Stories tagged superstition

Sep
12
2008

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.

May
14
2008

Let a smile be your umbrella, and you’ll get a mouth full of rain.: Better safe than sorry, doncha’ know.
Let a smile be your umbrella, and you’ll get a mouth full of rain.: Better safe than sorry, doncha’ know.Courtesy Christiane Michaud

Up is down. Black is white. Ignorance is double-plus ungood. But a new study shows why this one actually makes a bit of sense.

Professors at Cornell University had groups of students read various different stories. In some, a character acts prudently; in others, the character tempts fate – for instance, failing to bring an umbrella when there’s rain in the forecast. The stories end with something bad happening – it rains – and the students were asked whether or not the conclusion made sense.

The correct answer is “yes,” no matter which story a student reads. But those who read about the person tempting fate responded more quickly.

The professors call this reflexive thinking. An action which “tempts fate” causes out minds, by reflex, to think of the negative possibilities. And while there is no connection between carrying an umbrella and “making” it rain, the superstition does have several benefits:

  • By focusing our attention on the possible negative outcome, we are ready for it and better able to respond.
  • The actions used to ward off the negative outcome – such as carrying an umbrella to “prevent” rain – often leave us better prepared in the event of the bad thing actually happening.

No word on how this relates to horseshoes and rabbit’s feet.