London with my children we had seen a display which showed a stuffed pigeon being parachuted into British trenches during the first world war.Of course parachuting a stuffed pigeon into a trench would be of little use so i think that during the actual war they were using live homing pigeons. Had the Pigeon-guided missile ever been perfected i wonder if these technologies could have been combined so a Pigeon pilot could escape the missile return home and live to fly another day. Actually thinking about it, being able to fly the pigeon might not really need the parachute but it would be a good precaution to take in case the bird was injured during its mission.

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 10:52:32 UTC | #637512

JustLikeMyPops's Avatar Comment 23 by JustLikeMyPops

Superstition would seem to be just a small part of our consciousness that evolved along with the many other facets of our psyches. I feel it quite obvious that superstition is a built in learning tool for when the apparatus for experiment is unavailable. Even if superstition is found to be unreliable, the times when it has produced results will be enough of an incentive to call on superstition again in the future. It seems such an ancient animalistic survival trait that I would not be surprised if someone far more intelligent than I reading this forum were able to tell me that this superstitious activity could be found to originate in the more primitive, reptilian part of the brain I hear we all share. I very much enjoyed a BBC program about superstitious pigeons, homeopathy and faith healing and utterly recognized the same behaviour in myself. I’ve had a quick search for it but haven’t got the time for a proper look sorry.

What is quite different between animals and humans though is our ability to communicate these superstitions to each other and spread irrationality at a lighting pace among the population. I myself as a youth used to feel the guilt of stepping on cracks and feel silly at that guilt now of course. I did this not because experience had taught me that stepping on cracks would indeed injure my dear mother's back, but because of our talent for communication i.e. it was given to me, as an impressionable child I heard a memorable rhyme from another impressionable child who had probably shared my experience of not actually injuring his mother. I still knock on wood but not because of any real correlation of better luck but because it’s such a small price to pay for my wishes to be granted, possibly. I even feel a small pang of distress when there is no wood to be found but I soon recover. Religion takes advantage of our weaknesses and promises an eternity of bliss in return for what seems like such a small donation, that of faith and a belief in their god. But it’s not a small donation at all, you would be relinquishing the trust you have built in your own reasoning, psychologically surrendering your entire being either through fear, peer pressure or just laziness. Superstition isn’t at fault so to speak, we needed it for survival and we probably still do in some respects, it’s the people who use superstition against us that are at fault and should be recognised as manipulative con-artists to be avoided.

Comment 21 by ZenDruid :

They acknowledge Murphy's Law by doing these things. It's not superstition....

Of course its superstition, the people at mission control didn’t wear their anti-Murphy’s Law underpants, they wore their lucky undercrackers. It must be a huge help to our friend Mr Munroe and possibly lots of other people that mission control can be just as silly as the rest of us.

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 11:11:11 UTC | #637515

colluvial's Avatar Comment 24 by colluvial

Superstitions are just reflexive behaviors that are not weeded out because usually nothing decisively bad happens by following them. When thinking about animal behavior, it's necessary to throw away the soul-like concept of a unified mental core from which emanates all behavior. We don't work that way, we experience that we don't every day, and we need to look beyond the software in our heads that tells us we are a unity when we're not. We each function like committees where the members that are most persistent and have the loudest voices have their way - and sometimes the loudmouth is the guy who has a preoccupation with lucky amulets or about what's going to happen after you die.

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 12:17:28 UTC | #637537

raytoman's Avatar Comment 25 by raytoman

Comment 24 by colluvial

Superstitions are just reflexive behaviors that are not weeded out because usually nothing decisively bad happens by following them.

@@@@@@@

Quite Right! If you don't deny the earth is flat, you will not be tortured and killed. If you do not blaspheme Allah, you will not be killed (by anyone, legally in Pakistan).

This is why there are so few athiests (75 million). If 6 billion are superstitious and they even kill each other over arguments about the meaning of a few words, athiests have little chance if they come out. You can be killed for questioning any aspect of allah, questioning all 640 odd thousand gods??? well, I suppose they can only kill you.

How many people do you know who say that they believe in a god(s) because it is a backup option if god(s) actually exist?

I pity Jehovas Witnesses. They believe that only 23,000 can go and live with their god after they die. There are millions of Jehovas Witnesses and no doubt leaders are given preference. Surely all places would have been allocated centuries ago so what's the point being one now? Superstition = idiocy.

I hate religion!

Sun, 12 Jun 2011 23:00:32 UTC | #637720

rod-the-farmer's Avatar Comment 26 by rod-the-farmer

Thanks, Stevehill, for comment 7. We sometimes forget Tom Lehrer. Try this one

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3f72CTDe4-0&NR=1

Mon, 13 Jun 2011 08:20:50 UTC | #637831

MilitantNonStampCollector's Avatar Comment 27 by MilitantNonStampCollector

@Zendruid

"They acknowledge Murphy's Law by doing these things. It's not superstition...."

I think I know what you are getting at. However, Murphy's Law could be thought of as superstitious thinking because anything that can go right will equally go right. So Murphy's Law says precisely nothing, akin to saying it gets dark at night.

Mon, 13 Jun 2011 08:28:52 UTC | #637836

Atropa's Avatar Comment 28 by Atropa

Could it be that "Murphy's Law" is a popular, and imprecise, version of the second law of thermodynamics?

Mon, 13 Jun 2011 11:09:50 UTC | #637880

reebus's Avatar Comment 29 by reebus

Yes sure superstition has an evolutionary basis (memes/genes), because behaviour does?

Tue, 14 Jun 2011 01:19:37 UTC | #638209

HappyPrimate's Avatar Comment 30 by HappyPrimate

I found no value in this article but much misconception of conditioned animal behavior.

Tue, 14 Jun 2011 01:53:53 UTC | #638228