Sep
12
2008

Evolving superstition: watch out for lions!

Three black cats: So that's a triple negative... run! Run!
Three black cats: So that's a triple negative... run! Run!Courtesy heyjupiter
Evolutionary biologists and math wizards have put their minds together to summon a pulsating, glistening packet of truth from the void.

Biting into the fruit of this magnificent spell, the meta-scientists gained the following information: superstitions, it seems, are an evolutionary adaptation.

This isn’t an entirely new train of thought, even here on Science Buzz, but this research takes the notion a little further. It has already been proposed that superstitions—false connections between cause and effect—prepare us for “just in case” scenarios. That is to say, as Gene put it, it won’t actually rain on a particular day just because we forgot our umbrellas, but thinking that that’s true will encourage us to bring our umbrellas just in case. The scientists behind this new study are looking at that idea in a more mathematical way.

They started with a similar premise: that assuming a potentially false connection between cause and effect will sometimes be beneficial. For example, to a prehistoric man, rustling grass might sometimes mean that there’s a lion getting ready to pounce on you. Even though a lion isn’t the only thing that will make grass rustle, treating rustling grass as a sign of danger isn’t a bad idea in the long run; the caveman looses nothing by avoiding grass that is actually being disturbed by the wind, but gains everything by avoiding grass the few times that it actually hides a predator.

The scientists then decided that the theory could be tested mathematically. By weighing the losses of false associations (avoiding wind rustled grass) against the gains from when those associations turn out to be real (hungry lions hiding), we can see if that sort of behavior is beneficial to survival in the long run, and will therefore be selected for evolutionarily. The model gets more complicated when there are multiple potential causes to connect to an effect (is it the rustling grass, the full moon, or the random sneezing that means a lion is on its way?), but it seems that assuming false causes is, in general, a decent survival strategy. Fortune favors the timid, apparently.

In modern times, the scientists say, this behavior can manifest in things like attitudes toward alternative and homeopathic medicines; while most of them may be ineffective, the chance that some work is enough to get people to use them all.

Superstitions like avoiding black cats, paths under ladders, and opening umbrellas indoors, however, may have more to do with evolutionarily superstitious behavior getting mixed up with culture and “modern life.” These days, the researchers point out, superstitions are probably less beneficial than they used to be.

That’s a little bit of a copout, I’d say. Fortune, after all, favors the bold, so why not go out on a limb here?

You don’t want black cats crossing your path, obviously, because a much larger black cat could be chasing them—and you don’t want to mess around with huge black cats (especially if they’re being chased by an even larger cat).

Walking under ladders is an easy one. There’s always the chance that a bucket of paint could fall on your head, and once you’ve got a bucket stuck on your head any number of awful things can and will happen to you. Trust me.

Opening umbrellas indoors—if you’re in a very small house, you could seriously damage your umbrella.

Unlucky number thirteen? Thirteen of anything can’t be divided fairly between friends, leaving you with no other option than to kill one of your friends. That’s how blood feuds start.

I should be a scientist. Or a fortune teller.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

DO's picture
DO says:

Black cats are associated with the devil which is why they are avoided. Years ago I heard of a somewhat similar theory that related as to why such practices as reading the entrails of a sacrificed animal would develop and persist. The idea or theory was that if your understanding of your environment --eg where to find water -- is so lacking or wrong you were better off to pick a random direction and get moving than to wonder which way to go. The marks on entrails are random (not statistically but close enough) to reinforce their use as guidance. Anyone else heard of this?

posted on Fri, 09/12/2008 - 3:12pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I hadn't heard of that, but it's an interesting idea.

It seems like the motivation for finding something like water would be enough that you wouldn't need aruspicy to get you going, though. And assuming that you'd go looking for it with or without checking entrails first... it's random either way, right? Any connection between cause and effect would be false (as opposed to the rustling grass/lion example, where sometimes the connection would be real), so you couldn't really do a cost/benefit calculation to see if it's behavior that would be selected for.

You'd think, even, that trusting animal guts would be less accurate that following basic instincts and knowledge about finding resources...

There's probably more to it that I'm not picking up. Any idea where you came across the theory?

posted on Fri, 09/12/2008 - 3:36pm
DO's picture
DO says:

A sociaology course a long time ago.
The idea was that your understanding of the environment was so of or deficient that you were better off with a random decsion than a "rational one".

posted on Fri, 09/12/2008 - 4:43pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Interesting! Seems kind of counter intuitive, but I'll take your word for it.

posted on Fri, 09/12/2008 - 4:49pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Just an idea from an anthropologist don't know any way of proving it right or wrong!

posted on Fri, 09/12/2008 - 4:52pm
Megg's picture
Megg says:

that is very judge mental and i think that you should not judge cats by there color cause that really does not mean anything about the cats personality or the way it acts

posted on Sat, 09/13/2008 - 1:36pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Thank you. This isn't the first time I've been accused of having unfair attitudes towards various colors of cats, but I appreciate the reminder to be more open-minded.

posted on Sun, 09/14/2008 - 1:53pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i like dogs not cats so i like your idea that black cats are assoited with the devil is a myth

posted on Sat, 09/13/2008 - 4:03pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

funny

posted on Tue, 09/16/2008 - 10:49am

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