Superstitious People & Pigeons

Over at The Atlantic, professor Stuart Vyse writes about superstition and the magical thinking that is especially prevalent among people who are intensely engaged in uncertain pursuits. Among others, athletes are singled out:

Uncertainty is an integral part of most sports. In basketball, the best professional players make only half their shots from the field. Quarterbacks in the National Football League complete, on average, only 61 percent of their passes. Because the motivation to win or perform well is quite strong, it is not surprising that athletes resort to magic in an attempt to alter these percentages. Each of these groups confronts a situation in which a particular outcome is both uncertain and highly valued, and each appears to have made superstition an integral part of its activities.

Many sports have ancient roots in practices required for hunting and war, both of which are notoriously uncertain activities. They are also notorious for being shot through with ritual and bound up in magic. It’s no accident that Frazer’s Golden Bough is filled with rites intended to insure success in the hunt and victory at war. While Vyse discusses Frazer, he doesn’t mention my favorite: B.F. Skinner’s “Superstition in the Pigeon.” Although the phylogenetic distance between pigeons and people is great, both share a strong behavioral tendency towards superstition (i.e., mistaking correlation for causation). This must be what evolutionary biologists call a “primitive” trait, one that was already present in the last common ancestor.



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4 thoughts on “Superstitious People & Pigeons

  1. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    I guess, I have to be quite predictable here and point out that the way most people (even highly educated ones) access modern medicine with very much the mindset of superstition. Which is why newspapers can get away with garbage reporting on newly discovered ‘threats’ and ‘medical breakthroughs’. Which is why so many people can see a continuum between antibiotics and homeopathic sugarpills (and will demand antibiotics for viral infections).

    I don’t think you need to find some primal module that predisposes us to confuse correlation with causation (there are entire respectable academic disciplines that have access to nothing but correlation). Human cognition and social processes are based on making connections based on resonance, similarity and habit. This gives us both voodoo, theory of natural selection, and everything in between (

  2. Cris Post author

    My comment about this being a “primitive trait” was of course sarcasm. Nonetheless, I do think that people are more like pigeons than we would like to admit.

  3. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    Of course, I wasn’t being very perceptive here. And, I will be the last one to wax majestic about human exceptionalism so comparing humans to pigeons does not inflame my passions. But I’d say there’s a danger to taking this metaphor too far Because, when it comes to things like spatial cognition and repetitive behavior, pigeons are more like people than we’d like to admit. Not in any essentialist way but in the sense that there are aspects of their existence that simply cannot be accounted for by conditioning without making huge assumptions.

  4. Cris Post author

    It was poor sarcasm that depended on my assumption that regular readers would know my disdain for “primitive” characterizations in evolutionary and cultural theory. So my “of course” was disingenuous and I knew that when I wrote it. My only excuse was it was early in the morning, I was in a hurry, and the words weren’t coming to me.

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