Apr 12 2007

Friday 13th Is Always Unlucky, Except When It Isn’t

Happy Friday 13th, a non-event if ever there were one. For some time this pseudo-holiday has served, if nothing else, as an adequate excuse for skeptics to remind everyone that superstitions are silly – the hobgoblins of little minds. So before you run off to your Friday 13th Superstition Bash to break some mirrors and walk under ladders, let’s take a closer look at the neuropsychological nature of superstitions.

Superstitions are basically a belief in a magical cause and effect relationship between something we do, or fail to do, and a future good or bad outcome. Wish an actor “good luck” and you will magically jinx them into having a bad performance. But belief in magic is not what creates superstitious beliefs – the beliefs are created by a combination of psychological needs and mental sloppiness. Magic is invoked after the fact as an all-purpose fix to explain our seemingly impossible conclusions.

The Need for Control

One of the basic human psychological needs is for a sense that we have control over ourselves, our own lives, and our environment. We become anxious when we feel we are subject to chaotic forces beyond our control. Superstitious beliefs serve the purpose of giving us the illusion of control and assuaging our anxiety. Research shows that superstitions flourish in situations where the stakes are high and our personal control is low. People have to play their lucky numbers in the Lotto. Sports is another good example – those contests that involve the most chaos and the least control also produce the greatest number of superstitious beliefs.

Pattern Seeking

I have written before about the fact that people are pattern seeking – we notice and are compelled by associations and tend to perceive patterns even in randomness. The specifics of superstitions typically have their origins in pattern recognition. Gee – I pitched a great game last time I wore these socks…these must be lucky socks.

“Ghost cars always come out at night, except during the day.” – Chief Wiggum

Seeing an apparent pattern is only the beginning – then subjective validation takes over. We have a tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses: the next time we win a game with our lucky socks on that confirms the correlation in our minds, but winning without our lucky socks or losing with them does not disconfirm the correlation. We either do not notice the disconfirming events, we don’t remember them, or we explain them away. Actually, the latter seems to be the biggest factor. Humans are good, after all, at rationalizing.

When we notice and remember disconfirming events we tend to dismiss their significance. This can be done by simply making the rationalization that the correlation always holds up except when it doesn’t. Therefore every hit confirms the rule, and every miss is just an exception to the rule. The underlying assumption, however, is that the rule is valid – and all evidence is simply interpreted according to this assumption.

Another way to deal with disconfirming information is to make up ad-hoc conditional exceptions to the rule. I always win when I’m wearing my lucky socks, except, apparently, on Tuesdays.

Reading this your reaction is probably, “Gee, aren’t other people silly.” But in reality, we all engage in these mental errors on almost a daily basis (except when we don’t  ). Nothing short of constant vigilance will keep us from our comforting rationalizations. I hear such reasoning from others almost every day, and often catch myself slipping as well.

We all have beliefs and opinions held for emotional or ideological reasons, and we tend to use such ad-hoc reasoning to defend them. For example, you likely have some negative opinions about the characteristics of those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Whenever someone says or does something which seems to be consistent with your opinions, that will likely confirm them in your mind. But disconfirming counter examples are often dismissed as exceptions, or as not counting for some special and arbitrary reason. Pay attention to this when having discussions with others, you will find such reasoning is common, even ubiquitous. We do not surrender our comforting world view easily.

It is easy for us skeptics to smugly chortle when confronted with the absurd magical beliefs of the more gullible among use, but keep in mind these beliefs are the results of psychological and cognitive tendencies that we all share. Our rationalizations are likely just more sophisticated and subtle, but not any more valid.

But do not despair – there is a way to escape from this corner into which our brains have evolved. First we can simply endeavor to understand these mental pitfalls and remain vigilant against them. But also we have science. The methods of science developed largely to counter the effects of subjective validation – to validate ideas objectively, with quantitative analysis, objective outcomes, blinded observers, and systematic assessment. Although humans are naturally curious, we are not natural scientists. Rather we are natural believers, and we need the discipline and rigorousness of science to save ourselves from the superstitious hobgoblins within us all.

Now go break some mirrors.

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