Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Misunderstanding superstition

New Scientist has recently announced that we now know the origin of superstition. Ewen Callaway tells us (10 September 2008):
Darwin never warned against crossing black cats, walking under ladders or stepping on cracks in the pavement, but his theory of natural selection explains why people believe in such nonsense.

The tendency to falsely link cause to effect – a superstition – is occasionally beneficial, says Kevin Foster, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.

For instance, a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but "if a group of lions is coming there’s a huge benefit to not being around," Foster says.
Foster and a University of Helsinki colleague Hanna Kokko sought to model superstition in mathematical language, using a definition that could apply to animals and bacteria as well as humans, and found that "As long as the cost of believing a superstition is less than the cost of missing a real association, superstitious beliefs will be favoured."

The problem is that the quality described in the New Scientist article as "superstition" is more commonly called "prudence" (= avoiding foreseeable risks).

It would help if we begin by understanding what superstition actually is.

Superstition is not a "false" link between cause and effect. If it were, many health fads would be superstition. But they are not; they are merely unsubstantiated or poorly substantiated claims.

Superstition is the belief that the connections between events are occult (hidden) and that bad events can be caused or prevented by understanding and working with these hidden causes. For example, here's a superstition: It's seven years' bad luck to break a mirror. Why? Well, I've heard people theorize that at one time mirrors were very expensive, and therefore it might take seven years to save enough to replace one. And later on, people just somehow continued to believe the idea even though mirrors had become cheap.

There is a name for that kind of thinking - euhemerism, in honour of Euhemerus, a 3rd-century BC Greek philosopher. Euhemerus argued that the Greek gods were originally just mortal heroes whose exploits were embellished. In other words, he sought a pragmatic explanation for belief in the gods, in the same way that Foster and Kokko seek a pragmatic explanation for superstition.

But Euhemerus missed the transcendent and numinous qualities that people sought in the Greek gods, the qualities that caused the 19th century poet Wordsworth - trapped in industrial England - to exclaim,

Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
In the same way, Foster and Kokko missed the point about superstition - what makes a belief a superstition is not that the supposed connections between events may be false but that they are occult. They are not normal connections in any event.

Now back to the mirror: The true reason that breaking a mirror was anciently considered bad luck is that one's reflection was thought to be an image of one's soul, one's life. So the shattered image was an omen of death:

The mirror crack'd from side to side;
The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

- Tennyson
Is the belief false? That's difficult to say because, while it is false for the person who disregards it, it might be true for the person who believes it.

That is, if you break a mirror, nothing happens, of course. But the person who honestly believes she will become very ill could trigger the flareup of a chronic illness. That's called a nocebo effect.
The difficulty then is that the person who believes in superstitions and occult causes may see genuine confirmation of her belief. So one will not get very far in discussing the matter with her by simply informing her that her belief about the broken mirror is false.

It might be wiser to help her see that the power that she attributes to the image in the mirror actually resides in her own mind. It is quite real, but it is not what she thinks and she has power over it.

But, back to Foster and Kokko for a moment, we can now see why their "simple definition for superstition that includes animals and even bacteria" is not going to be very helpful for humans.

Note: Mario Beauregard and I discussed the nocebo effect in The Spiritual Brain.
Image note: The image is f rom Wiki Commons, a rendering of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, doomed to die - or so she believed - if she looked out the window, so she had used a mirror instead.

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