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“”Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.
“”When you believe in things
That you don't understand
|—Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"|
Superstition is the idea that supernatural mechanisms affect outcomes in the natural world. It comes from the Latin superstitio, or "standing over", which can imply a force standing over one's actions. The issue of control, and gaining control over a situation, is something that is often raised in the matter of superstitious beliefs.
“”Superstition is the irrational belief that an object or behavior has the power to influence an outcome, when there's no logical connection between them. Most of us aren't superstitious — but most of us are a 'littlestitious.'
Superstition is defined in one paper by drawing upon the American Heritage Dictionary as "beliefs that are inconsistent with the known laws of nature or with what is generally considered rational in a society"; but is also discussed as "a causation between behaviour and outcome when none actually exists" by Rudski and Edwards and even more broadly as "irrational practices".
“”The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.
Some early research into superstition included the popular work by B.F. Skinner (1947) on pigeons. According to Skinner, the "accidental pairing of a random act of the pigeon was enough to reinforce these idiosyncratic behaviours… the birds were dancing around the chamber as if their movements caused the operation of the feeder". This involves the psychological concepts of discriminative stimulus and partial reinforcement — the "pigeon" is doing what works for them, because it worked before or maybe they’ve seen it happen with others who succeeded.
Partial reinforcement with lucky charms or ritualistic behaviour is seen in many scenarios beyond the humble examination room — some of the more popularly known include sporting rituals — a fixed sequence of actions like how you put on your batting gloves (e.g., in the case of baseball player Nomar Garciaparra), or wearing "lucky gear". It even extends to group mentality with people watching the game. If the "lucky" ritual precedes success long enough, failure to execute it will distress and actually impede your performance. Likewise, a superstitious practice, ineffective in itself, might increase performance solely by boosting confidence. This reinforces superstitions by making the superstitious practice a self-fulfilling prophecy. The effect is similar to that of a placebo.
A broad definition is often favoured; defining it as "wrong ideas about reality" can cover not only those self-created by an individual (like that of a dancing pigeon) but also those transmitted culturally, or, as some try to argue in more recent studies, genetically inherited.
In a nutshell
QualiaSoup explains some of the fundamental weaknesses in superstitious thinking.
- "The Effect of Superstitious Beliefs on Consumer Judgments" by Thomas Kramer & Lauren Block (2007) Advances in Consumer Research 34: 634-635.
- "Malinowski goes to college: factors influencing students' use of ritual and superstition" by J. M. Rudski & A. Edwards J. Gen. Psychol. 2007 Oct;134(4):389-403. doi: 10.3200/GENP.134.4.389-404.
- The Psychology of Superstition by Gustav Jahoda (1971). Pelican Books. ISBN 0140212035.
- Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart A. Vyse (1997) Oxford University Press, p.71, ISBN 0195078829.