Superstitions evolved to help us survive
- 00:01 10 September 2008
- NewScientist.com news service
- Ewen Callaway
Darwin never warned against crossing black cats, walking under ladders or stepping on cracks in the pavement, but his theory of natural selection explains why people believe in such nonsense.
The tendency to falsely link cause to effect – a superstition – is occasionally beneficial, says Kevin Foster, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.
For instance, a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but "if a group of lions is coming there’s a huge benefit to not being around," Foster says.
Foster and colleague Hanna Kokko, of the University of Helsinki, Finland, sought to determine exactly when such potentially false connections pay off.
Rather than author just-so stories for every possible superstition – from lucky rabbit's feet to Mayan numerology – Foster and Kokko worked with mathematical language and a simple definition for superstition that includes animals and even bacteria.
The pair modelled the situations in which superstition is adaptive. As long as the cost of believing a superstition is less than the cost of missing a real association, superstitious beliefs will be favoured.
In general, an animal must balance the cost of being right with the cost of being wrong, Foster says. Throw in the chances that a real lion, and not wind, makes the rustling sound, and you can predict superstitious beliefs, he says.
Real and false associations become even cloudier when multiple potential "causes" portend an event. Rustling leaves and say, a full moon, might precede a lion's arrival, tilting the balance toward superstition more than a single "cause" would, Foster explains.
In modern times, superstitions turn up as a belief in alternative and homeopathic remedies. "The chances are that most of them don’t do anything, but some of them do," he says.
"Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, connecting the dots and creating meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B, and sometimes it is not," he says. "When it isn't, we err in thinking that it is, but for the most part this process isn't likely to remove us from the gene pool, and thus magical thinking will always be a part of the human condition."
Yet not all superstitions persist because of their evolutionary kick. "Once you get to things like avoiding ladders and cats crossing the road, it's clear that culture and modern life have had an influence on many of these things," says Foster.
"My guess would be that in modern life, the general tendency to believe in things where we don't have scientific evidence is less beneficial than it used to be," he adds.
However, Wolfgang Forstmeier, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology in Starnberg, Germany, argues that by linking cause and effect – often falsely – science is a simply dogmatic form of superstition.
"You have to find the trade off between being superstitious and being ignorant," he says. By ignoring building evidence that contradicts their long-held ideas, "quite a lot of scientists tend to be ignorant quite often," he says.
In chess, and in real life, people are succesfull when they are able to draw conclusions fast in a complex environment. Let me try to translate the essence of the article beyond superstition:
It is not possible for the human mind to draw a conclusion fast and to be right all the time. But often it is more important to be fast than to be right. Those who simplify matters can draw conclusions much faster than those who want to be right all the time. Simplifying matters adds an element of gambling to the conclusion. If you are gambling the statistics determine who is succesful. If the benefit of being accidentally right outweights the consequences of being wrong than you are succesfull. That explains the succes of following rules of thumb. Developing your knights before your bishops isn't necessarily always the best thing to do. But the damage of being wrong by moving your knights first is usually very little.
My trouble is that I can't stand being wrong. I hate it to be right only by accident. Hence I'm way too slow to draw a conclusion. That's why I'm not succesfull in complex situations. Like chess. Or life. What Transformation tried to explain to me here. To no avail. Due to my character.