Superstition, myths and pattern recognition
Although being a man of science, I regularly find myself falling into superstitious behaviours – things like making sure hotel room numbers add up to 3, 7 or 9 or avoiding to walking under ladders. Now I know they’re just stupid rituals, and that it wouldn’t affect my life if I didn’t perform them (with the exception of walking under ladders, obviously!). But still, I can only avoid them for short periods of time, and only when I consciously focus on it. What’s more, I know I’m not alone in this – just about everyone is superstitious, whether they realise it or not.
Why is this? What possible benefit could it have being a superstitious creature rather than a rational one? Well, to solve that problem I think we need to split the superstitious beliefs into two categories: experience and myths.
Superstition based on experience is the easiest to explain. Don’t walk under ladders or you might get hit by a falling object. Don’t open umbrellas indoors or you might knock over things and break them. Don’t break mirrors because they are dead expensive (although they have come down in price lately..). Don’t light three cigarettes with the same match or you might get shot in the head1. They all make sense, in so far as they convey knowledge on how to avoid accidents and mishaps. In essence, they are the result of pattern recognition.
But what about the other category? The non-logical, mythical ones; the ones that doesn’t seem to portray any particular knowledge or experience? Like it’s bad luck to see a sparrow flying into your house, or to forget to crack the bottom of the egg-shell after having eaten a boiled egg. Why do we feel compelled to adhere to such ludicrous ideas?
I’ve noticed that I feel more compelled to superstition when things don’t seem to follow logical rules or simple patterns. Like when changing file and folder permissions in Windows, I tend to first click ‘Apply’ and then ‘Save’ for good luck, even though I know it doesn’t matter. So perhaps superstitious behaviour is a response to unknown situations? It might be a way of de-stressing the mind, to make us less prone to panic, by letting us believe that we can somehow control the uncontrollable.
In that regard, superstition would actually fill a practical role, which could explain why it’s such a wide-spread phenomenon. After all, as a species we’ve always been challenged by unchartered territories and seemingly random natural events. Perhaps we are as successful as we are today just because we’re superstitious, not despite of it?
1 In the trenches during World War I, when you struck a match to light a cigarette in the dark you inadvertently alerted enemy snipers of your position. By the time your comrade lit his cigarette with your burning match the sniper was taking aim, and when the next soldier lit his cigarette with the same match the sniper pulled the trigger, typically killing the third person who lights a cigarette with the same match.