Superstition: The Faith We All Share
Everyone thinks superstitions are silly. But everyone seems to have one.
BY: John D. Spalding
I was 10 when I discovered I had the power of telepathy. I found if I concentrated hard enough, I could make my pastor pick his nose during his sermon. As pastor Jim went on about, say, how God dangles sinners like spiders over an open fire, I'd inflict a little torment myself. I'd grip the pew and stare at pastor Jim's nose, telegraphing the sensation that something resembling a dry cornflake was clinging inside his nostril. I watched the agony build in his expression, the sweat form on his brow. Finally, Pastor Jim would pop a thumb in his beak and dig, in front of the whole congregation. This was my doing. After all, I did it Sunday after Sunday.
My self-satisfaction about my unique gift was dispelled in junior high, when my science teacher told us about the work of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. In one experiment, Skinner fed hungry, caged pigeons every 15 seconds. The pigeons got the idea that whatever specific behavior they had been doing (pecking, head bobbing) just prior to the feeding had caused the food to appear, and so they did their little rituals before each new feeding. Of course, the birds' behavior had nothing to do with the arrival of the food.
That's when it hit me: I didn't have a superpower; I had a superstition. I may have wanted my pastor to stick his finger up his nose, but nothing I did caused him to. He just happened to be a nose picker. I, and the pigeons, had committed the logical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc--Latin for "after this, therefore because of this." Skinner theorized that this is how all human superstition works. When something favorable happens to us (e.g., we win at cards), we sometimes mistakenly attribute our good fortune to something completely unrelated to it (e.g., our lucky pants).
The outcome, of course, isn't always favorable. Most of the rituals we call superstitions are, in fact, reactions to something negative. A little old lady from Dubuque may have spilled some salt the day the stock market began to slide. She assumes that it's because she failed to toss a pinch of the salt over her left shoulder and into the face of the devil. Her carelessness pushed the Dow to its four-year low.
For some, avoiding bad outcomes creates minor, even entertaining inconveniences. They are forced to shun black cats, avoid cracks in sidewalks, walk around ladders. Some world leaders, including Napoleon, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shared a morbid fear of the number 13. If 13 guests sat down to dine at a party, FDR insisted that his secretary join the table to bring the number to 14. The more the merrier.
But as Voltaire said, superstition also "sets the whole world in flames." Irrational beliefs, fueled by ignorance, fear, and hate, spawn witch-hunts, pogroms, and holy wars. Religion and superstition are easily intertwined. Televangelists prey on superstitious reasoning, because it's so abundant and easily manipulated. (On the other hand, some simply lump the two together. Thomas Jefferson, after "examining all the known superstitions of the world," did "not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature.")