Superstition is a belief in a non-physical (i.e. supernatural) causality: that one event causes another without any physical process linking the two events. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to practices (e.g. Voodoo) other than the one prevailing in a given society (e.g. Christianity in western culture), although the prevailing religion may contain just as many supernatural beliefs.

It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific unrelated prior events.

The etymology is from the classical Latin ‘superstitio,’ literally ‘a standing over [in amazement],’ but other interpretations include an over-scrupulousness in religion or a ‘hold-over’ from older beliefs. The word is attested in the 1st century BCE Rome, notably in Livy and Ovid, in the meaning of an unreasonable or excessive belief in fear or magic, especially foreign or fantastical ideas. Cicero, however, derives the term from the ‘superstitiosi’ (‘survivors’): parents indulging in excessive prayer and sacrifice hoping that their children would survive them to perform their necessary funeral rituals. By the 1st century CE, it came to refer to ‘religious awe, sanctity; a religious rite’ more generally.

To European medieval scholars the word was applied to any beliefs outside of or in opposition to Christianity; today it is applied to conceptions without foundation in, or in contravention of, scientific reasoning and knowledge. Many extant western superstitions are said to have originated during the plagues that swept through Europe.

In keeping with the Latin etymology of the word, religious believers have often seen other religions as superstition. Likewise, atheists and agnostics may regard any religious belief as superstition.

Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms, scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. Such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) was what the Romans meant by ‘superstition.’ For some Christians, just such fears might be worn proudly as a name: Desdemona.

The Roman Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states superstition ‘in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion,’ and attempts to dispel commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:

‘Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition.’

In his ‘Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church,’ Martin Luther (who called the papacy ‘that fountain and source of all superstitions’) accuses the popes of superstition.

Some superstitions originated as religious practices that continued to be observed by people who no longer adhere to the religion that gave birth to the practice. Often the practices lost their original meaning in this process. In other cases, the practices are adapted to the current religion of the practitioner. As an example, during the Christianizing of Europe, pagan symbols to ward off evil were replaced with the Christian cross.

Common superstitions include the belief that a rare four-leaf-clover is good luck, as well as the horseshoe. In addition, some superstition actions are said to bring good luck: such as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. Other mistakes are said to bring quite a lot of bad fortune: breaking a mirror, stepping on a crack, and walking under a ladder. Psychological study of superstitious behavior has shown these habits help create a calm environment for the user.

In 1948, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology,’ in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behavior. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other odd behaviours. Because these behaviors were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons’ actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behavior in humans.

Skinner’s theory regarding superstition being the nature of the pigeons’ behavior has been challenged by other psychologists such as Staddon and Simmelhag, who theorized an alternative explanation for the pigeons’ behavior. Despite challenges to Skinner’s interpretation of the root of his pigeons’ superstitious behavior, his conception of the reinforcement schedule has been used to explain superstitious behavior in humans.

Originally, in Skinner’s animal research, ‘some pigeons responded up to 10,000 times without reinforcement when they had originally been conditioned on an intermittent reinforcement basis.’ Compared to the other reinforcement schedules (e.g. fixed ratio, fixed interval), these behaviors were also the most resistant to extinction. This is called the partial reinforcement effect, and this has been used to explain superstitious behavior in humans.

In other words, whenever an individual performs an action expecting a reinforcement, and none seems forthcoming, it actually creates a sense of persistence within the individual. This strongly parallels superstitious behavior in humans because the individual feels that, by continuing this action, reinforcement will happen; or that reinforcement has come at certain times in the past as a result of this action, although not all the time, but this may be one of those times.

From a simpler perspective, natural selection will tend to reinforce a tendency to generate weak associations. If there is a strong survival advantage to making correct associations, then this will outweigh the negatives of making many incorrect, ‘superstitious’ associations.

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