Did you know that breaking a mirror will give you seven years of bad luck, or that cutting your nails on a Sunday is just asking for trouble? And don’t even think about opening that umbrella indoors; terrible things will happen if you do!
Superstitions are powerful, often absurd beliefs that control the way we behave. You may dismiss superstition as something for old ladies or the overly naive, but have you ever worn a pair of lucky socks to an exam or kept a lucky coin in your pocket during a sports game in the hope that it would help you win? Maybe you’re more superstitious than you thought. While superstitions themselves may be weird, the reasons why they exist are, in fact, fairly simple.
Think of that time you wore those pink spotted socks to school and happened to do well in a test. It could have been just chance, but the second and third time? Surely that was more than just blind luck. Not necessarily. Human beings often make links between things that are completely unconnected. When, by chance, wearing those socks and a good test score happened together again, that link became stronger. And what about those times that you wore those ridiculous socks and nothing happened? Well, you’ve probably forgotten those occasions. We tend to selectively remember things that confirm what we want to be true, and forget the things that don’t.
In an experiment by the psychologist B. F. Skinner, pigeons were put in a cage along with a machine that regularly delivered food. The pigeons began associating the delivery of the food with whatever action they’d been doing when the food was delivered. Skinner observed pigeons turning in circles, swaying their heads from side to side, or repeatedly going to a particular corner of the cage in the hope that food would appear as a result. They had linked their action with the delivery of food, when in fact the food would come no matter what they did. Sound familiar? Humans may be the smartest of all creatures, but when it comes to superstition, we’re just pigeons hoping to be fed.