Random Superstitions

Sometimes, when making decisions, it’s better not to decide. Or, when faced with a choice, to choose on the basis of chance. When the set of possible outcomes for any given decision and consequent action is normally distributed (represented graphically with a bell curve), then the best decision may be random. But given our penchant for “rational” decision-making, making truly random decisions is exceedingly difficult. When we need to make a random decision, we can of course toss dice or flip coins, but this strikes some as too primitive. For modern sophisticates of chance, “true” random number generators are the answer.

These statistical considerations may, in turn, explain all manner of decision-making (such as augury and divination) that is classed, and thus denigrated, as “superstition.” While I had never before considered the issue this way, after reading this Aeon essay by Michael Schulson, I’m persuaded there is something to it. When faced with uncertainty and wide range of possible outcomes, our past experiences tend to probabilistically guide our decisions. But because our past past experience is so limited, we usually overestimate the extent to which those experiences are relevant. This is of course the problem with small samples. One way to overcome these biases, which can lead to bad decisions, is to choose randomly. As Schulson explains, it seems that some societies may have figured this out:

Over the millennia, cultures have expended a great deal of time, energy and ingenuity in order to introduce some element of chance into decision-making. Naskapi hunters in the Canadian province of Labrador would roast the scapula of a caribou in order to determine the direction of their next hunt, reading the cracks that formed on the surface of the bone like a map. In China, people have long sought guidance in the passages of the I Ching, using the intricate manipulation of 49 yarrow stalks to determine which section of the book they ought to consult. The Azande of central Africa, when faced with a difficult choice, would force a powdery poison down a chicken’s throat, finding the answer to their question in whether or not the chicken survived – a hard-to-predict, if not quite random, outcome. (“I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of,” wrote the British anthropologist E E Evans-Pritchard, who adopted some local customs during his time with the Azande in the 1920s).

His mention of Naskapi hunters is apropos, given that I just started reading Frank Speck’s classic, Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (1935). I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to get round to this important book, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in animist worldviews.

And speaking of hunting, some may have heard about the recent PNAS study which shows that Native Americans in Sonora, Mexico were hunting gomphotheres 13,390 years ago. For those who (like me) did not know what a gomphothere was, here’s an artistic reconstruction of the four-tusked beast:

GomphothereWhile these creatures were no doubt impressive, I was equally impressed by the quartz-crystal Clovis point that was found in archaeological association with the beast. This may be the prettiest point I’ve ever seen, and I have little doubt that the clear quartz carried a significant symbolic or “superstitious” load in the ancient hunt:


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18 thoughts on “Random Superstitions

  1. Larry Stout

    Interesting indeed.

    The turkey probabilistically expects grain in the bin the next morning, but come Thanksgiving…. People say they are absolutely certain — not a probabilistic assertion, but based on not-inconsiderable experience — that the sun will rise tomorrow; this too works…until it doesn’t. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer to check the horizon for storm clouds before setting sail on the wine-dark sea (which is not to say that I’ve always routinely done that!).

  2. Cris Post author

    I think that choosing randomly makes the most sense when (a) the situation is complex, (b) there is a wide range of possible outcomes, (c) there are numerous variables, and (d) the variables are uncertain or perhaps not even known. All this makes the decision to be made exceedingly difficult and thus we become prone to “prior experience bias” or probabilistic error. Might as just well throw the dice in this situation.

    Because this situation often applies in law (despite the legal profession’s solemn proclamations to the contrary), there have been a number of times when I have frankly told clients I don’t think it matters what we do or say because the outcome is just too uncertain. While clients hate hearing this, they sometimes appreciate the honesty.

  3. Bob Wells

    I think an interesting modern example is the 12 Steps of AA. The Third Step reads “Made a decision to our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understand god.” Of course that leaves the question of what do I decide and what do I leave up to god or chance. A common saying among 12 Steppers is ” Put one foot in front of the other, and leave the results up to god.” In other words you have a brain and are supposed to use it, but ultimately the overall course of your life is up to your Higher Power.

    It’s a system that has worked incredibly well for a large group of people when nothing else could.

  4. Anonymous

    One of my best friends is in AA and he has drummed the above home to me and the more I apply it, the more it comes to fruition.
    The Clovis point is bringing to mind the crystal skulls found in the Incan dynasty. I saw one of them presented at the Association for Research and Enlightenment. They are mysterious due to the flawless carving. There were large ones and small ones found. If I were hunting a Gomphothere, a Clovis spear head may have encouraged bravery during the hunt; i.e. needing a supernatural power to avoid their 4 husks!!
    Having faced difficult decisions in the past, I have consulted the I Ching, the Taro cards, and found it was better to consult the superconscious activities of the dream life. If I want to change, guide, develop a choice that must be made, it is good to be Patient and wait for the problem to be solved. The uncertainty of the outcome, as with Finite mathematical probabilities is certain without a creative stand.

  5. Larry Stout

    Wikipedia says:

    ‘The crystal skulls are human skull hardstone carvings made of clear or milky white quartz, known in art history as “rock crystal”, claimed to be pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts by their alleged finders; however, none of the specimens made available for scientific study have been authenticated as pre-Columbian in origin.

    ‘The results of these studies demonstrated that those examined were manufactured in the mid-19th century or later, almost certainly in Europe during a time when interest in ancient culture was abundant.[1][2] Despite some claims presented in an assortment of popularizing literature, legends of crystal skulls with mystical powers do not figure in genuine Mesoamerican or other Native American mythologies and spiritual accounts.[3]

    The skulls are often claimed to exhibit paranormal phenomena by some members of the New Age movement, and have often been portrayed as such in fiction. Crystal skulls have been a popular subject appearing in numerous sci-fi television series, novels, films, and video games.’

  6. Michele

    Thank you Larry for clearing up some of the mystery of the crystal skulls. Many years later I read in a science magazine about the skulls. Unfortunately, I cannot reference the article, and do remember the pictures of the skulls uncovered in an archeological dig. I wonder which glass factory created them. It would be a specimen to present to the public with hefty mystery that the general public would not run out to disprove.
    I will still continue to search the Atlantis civilization regarding crystals due to, “Scholars and philosophers have brought to literature a wealth of legend, lore, and speculation on the fabled lands of Atlantis and Lemuria. Plato, Francis Bacon, and the Roman scholar Pliny wrote of them.” pg. 40, EDGAR CAYCE Modern Prophet, FOUR COMPLETE BOOKS.

  7. Cris Post author

    It’s a fact that the crystal skulls are “fakes.” I will admit, however, that when I first saw a picture of this quartz-crystal Clovis point, the first thing that popped into my mind were the crystal skulls.

  8. Michele

    Chris, Is the Clovis point real? I have found arrow heads here where I live that look like it, but made from rock, near Devil’s Back Bone. Just beyond this structure is where the arrow heads are plentiful. Unsure of what Native American tribe.

  9. Cris Post author

    Yes, the Clovis point is real. It was found “in association” with the gomphothere kill. In other words, it was used for the hunt. This picture is from the study that was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. So it’s been peer-reviewed and the source is impeccable.

  10. Michele

    Thank you again Larry, for I replied to you then went to Wikipedia for the description. Hoaxes as such spur the scientific community to keep their treasures found well documented and locked up safe.

  11. Sabio Lantz


    I don’t understand your first paragraph about a “normal distribution”. It seems mistaken.
    In fact if an event did fall in a simple normal distribution, a systematic attempt at predicting the best answers would be wise. Instead, it is random distributions when random guessing may be best because reason engages a systematic bias method which may exclude large section of the random distribution. Or that is how I understood the article.

    Thanks, for the link to the article — it inspired me to write my own post on superstitions of this sort. I share my own tofu theory too.

  12. Cris Post author

    Sabio, this is a great question. I was thinking that you get a normal distribution with large sample sizes. With large enough samples, there is a central tendency which is the peak of the bell curve; this is the area of highest frequency. If you are making choices about how to locate that central tendency or highest frequency, trying to game the probability system with informed or biased decisions may not make sense. Instead, and (critically) assuming that you get to make the decision often enough (i.e., have a large enough sample for making decisions), then randomly choosing may help you avoid biases which make your decision-making directional and land you at the tail on either side of the central tendency.

    So let’s assume that hunters have a large territory and that game of all kinds can be found in that territory, but that the various kinds of game and distribution of that game is highly irregular, complex, and variable. Over enough time, the distribution of game in that territory will tend toward a mean and have a central tendency. In this situation, it may make sense to “guess” or choose randomly about where to hunt.

    This is not just a hypothetical, given that many hunters have been known to do just this. They apparently have figured out, intuitively, that their “best guesses” or informed judgments are often wrong, and that they can’t really predict the distribution and when they do, they outsmart themselves or come up empty. Their biases, in other words, are taking them out to the tails. If they can choose randomly (using scapulamancy, throwing stick “dice,” or entrail “reading,” which are all devices that can enforce true randomness), they have a better chance of hitting upon the central tendency of the game, or the highest frequency.

    Does this make sense? I’m just thinking out loud on this.

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