Magi Mike's Blog

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Superstition as a Lack of Adequate Data to Distinguish Causal Outcomes

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Superstitious and ritual behavior can be recognized in many animals, not just humans. The first description of superstitious behavior in animals came from psychologist B F Skinner in 1948. He put hungry pigeons in cages, offering them a few seconds of access to food trays at regular intervals. As long as the intervals were short, the birds began offering up behaviors—like turning round in a particular direction, rocking from side to side or tossing their heads up as if they were lifting a bar. They did these things “as if there were a causal relation between behavior and the presentation of food” (Skinner). Once the behaviors were established, they tended to persist, even as time intervals between feeding lengthened. Skinner’s work compared pigeon behavior to conditioned responses—the birds evidently thought their actions were causal when they were not. Moreover, they persist even when experience shows they are false.

Yet such behavior is not free—they have a cost in terms of energy and lost opportunities. It makes no sense for organisms to think something they do influences the future when it cannot. How then can superstitious and ritual behavior arise by natural selection?

In 1977, Peter R Killeen, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, challenged Skinner’s analysis. He gave his pigeons opportunities to detect whether or not a result was due to their actions or simply random. Killeen found that the birds could judge cause and effect, at least when they had all the information they needed. They could distinguish subtle differences, even scoring as well as humans making the same discriminations. He found it was insufficient data that led birds to the wrong conclusions. The data they had led to the false belief and they had no way of rectifying it.

Kevin Abbott, biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and co-author with Thomas Sherratt of study published in Animal Behaviour, explains:

From an evolutionary perspective, superstitions seem maladaptive.

Perhaps superstition is adaptive as a placebo, or for social bonding, or maybe it is maladaptive now, but came from traits that once were adaptive, rather like behavioral wisdom teeth.

Foster and Kokko, in 2009 compared superstition to a bet. A mouse, hearing a rustle in the grass, quickly finds a cat leaping on it, and dives into a hole. Subsequently the mouse figures it as an odds on bet it’s a cat whenever it hears a rustle, and dives underground, even when the rustle is just the wind. Its diving habit reflects the mouse’s lack of data—it can’t tell whether the rustle is a dangerous cat in the grass or just the wind.

Abbott and Sherratt’s work goes a step further, designing choice, multiple trials, and experience into their model, so the animal can learn from experience, allowing for change or retention of the superstition or ritual. On any given trial, the animal must decide whether to give the action that maximizes its expected fitness based on current information—exploit—or to give the action that provides the most information about the true nature of the causal relationship—explore. Now the results tend to follow common sense. The animal will stop a superstition if it is not too expensive in comparison with its old ways—the model predicts what we tend to see in real life.

Superstitions are more likely when the cost of the superstition is low relative to the perceived benefits, and when the individual’s prior beliefs suggest that the superstition is true. Both the total number of learning trials available, and the nature of the individual’s uncertainty affect the probability of superstition, but the nature of these effects depends on the individual’s prior beliefs. Humans will be convinced a lucky charm doesn’t work, the more times they carry it only when they originally believed it would. If they did not believe initially, carrying it long enough could give enough apparent positives that they might begin to believe it has some effect. Adaptive learning can be leading us to places we shouldn’t go. But Killeen thinks something is left out of their model:

Sometimes simpler answers suffice. For beasts like us who are never quite sure that we are well enough informed, taking that multivitamin and knocking wood puts the semblance of control back in our hands, and that feels good.

So we have to have some way of distinguishing the validity of a belief, but when the belief is deliberately involved, and is justified whatever the outcome by pseudoscientific explanations and sophistry, it is hard to make the distinctions. That is the case with religions. They certainly offer false feelings of having some control over things through ritual and prayer, and so professional clergy can generally find arguments to pacify doubters. Thus when horrific events shock us as they just have in Oslo, the clergy will say, “Thank God it wasn’t worse”, and immediately hold a memorial service… and lo! people feel better about it!

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Written by mikemagee

25 July, 2011 at 1:00 am

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