Published originally as an answer to the following question for Vox Populi 14:

4. Do you ever find yourself being superstitious, despite your awareness of its irrationality? If so, why? If not, why do you think superstition exists? SUPERSTITION.mp3

NO, I don’t ever find myself being superstitious. Sometimes in casual conversation, I will say things like "knock on wood." Or "keep your fingers crossed," things like that, but neither I nor the person I’m talking to actually believes that either of those things will make any difference, were just basically saying, we hope something happens. So I would not consider that a form of superstition, but rather simply, a figure of speech.

I think people are superstitious because they don’t properly interpret coincidences. They look at the times when things happen in a coincidence like: When they’re about to pick up the phone to call somebody and then the phone rings, and that person was on the phone. They think, WOW, that’s amazing. But what they don’t think about is the 300 other times they picked up the phone to call that person, and it didn’t ring. And so they don’t understand that what they’re witnessing is a very unlikely coincidence, and they’re taking special note of it.

So I think this happens all the time. There was a severe earthquake in 1994 in Los Angeles. Just after the earthquake, people began to correlating the weather that was happening just before the earthquake, and they were starting to call it "earthquake weather" And any time that particular type of weather would occur, there were people around who would get all upset and say "I think there is going to be another earthquake." And this went on for, probably about a year or two after the earthquake.

We know earthquakes are generated deep in the earth, from the motion of tectonic plates [having nothing whatsoever to do with the weather.] and yet people still persisted in this nonsense. Superstition is just a flaw in the design of our brains. Superstitious people take note of coincidences, and they do not take note of their opposite. [Often referred to as "counting the hits and ignoring the misses."] They also often fail to properly and dispassionately analyze the chain of causality of events.

Comments (3 comments)

Topher / July 24th, 2006, 4:45 pm / #1

Further superstitious people tend to also either believe in religion wholeheartedly or replace religion with their superstition, either way it tends to be harmful on their ability to live a rational life.

Matt / July 25th, 2006, 7:50 am / #2

I’m not sure if my last comment made it in or not, but basically, I would equate superstition as another word for fear. Yes, people do things because they think they will get POSITIVE outcomes from their actions, but they also do them out of the fear of the negative. I think that ultimately it’s this fear that drives a lot of superstitious beliefs and actions.

On the flip side, I also think that superstition is a failure of inductive reasoning. Specifically, I think it’s a good example of weak inductive logic.

Take the old wives tale that thunder causes milk to sour. At some point, somewhere, someone in history probably noticed that thier milk was sour after a thunderstorm. Their reasoning then went:

My milk was sour after the thunderstorm,
Thunder causes milk to sour.

It’s a failure to truly understand cause and effect.


BlackSun / July 25th, 2006, 9:55 am / #3

Matt, that’s hilarious: Thunder causing milk to sour?? LOL

Topher, good point.

Daniel Dennett discusses superstition as the precursor to religion. Basically, superstition is religion without organization.

Put a bunch of superstitions together, appoint a leader, create some rituals to mitigate your fears: Voila!…religion.

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