Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Owl Hooted Three Times

I attended the wedding ceremony of a friend of mine a couple days ago on Friday the 13th. Obviously, the bride and groom are not very superstitious, and no doubt they had an easy time booking the facilities for the day. As if the calendar weren’t enough, prior to the ceremony a mirror in the room fell from the wall and broke. If a black cat ran by, I didn’t see it. The couple took it all in good humor, though I wonder if they’ll think back to the date and mirror when they hit the inevitable rough patches all relationships have.

I strive to be skeptical in my assessments of the world at large, to the point of being a fan of CSICOP and a reader of the Skeptical Inquirer. These days, out of politeness, I refrain from offering unsolicited statements of these views in general company since they always offend somebody. (I was ruder when I was younger, but who isn’t?) If asked, however, I will answer. If a discussion about some paranormal or supernatural subject arises, I will toss in my skeptical two cents. I don’t raise the subject myself though. Not only is there the politeness issue, but I no longer think it is possible to change minds in this matter. As with so many other issues, most (perhaps all) of us believe what we do not because of reason but because of our predispositions; we then chose what evidence to notice and what to ignore to support them. We rationalize rather than reason. The especial problem with superstition is that a superstitious tendency is hardwired into our very natures – and not just into human nature.

In 1948 B.F. Skinner published a classic paper called Superstition in the Pigeon. At this point, perhaps we should define “superstition” in a way that applies both to pigeons and people: an irrational belief, often accompanied by a ritual intended to influence an outcome. Skinner noted that if he fed pigeons on a purely random schedule, each pigeon would tend to repeat a behavior (twirling, pacing, head-nodding, or whatever) it was performing the first time it was fed. Since the bird now was performing this behavior more often, just by the odds it was likely to be fed again while performing it, which reinforced the behavior. So, every bird tended to acquire a ritual behavior that it associated with getting fed. There in fact was no connection between the rituals and the food, but that didn’t stop the birds.

Humans aren’t much different. Baseball players, for example, are notoriously superstitious. This one insists on eating a Twinkie before a big game and that one carries a rabbit foot. What is more, the rituals really do have an impact. If the batter doesn’t get his Twinkie or the First Baseman forgets his rabbit foot, he is likely to be distracted by the thought just enough to miss or fumble the ball more often. Even if the Twinkie-eater is skeptical enough to believe the association between pastry and batting skill is in his own mind rather than in any magical properties in Twinkies, he still may be distracted if he doesn’t get one.

Why would nature hardwire us to pick up irrational beliefs? Apparently because it is more dangerous to miss a pattern (between tall grasses and lurking lions, for example) than to see one that doesn’t exist. So, we infer patterns from random coincidences and end up performing senseless rituals to deflect nonexistent threats or to affect outcomes in impossible ways – e.g. avoiding cracks in the sidewalk while en route to buy a lottery ticket.

Some even argue that openly superstitious people are happier than those of us who resist those impulses (with whatever degree of success). There actually is a condition called “depressive realism.” Depressed people, it seems, have a much more accurate and realistic world view than people generally, though it is not clear if depression makes them realistic or if realism makes them depressed.

While the condition apparently exists, I don’t really buy the argument's implication that superstition is good for you. It is possible to be both realistic and carefree – even if realistic and pessimistic are effectively synonyms. Moreover, I've seen plenty of unhappy mystics.  Obsessive-compulsive behavior is just superstition in overdrive, after all, and doesn’t look like a cheery way to live to me. It doesn’t matter anyway as a practical matter. I couldn’t believe in a rabbit’s foot if I tried, though no doubt I believe many things just as silly.

In any event, I hope to attend my friends’ first anniversary, held not in exactly a year but on the nearest Friday the 13th. I suggest they make breaking a mirror part of the tradition.

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