About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Podcast Teaser: Superstition, is it good for you?

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?


  1. Scout snipers are very superstitious.
    "Each sniper wears a special amulet on a cord around his neck: a smooth 7.62 mm slug. 'This is the bullet that's going to take you out,' says Sgt. Zach Hansen, a 21-year-old sniper from Salt Lake City. 'As long as it's around your neck, you'll be kept safe.'"

    Now, is that good or bad? The false sense of security may give snipers courage to accomplish their mission, but it may also get them killed. Reducing stress may improve shooting but reduce alertness.

    The fight-or-flight response evolved long before rationality, and it was very advantageous. The downside is that for us humans, stress is often irrational, hard to control, and does more harm than good. But there are better ways to control stress than with superstitions.

  2. Good luck charms may give people confidence, but what good are bad luck superstitions? Nobody thinks, "I'll ace this exam because I didn't break a mirror."

    People don't come up with a lot of these superstitions by observing patterns. They come up with them through magical thinking. Mirrors reflect the soul, so breaking them is bad. Number 4 sounds like "death" in Chinese, so it's unlucky. The confirmation bias comes afterwards to confirm the superstition.

  3. Can we count the vaccine-autism link as a superstition at this point?
    superstition: an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear

  4. Thinking of Geronimo. They say he believed he could not be killed by bullets. Perhaps this made him a more troublesome and successful warrior. But if one were teaching military tactics to some new recruits, one would hardly begin by advising them that they could not be killed by bullets, although one might use Geronimo as an example of a warrior who had supreme self-confidence.

  5. 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.

    I would probably be diagnosed with Asperger's. And I've long suspected there was a connection between my deficiency in social skills and my proficiency in rational, skeptical thinking. But I don't think that's made me less cocky about the latter. ;)

    Anyway, I don't doubt that irrational beliefs can be useful. There was a time in my life when I really wanted to believe in some sort of higher power. But I just couldn't do it!

  6. The Scientific American article raises two interesting points:

    - While the atheist rejected agency (or what is called a teleological response in the article), the aspergerist simply ignored agency when trying to answer big but personal Why questions.

    - In the opposite or schizophrenic direction, one is more likely to see a godly hand in everything.

    Given that autism is defined more by its anti-social sensibility, and less so than by resultant anti-social behavior, then perhaps it is indeed a factor in influencing one's views on atheism, intellectualism - or any other ism in which prevalent beliefs are not held sacrosanct.

    I don't know if the same can be said about the schizoid personality who invents and stocks a sect to worship a god-du-jour. Or invents a new science with no earthly connection to any other science. Here, others are lured from those prevalent beliefs using powers of persuasion and other social skills not in an autistic toolkit.

    But it does seem that a la Godel, all scientific and religious belief have a basis in core superstitions. One researcher's empirical evidence is another's old wife's tale.

  7. You know, here is a bias I have found to predominate in psychology, and it is quite frankly disturbing.

    Everyone remembers the famed Milgram experiment, but what is never remembered is that when participants were given the results of the original experiment, their willingness to inflict pain dropped dramatically.

    Where is the the equivalent in this study? It's not there. Where is the the equivalent in other similar studies? It's also not there.

    Why is that? Hmmm. I don't know. Anyone have any guesses?

  8. "brought up the possibility that superstition may, at least some of the time, have beneficial effects"

    I have always thought that the idea that it is bad luck to walk underneath a ladder as some basic common sense for the obvious reason.

  9. A few days ago on my bike ride home along one of my usual routes, a black cat crossed my path. I tend to notice cats, whether they cross my path or not, because I like cats. I didn't get a chill down my spine or anything, but I did think, "oooh, I better ride carefully." The effect wore off after a few minutes.

    So is that a bad thing? I'm generally a fairly careful cyclist, at least compared to many I encounter around town (Portland, OR, so there are a lot of us around town), but it is pretty standard for all of us to relax and become rather more careless than we should be when performing common tasks. Hence, the 38,000 or so killed on U.S. roads every year. So it's hard for me to see something, rational or not, that reminds you to be attentive without paralyzing you with fear as an entirely bad thing.

    I didn't really believe that this particular cat was a bad omen, so maybe you would say I'm not superstitious. OTOH, I did think about it in a different way than I have on other occasions when non-black cats have crossed my path. Maybe I'm susceptible to superstition without being superstitious?

    I don't know. But I don't think the outcome was at all harmful, and in fact was probably slightly beneficial.

  10. I read the "burdon of proof" article before coming back to this one, and the comment that it might be wrong to dicotomize issues sparked a thought about this question (i.e. if supersition is inate and sometimes beneficial, is it always right to seek to be rational?) I think it may be wrong to see this as only having one correct answer. In situations where we have enough information to act rationally, we certainly should do so. But I think there are infinitely more situations in which we lack sufficient data to make informed decisions. In those cases, assuming action is necessary, we will probably act based on some inate, irrational belief. I don't think skepticism addresses the need to take action/make a choice in circumstances where you lack information. A void will be filled with something.


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