The Human Factor: Superstition

Feb 4, 2013

Pigeons eating a bagel in Times Square.
Pigeons eating a bagel in Times Square.
Credit vpickering / flickr

Superstitious behaviors, or the belief that supernatural forces have a causal effect on events, are prevalent throughout all human cultures.

But humans aren’t the only beings subject to this behavior. In fact, scientific research on superstitious behavior began accidentally with pigeons.

B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist, noticed that when pigeons were reinforced intermittently with food regardless of their behaviors, they began developing strange dances. If the pigeon happened to be turning in a circle when the food arrived, it would associate that behavior with more food. These behaviors became ever more complex over time, and eventually the pigeons would be spinning in circles, bobbing their heads four times, and flapping their wings in an attempt for more food to arrive.

We’ve come to find that the same reinforcement schedules can lead to similar behaviors in humans. Lucky rabbits feet, horoscopes and crossing fingers are all examples of the human version of the pigeon dances.

Sports are notoriously interlaced with superstition. Baseball, for example, is infested with superstitious behaviors: The Curse of the Bambino, stepping on the foul line while approaching the base, chewing gum, putting cabbage under your hat.

You might say, “Maybe they help?”

This is where statistical evidence comes in. Superstitious behaviors are much more likely to occur when the probability of success is low.

You don’t find left-fielders sticking cabbage under their hat on their way to the field, where they have more than a 95 percent chance of success. But when the 2nd baseman with an average of .200, a 20 percent chance of success goes up to bat, you better believe he’s got cabbage under his hat.