What To Know About Superstition on this Friday the 13th


My sister called me and told me her trip was cursed. It was a sign. No matter what she tried, she couldn’t seem to get to the airport. I told her not to trust her instincts, to try harder and come anyway. I must admit, though, she did have me a little worried.

Superstition — not even scientists are immune — but we know some good ways to treat the symptoms. If you ever notice yourself so overcome by an irrational sense of impending doom, or experience abnormal behavior to relieve this feeling, please — take a deep breath — and consider this.

Remember superstitions take on many forms, with lots of different beliefs and even more strange behaviors. You are not alone.

Even animals appear to exhibit superstitious behaviors. Read about or watch B.F. Skinner’s experiments on superstitious behavior in pigeons.

Understand there are different ways to think about superstition. You can choose to think of it psychologically or behaviorally … but you might want to think about it behaviorally if you know what’s good for you.

Behaviorists would say superstition is just the result of an incorrect assumption of cause and effect. For example, in Skinner’s experiments, he reinforced pigeons with food at random time intervals. They didn’t have to do more than peck to get the food, but some of them started turning in circles and flapping their wings. When they noticed the food after doing so, they adopted the behavior — “believing” it the cause to food outcome.

Miriam-Webster would agree with the behaviorists, but would add some things to make you feel like a real dummy: like telling you this “irrational” behavior results from “ignorance, fear of the unknown, [or] trust in magic.” Don’t worry about what it says. Just try to understand and embrace it.

Superstitious behavior may not be so irrational after all. Perhaps it could serve an adaptive purpose. Wing flapping looks ridiculous in a box, but in a natural setting, it could really make foraging more efficient.

Take some stats classes. (If you did, great!) If you didn’t, get to know the difference between a Type I and Type II error. Now here’s a big one. If superstition is about cause-and-effect associations, and it could be adaptive, then a person has two choices when faced with a situation. He can either commit a Type I error and believe something false (like a plane will crash when it won’t) or commit a Type II error and reject something true (believing a plane won’t crash when it will). If the cost of making a Type II error is high enough, it’s likely one will opt for the Type I error.

Thus, thinking a trip is cursed may not be as irrational as you thought. If the alternative to looking like a goon is the chance that you’d fall to your death from an exploding aircraft, then wasn’t it worth it? Then again, you could crunch some different numbers, realize the unlikelihood of a plane crash, and just come anyway.

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