Did we evolve to be superstitious?

Superstitious thinking, like believing crossing paths with a black cat is unlucky, is the result of falsely linking a cause to an effect.
Superstitious thinking, like believing crossing paths with a black cat is unlucky, is the result of falsely linking a cause to an effect.

Every culture has its own superstitions, or "magical thinking," as some psychologists call it. Superstitious beliefs go as far back as the Mayans, who used numerology. And superstitions still exist today, from sports stars who perform certain rituals before games to people who won't walk under a ladder or always knock on wood for luck. Many of us even do these things without thinking — that's how ingrained in our behaviors superstitions are.

If superstitions go back so far in history and remain so common, is it possible humans evolved to think this way? Some scientists and psychologists say yes, we are indeed wired for magical thinking.

Superstitious thinking is the result of falsely linking a cause to an effect. Using the sports example, if a baseball player hits a home run during a playoff game and happened not to shave that day, he may decide his unshaven face brought him luck and refuse to shave for the rest of the series. In reality, it was his skill as a ballplayer (and a little bit of chance) that brought him that home run, but he's not going to take any risks. And the comfort of believing he may have some control over his destiny may also improve his performance.

Back to evolution. In prehistoric times, man had to be constantly alert for predators. The sound of rustling in the grass, for example, might signify an animal or enemy preparing to strike. On the other hand, it could just be a breeze. However, for self-preservation, this human had to decide quickly the cost of being right or wrong about the origin of the rustling. Erring on the side of caution could save his life. And if he was right and it was a dangerous predator, chances are he would flee without weighing the chances when he heard rustling any time after that.

Further, if multiple signals preceded the arrival of an animal — such as a full moon — our prehistoric friend might also make the false association that a rustling sound during a full moon definitely meant a dangerous animal was in the vicinity [source: Callaway]. From a very real threat, a superstition is born. Our brains connect the dots in a situation whether or not it's logical, and we adapt our behavior accordingly.

Even other animals besides man are superstitious. Evolutionary biologist Kevin Foster uses pigeons as an example. You might notice that if you clap your hands at a nearby pigeon, it will quickly fly away. Even though a pigeon knows the difference between the sound of a gunshot (certain death) and a hand clap (harmless), it will flee the scene — just in case [source: O'Connell]. The pigeon evolved, just like cavemen, to be better safe than sorry. And if you think about it, the theory of natural selection favors these early superstitious creatures, humans and animals alike.

Sometimes, however, superstitions can contribute to our demise. A 2003 study showed that road fatalities in South Africa are 10 times more than in the United States. Much of this is blamed on a superstitious belief that accidents result from witchcraft or that certain medicines prevent car crashes. The more superstitious the driver, the higher the accident rate [source: New Scientist].

This goes to show that like the "fight or flight" response triggered by stress, our ingrained tendencies for superstitious beliefs can be just as likely to work to our detriment as to our benefit.

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  • Albert, Sarah. "The Psychology of Superstition." WebMD. 2004. (Jan. 7, 2015) http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/psychology-of-superstition
  • Callaway, Ewen. " Superstitions evolved to help us survive." New Scientist. Sept. 10, 2008. (Jan. 7, 2015) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14694-superstitions-evolved-to-help-us-survive.html#.VK17aaaqP61
  • New Scientist. "Death by superstition." May 10, 2003. (Jan. 7, 2015) http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg17823942.600-death-by-superstition.html
  • O'Connell, Sanjida. "Lucky for some: Science of superstition." The Independent. Sept. 17, 2008. (Jan. 7, 2015) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/lucky-for-some-science-of-superstition-932879.html

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