Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Superstition: Even Animals Have It

There are a menagerie of routines in some of our behavior which, when we stop to think of it, make absolute no sense.
Retired French footballer Laurent Blanc kissed the shaved head of teammate Fabian Barthez before every match. Ancient sailors would throw salt over their shoulders to keep the devil at bay. Coldplay's front singer, Chris Martin, won't go on stage before brushing his teeth first.
Some habits, like always flushing the toilet using shower water, is borne purely out of love for the environment. But kissing your teammate's sweaty head before each match, and throwing salt over your shoulder?
Even animals can develop superstitious habits. Psychologist B. F. Skinner famously demonstrated that different pigeons developed different behaviors in anticipation for food.

Skinner would begin a lecture by placing a pigeon in a cage with an automatic feeder that delivered a food pellet every 15 seconds. At the start of the lecture Skinner would let the audience observe the ordinary, passive behaviour of the pigeon, before covering the box. 

After fifty minutes he would uncover the box and show that one bird would be turning counter clockwise three times before looking in the food basket, another would be thrusting its head into the top left corner. In other words, all pigeons struck upon some particular ritual that they would do over and over again.
Skinner's explanation for this behavior certainly reminds me of religion.

Although we know that the food is delivered regardless of the pigeon's behavior, but the pigeon doesn't know this. So imagine yourself as a pigeon. You know not about the ways of Man. You walk around your cage for a while, you decide to dance a little and bang, some food appears. You repeat your dance and some food appears again. It works!

So put yourself in the shoes of an ancient farmer; you needed rain, but you had very little knowledge about the weather, atmosphere physics. You fooled around for a while, and probably ate some magic mushroom under the tree, and you got into some form of ecstatic trance. And by the time you woke up it started to rain. Lo and behold, religion was born.
Ancient people who had no knowledge of the world can be forgiven for believing in superstition. But why are we, people born in the age of iPhone and MRI, still believing that kissing your teammate's head could guarantee a victory?

Skinner reasoned that superstition takes over because our brains try and repeat whatever actions precede success, even if we cannot see how they have had their influence. And when the stakes are high-such as in sports-our brains are pressured into finding whatever there is to achieve success, reasonable or not.
In short, superstition is some kind of primal urge within us, to prompt us to do whatever we can regardless of logical explanation to survive in this unforgiving world.
Primal. How unforgiving is that.


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