Beck and Forstmeier (2007) proposed that superstition is born from the adaptive associative learning style of identifying patterns and attempts to explain them. This has been proposed to not only apply to humans but animals as well. Skinner (1948) found that after a period of time, pigeons would perform specific movements when they had been put in a cage with a food hopper that presents food at regular intervals. The pigeons happened to be performing a specific behavior when the food hopper appeared, thus linking that behavior with presentation of food although food was given independent of their behavior. As a result, they repeat the behavior whenever they want food (operant conditioning) due to the representativeness heuristic causing perceived causality between the behavior and food (classical conditioning).
This behavior is reflective of many superstitious acts in humans. For example, the customary practice of saying "God bless you" or variations of the phrase following a sneeze which originated from the Middle Ages. Pope Gregory VII was said to have used it as a short prayer against diseases during times of the Great Plague in Europe (Kavka, 1983). The effectiveness of the phrase in warding off diseases is definitely questionable with at least a third of the European population being wiped out by the plague (Benedictow, 2004). However, the practice has been normalised today even though most people using it may not know of the phrase's function.
One possible reason why superstitious acts persist in current society is the effect of performing such acts on the perceived self-efficacy of the person. Damisch, Stoberock and Mussweiler (2010) conducted a series of experiments to test the interaction between superstition, performance and self-efficacy. They found that those who had a lucky charm with them did better at a memory task (Figure 1) as well as reported higher levels of self-efficacy at the task (Figure 2) than those who did not. A follow up experiment showed that this increase in self-efficacy improves performance by increasing task persistence (Figure 3).
Figure 1. Mean performance on memory task for participants with and without lucky charms.
Figure 2. Mean self-efficacy ratings reported by participants with and without lucky charms.
Figure 3. Mean time spent by participants with and without lucky charms on anagram task.
The results of Damisch et al.'s (2010) study can be fit into the Theory of Planned Behavior (Figure 4) in explaining how superstitions affect behaviors and attitudes (Ajzen, 1985). Indulging in superstitious acts causes an increase in self-efficacy which results in stronger intentions to do well in a specific task. The strengthened intentions then increases persistent behavior, indirectly increasing task performance. This phenomena causes superstitious people to make an illusory correlation or causality between superstitious acts and their performance, further reinforcing the behavior and increasing the likelihood of displaying such acts.
Figure 4. Schematic diagram of the Theory of Planned Behavior.
Now that we are informed of the way superstition persists, does it mean effort should be directed into breaking them? While superstitions are not logical nor cause their intended effect directly, perhaps they should be left alone simply because they do improve performance. Michael Jordan himself always wore his old University of North Carolina shorts during games even if he had to wear them underneath his official uniform, and that did not stop him from becoming one of the best basketball players in the world. Perhaps when you "believe in things that you don't understand" you may not suffer but instead succeed.
Ajzen, I. (1985). From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behaviour. In Action control (pp. 11-39). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Beck, J., & Forstmeier, W. (2007). Superstition and belief as inevitable by-products of an adaptive learning strategy. Human Nature, 18, 35-46.
Benedictow, O. J. (2004). The medieval demographic system. In The Black Death, 1346-1353: the complete history (pp. 245-256). Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.
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Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21, 1014-1020.
Kavka, S. J. (1983). The sneeze—blissful or baneful?. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 249, 2304-2305.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). 'Superstition' in the pigeon. Journal of experimental psychology, 38, 168-172.