Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Du bist ein Vogel* and the superstition of a bird
*Literally translated as 'You are a bird' but generally used to mean 'You're crazy!'"

By a significant margin, most people in the world are religious or at least have some spiritual/supernatural tendencies. There’s something like 2.3 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and 700 million Buddhists. That leaves 1.1 billion with no religion, itself a loaded term that may well include a large number of spiritual, though non-denominational, individuals.

Therefore, it’s a compelling argument to wonder how it might be possible that such a vast number of people could also be wrong about something so important, so integral to our daily lives. Is the answer that we shouldn’t so readily cast our dice against these overwhelming odds? Or is there perhaps some other answer, some natural tendency among humans, explaining why we’re so easily taken in by religion?

Well, one possible explanation comes in the way of evolutionary adaptations. Our susceptibility to superstitious beliefs may well be a beneficial adaptation, or at least was at some earlier point in our evolution, particularly in the case of imputing agency in unexplained phenomenon.

Kevin Foster and Hanna Kokko, both psychologists, published a study in 2008 in support of this claim. Imagine there’s a rustling in the grass, an early human might assume it was caused by the wind. However, he might also assume it was caused by a predator. If the latter proves true, the penalty for not ascribing agency to the sound is death. This small evolutionary pressure naturally favours those individuals that more readily assume agency and flee than those that assume it’s the wind and perish.

The same thought-processes that allow humans to assign agency to the rustling grass likewise cause them to assume agency over other natural phenomenon, like lightning, floods and drought. Even love, hate and war, among others, were attributed to various gods – again, perhaps because they were both so poorly understood and also held such significant power over our lives.

Thomas Hobbes believed that it was this fear of the things that were unknown to them – the causes of disease, disastrous weather, and so on – that were the source of gods. For him, fear resulted from the unknown, which in turn was projected onto invisible forces, the gods.

I think this is an interesting way of looking at the origins of religion, but it’s also incomplete. Religious beliefs are highly nuanced and often ritualistic and one is left to wonder where that comes from as well

In 1948, a particularly famous Psychologist by the name of B.F. Skinner published a paper called “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon.” He conducted an experiment in which he placed a malnourished pigeon into a cage that would dispense food, either at desired times or at random intervals. He showed that by dispensing food when the bird took some desired action – say, spinning clockwise – he could dispense food to reinforce the behaviour. Very quickly, the pigeon learned to reproduce the desired action. He called this operant conditioning.

What is most interesting, however, is that this process would take place even if the food was dispensed entirely at random. That is, 6 out of 8 pigeons in his study developed entirely superstitious behaviours when food was dispensed at random, because they associated non-causal actions with the desired outcome: food. They began to think that bobbing their head in a particular way, for example, earned them their prize, even if this was not the case.

Here’s the exact citation from Skinner’s paper on this phenomenon, which is a fascinating read:
If a clock is now arranged to present the food hopper at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior, operant conditioning usually takes place. In six out of eight cases, the resulting responses were so clearly defined that two observers could agree perfectly in counting instances. One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. The body generally followed the movement and a few steps might be taken when it was extensive. Another bird was conditioned to make incomplete pecking or brushing movements directed toward but not touching the floor. None of these responses appeared in any noticeable strength during adaptation to the cage or until the food hopper was periodically presented. In the remaining two cases, conditioned responses were not clearly marked.
This is absolutely stunning, and provides an amusing analogue to human ritualistic behaviour. You can easily imagine precisely the same sorts of things happening in relation to making burnt offerings to a vengeful deity to stave off drought for another year, or saying a prayer in order to be healed of some terrible ailment.

In his wonderful book Why People Believe Weird Things, Psychologist Michael Shermer presents a list of 25 fallacies that lead people to believe weird things. One of these fallacies in particular is relevant to this discussion. Humans – and pigeons, it turns out – are highly susceptible to after-the-fact reasoning (post hoc, ergo propter hoc); that is, we often assume a causal relationship between two phenomenon, even when no such relationship exists.

For example, a gambler might wear the same socks he did the last time he had a big payout, or a pigeon might try to replicate the conditions immediately preceding the last time it received reinforcement. In such a way, rituals are formed and assumed to cause or prevent some particular action or event, despite this not being the case whatsoever.

As a contemporary example (and a particularly concerning one), when a man in Eastern Canada was beheaded on a Greyhound bus, the Westboro Baptist Church blamed Canada’s legalization of Gay Marriage. The members of this awful group made an unfortunate (and sadly common) leap and assumed two unrelated events had a causal relationship when this is obviously untrue.

And what’s even more important is just how easy it is to form these incorrect beliefs, and how disproportionately difficult it is to correct them relative to how easy it is to form them. Even more significant is that people may become more dogmatic and more resistant to change the more intelligent they are!

David Perkins, another psychologist, conducted a study where he observed a strong correlation between people who scored higher on IQ tests and their ability to give reasons for taking a particular point of view and defending that position. He also observed a strong negative correlation for those same individuals to consider alternative arguments. Basically, the smarter you are, the easier it is for you to defend your views – correctly or incorrectly – and the harder it is to be convinced you’re wrong, even with newly-formed ideas.

This is precisely why even highly intelligent people can still believe in things like Homeopathy, Creationism, and the Mayan prophesies. In fact, highly intelligent individuals are probably the most likely to be the most vehement supporters!

It’s also why people can still believe in a personal, active God, even despite there being no evidence to support the belief, and even what I would consider to be an insurmountable amount of evidence to the contrary. It’s why individuals can, with finesse and great articulation, rigorously defend indefensible beliefs.

Humans are literally programmed for superstitious and even religious thought. We readily attribute agency to things without agency. We have, throughout our recorded history, explained unexplainable phenomenon by higher powers and deities. We are highly ritualistic and, willingly or not, assume causation even when there is at best only weak correlation. And we are readily able to defend these views, no matter how incorrect they are, even in spite of our own intelligence – perhaps even aided by it.

There’s many reasons for this and no easy solutions. However, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is acceptance.


  1. I think that this kind of explanation is REALLY GOOD at accounting for why it is that human beings are so quick to make mental connections where none exist, and to posit agency where none exists. All of this, in my view, helps explain our predilection for superstition, obsessive personal rituals, and belief in entities like ghosts. What it leaves unanswered (and I don't mean this as a critique of this kind of "cogsci" or "evolutionary" approach as such) is how we get from there to developed, socially shared religious forms. It is one thing to think your house is haunted -- it seems to me that it's quite another to get everyone you know to not only agree that Zeus is the thunder god, but that you need to engage in EXPENSIVE actions to placate him: building temples, giving votives, sacrificing bulls, and so on. So this approach is indeed good at kicking out the struts from under religious belief -- of COURSE we imagine non-extant agents! It's less good at accounting for the particuylar shape of religion as a social force.

  2. Thank you for commenting! I agree, this post was largely focused on (attempting) to explain why people come to believe superstitious beliefs in the first place. But, I think it also gives flavourings of where more complex rituals might come from.

    I rather look at the evolution of rituals much like I would the evolution of species. Over long periods of times, exceptionally small, consecutive changes to a given ritual will morph and change it. Sometimes a given ritual will die away – in evolution, like the eyesight of a cavefish – and other times it will become excessively embellished – like the feathers of a peacock.

    For me, and just as is the case in evolution itself, I think explaining the origins of these beliefs – the first cause – is the trickier question. So if we can come to accept that people are naturally predisposed towards rituals and superstition in the first place, then the difficulty in understanding the particular nuances of specific beliefs – even beliefs that have extreme costs, either personally or socially – seems relatively tame by comparison.