The next Rationally Speaking podcast will tackle the topic of superstition, in honor of that being our episode 13... We are going to talk about it from a slightly different angle than usual. There is of course a consensus within the skeptic community that superstition is bad, and indeed the point of having a community dedicated to skeptical inquiry is precisely to fight superstition (though, curiously, skeptics disagree on whether religion falls under this heading or not).
A recent post by our friend Steve Novella, over at NeuroLogica, however, brought up the possibility that superstition may, at least some of the time, have beneficial effects (just like religion, not to keep pushing that button too much). Steve refers for instance to a paper published in 2008 in Science, which suggests that lacking control over a situation increases people’s propensity to see illusory patterns — the implication being that the latter (a typical component of superstition) ameliorates stress when we feel that things are out of hand.
Sure enough, a very recent study published in Psychological Science shows that superstition improves people’s performance on certain tasks, presumably by making them more self-confident than they would be otherwise. Add to this a recent article in Scientific American to the effect that people with Asperger’s syndrome (increasingly considered to lie along the autistic spectrum) are less likely to project agency onto life’s events (and hence tend to be less superstitious), and suddenly the skeptic might not feel so cocky about being skeptical.
Of course, just like Steve Novella, I don’t think we’ll end up advocating in favor of superstition on the sole ground that it may be psychologically helpful. Still, what happens when something that we devote so much time fighting against turns out not to be entirely bad after all? And incidentally, why are so many people superstitious? Is it because this peculiar habit of mind has been selected in favor due to its positive effects, or is it rather a byproduct of complex brains that are capable of uncovering (real) patterns and dealing with (real) agency?