Genes for Superstition????

I was delighted to see that “SuperSense” got a plug in today’s “Independent.” Dr Kevin Foster and Dr Hanna Kokko have published a paper on the evolution of superstitious behavior in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society. By applying cost benefit mathematical modeling they have been able to show how superstitious behavior could evolve as an adaptation. In other words there could be genes that build brains that lead to superstition.

Specifically, they have argued that superstitions arise from a common error of reasoning where humans make wrong assumptions about cause and effect. Very often when two events happen close in time, the natural tendency is to assume that they are causally related. For example, imagine that you have a surprisingly good day on the tennis court or at the poker table. How do you explain it? What did you do differently from the day before? Maybe it was the mismatching socks you wore? So you repeat the odd socks routine and very soon you have developed your own personal superstition.

Foster and Kokko argue that just like altruism (something that has also been similarly modeled and talked about in Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”) so long as the mismatching mechanism in the brain occasionally gets it right then this can outweigh all the times superstitions get it wrong. And they have proven this mathematically. “The results are clear,” Foster says. “Being superstitious makes sense in an uncertain world.”

I have no problem with this.  However, such research has a very narrow definition of what superstition is and moreover, does not explain why certain superstitions exist. Rather their analysis focuses on whether such behaviors could be adaptive. 

Genes for superstition? I can hear Richard Dawkins stamping his feet now!

Thanks Sanjida for sending me this.



Filed under book publicity, In the News, Newspaper, Research

10 responses to “Genes for Superstition????

  1. Katie

    Excellent plug for the book! I agree that the Foster and Kokko argument seems a bit too 1+2=3 considering it’s discussing such an inherently complicated human tendency like superstition – this is a good sign that Supersense is having a good place created for it in the media.

    And I’m all for Dawkins being wound up – it’s makes good telly!

  2. Arno

    Free advertising! Nice! One thing though, Bruce:
    “What is magic today may become science tomorrow.”
    Prepare for quote-mining. That sentence just begs to be taken out of context.

  3. brucehood

    Arno… don’t be alarmed. I didn’t say that and I am not sure what the point of including it was other than to cast a bit of doubt about scientific skepticism.
    Here was my actual email to the journalist verbatim.

    “I had a quick read of it… Pretty much a mathematical model of cost-benefit analysis. In fact, they actually say that the model says nothing about the psychology of superstitious belief but rather, whether the behaviours based on them are overall adaptive. The same logic applies to altruism. I would say that their definition of superstition is very narrow so I think that it really describes a mechanism by which beliefs could propagate in a population, not where they come from in the first place – that’s my focus!”

    So it wasn’t my quote. Still… very happy that the book has been plugged!

  4. Arno

    Then I am curious where that comment came from. It’s almost like what happened with Francis Crick; some people still claim that he doubts evolution or that he believes in UFO’s, only because of some brutally abused quotes, a lack of knowledge on the context of Crick’s comments and misinterpreting pure philosophical ideas as being someone’s personal beliefs.

    Keep an eye on your mailbox, I am curious how much email you will receive for supposedly having said that science and magic are the same thing, even though you didn’t say that.

  5. brucehood

    I just spoke with Sanjida, who wrote the article and as I expected she assures me that the quote was added during the editorial process. That’s the nature of the media beast. So don’t believe everything you read… especially if it has been interpreted by minds that are trying to make a story.

  6. Congratulations on th’ review, ‘n th’ chance t’ be misquoted! ’tis a sign o’ good thin’s t’ come I be sure!

    As fer th’ nature o’ superstition, I ‘ave t’ say havin’ sprogs has given me some solid first hand evidence that our brains commandeer onto thin’s smartly, ‘n nah always rationally.

    ’tis like gamblin’, if ye win one $500 jackpot, even if ye ‘ave spent $10,000 tryin’ t’ win it, ye really feel as though ye could hit that big one any day now!!

    Oh, ‘n Happy National Natterin’ Like a Pirate Day from yer matey across th’ pond!

  7. You know, it turns out pirate speak removes almost all discernible meaning from a comment.

    So, in plain English, though not the King’s English;
    My experience with my kids has made it easy for me to believe in a genetic predisposition for superstition. Children latch onto things very quickly, if irrationally. (Like serious gamblers, if you give them a cookie once after they do something, they will continue to do that thing, even if they never see another cookie, certain that someday they will get another cookie.)

  8. brucehood

    I get the cut of your jib Scylla (nautical expression – as a once sea-faring empire, English is full of such expressions).

    There is a whole field of learning theory that explains such behavior. What you are referring to is technically known as “partial reinforcement.”
    Intermittent reward (such as gambling) eventually leads to stronger established behaviors that are difficult to abandon.

    Don’t worry the book is about more juicey issues!

  9. Thomas Moran

    I think if you’re going to discuss the genetic connection to superstition you should list a few examples and go from there so as to have an explicit target and core to consider. For instance, would religious beliefs be considered superstitious?

    Just a little note for whining about, I would say some 90+% of the human beings in the world are encumbered with genes that make them susceptible to superstitious thoughts. History shows this genetic trait is omnipotent in the affairs of humans.

  10. Rox

    Is it superstitious to be wary of an eery noise which might be an animal which might kill you ? It would be a good bit of evolution to be inclined to be concerned. Even a frightening storm, caused by the gods (who else could do it ?) might harm you, especially if it blows down your shelter or you are hit by lightning,

    Some people think that if they mutter the same essentially meaningless formula several times a day (often in a language they don’t understand) it will improve the better life they enjoy after they die, and help prevent them being punished for their naughtiness —- after they are dead ! I would call that superstition. They even believe (in large numbers, in the right circumstances) that it was muttering a suitable formula which saved them from a man-made or natural disaster like bombing or an earthquake, despite many people who muttered exactly the same formula dying. Many people seem totally convinced of this, and I don’t know what one can do about them. Leave them alone, I suppose.

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