The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour

By | September 11, 2008

This basically says that it is evolutionarily adaptive for humans to have mechanisms of understanding which cause us to believe a number of wrong things.

Superstitious behaviours, which arise through the incorrect assignment of cause and effect, receive considerable attention in psychology and popular culture. Perhaps owing to their seeming irrationality, however, they receive little attention in evolutionary biology. Here we develop a simple model to define the condition under which natural selection will favour assigning causality between two events. This leads to an intuitive inequality–akin to an amalgam of Hamilton’s rule and Pascal’s wager—that shows that natural selection can favour strategies that lead to frequent errors in assessment as long as the occasional correct response carries a large fitness benefit. It follows that incorrect responses are the most common when the probability that two events are really associated is low to moderate: very strong associations are rarely incorrect, while natural selection will rarely favour making very weak associations. Extending the model to include multiple events identifies conditions under which natural selection can favour associating events that are never causally related. Specifically, limitations on assigning causal probabilities to pairs of events can favour strategies that lump non-causal associations with causal ones. We conclude that behaviours which are, or appear, superstitious are an inevitable feature of adaptive behaviour in all organisms, including ourselves. … Although the concept of superstition encompasses a wide range of beliefs and behaviours, most can be united by a single underlying property–the incorrect establishment of cause and effect: ‘ a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation’ (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). In a world increasingly dominated by science, superstitious and indeed religious thinking typically take a back seat in academic affairs. However, superstitions play a central role in many small-scale societies, and indeed remain prevalent in the popular culture of all societies. Why is this? – royalsociety

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