During a phone conversation with a friend the other night, I admitted to holding some senseless superstitions, and got (rightfully) berated for it. As punishment, he assigned me a five hundred word essay on superstition, so don’t be blaming me if this is boring – it’s his assignment. I’m just not sure I can keep it down to five hundred words…

Superstition actually appears to come from three different sources combined. The first is related to my earlier post about meaning and purpose, and our drive to find the cause behind the effect. This has an interesting cause of its own. We have long inbred instincts towards social interaction, the same kind of instincts that make mother birds stuff food down gaping gullets, even of birds that are not their own species. Ours, however, revolve around how we work together as a tribe/village/society, and might be called a sense of justice. It tells us that people who do things against the collective good of the tribe are bad, and deserve punishment – and vice versa of course. So we associate bad things with punishment, and figure that we must have done something to deserve it. When misfortune befalls us without any distinct evidence of why we’re being punished, we still insist on finding the cause.

The second source of superstition is our tendency to find patterns, and again, this probably dates way back. I emphasize this ability for its use to nature photography, because visual patterns are one of the better clues to finding animals. And this is possibly why we even developed it in the first place. It serves other purposes too, in helping us to learn what actual causes are, and even produced mankind’s earliest form of timekeeping, in the patterns of the stars to predict the seasons. We’re incredibly attuned to patterns, as evidenced by things like pareidolia, the tendency to see faces in random designs, and the reaction we have to people we know who break their patterns of behavior, even in subtle ways.

And finally, we have this ugly little thing best called “confirmation bias.” We’re hypersensitive to being right and avoiding being wrong, so much that we have hard times admitting it, so we often settle for causes and answers that fit a few criteria, without examining them thoroughly enough to see that they miss more than they fit. Did this come up way back? Quite possibly, but this is one of those things that I think are imperfectly evolved within us. Trying to be right, to find correct answers, is good. But being driven to settle for a particular answer because we have a greater fear of being wrong doesn’t always work, to which our history of pseudoscience can attest. It has the appearance that the fear of being wrong is far more powerful than the desire to be right, which lends too much emphasis towards actually being wrong.

This, in itself, might strike people as questionable, and truth be told, I have no background in this – actually educated people might disagree. But we also have to remember that evolution, while effective, isn’t exactly efficient, and we are not in a “final state” of any kind – there is always room for improvement, and this might simply be one of those things that didn’t develop well enough yet. There is no doubt, however, that we have difficulties with confirmation bias, and this stems from somewhere.

Put all of those above factors together, and you can see where random occurrences, especially unfortunate ones which only affect one person, can get assigned a curious “cause.” Once established within a society’s lore, that confirmation bias comes into play again, where people fall and break their wrist, then think back to which one of the myriad causes of bad luck they might have inadvertently activated. Aha, I spilled salt on a ladder yesterday – that was the culprit!

What it comes down to is, we have several different useful traits in our instincts that we often apply automatically, and in some cases they lead to strange behavior. This is not in any way excusing superstition, because we also have a rational portion of our brains that can override instincts pretty easily. The issue is when we don’t exercise this, or even realize that it should be exercised. We are far from perfect, and can easily be fooled by drives within us that have use to us in certain circumstances, but not others. The first real step is recognizing this.

That’s a lot more than five hundreds words, so I expect extra credit for this.

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