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  • Writer's pictureJeff Lee

Superstitions Don’t Make Us Stupid, They Make Us Human

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

In almost every culture in the world, there exist one form or another believe that mysterious forces will offer protection from bad luck, after a certain ritual is practiced e.g. carrying a lucky charm, performing a prayer, crossing the fingers, touching or knocking on wood.

The origins of such practice are widely available on the internet, in this article, we will be exploring this from a psychological and heuristics stand point.

Not everyone is superstitious with the emergence of science, but it will be safe to say that even the most non-superstitious humans will affected by a local culture that they lived in. Why are humans superstitious beings?

A short answer to start with: because we as humans, think in stories and will always try to find explanations with cause and effects.

The 2 systems of our brain: Thinking Fast and Slow

In 2013, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman published the book: Thinking Fast and Slow . His ideas outlines two systems in which how we think, and how the two systems interact can explain how superstitious thoughts originate and had stuck for millennia.

System 1, represents our immediate gut reactions to the world. It’s the part of our brain that thinks fast and makes snap judgments. System 2 is the slower and rational brain, it is also sometimes refereed to as the cool system, that’s more grounded in objective facts.

A conversation between System 1 and System 2, and why we prefer to indulge into superstition

System 1 : My favorite soccer team won the last match because I didn't watch it live, so I won't be watching tonight's game.

System 2 : Don’t be stupid; with or without you watching won't affect the games. Strategy and players do.

System 1 : But they have lost the previous 2 matches because I watched it live. So I definitely should skip watching the game tonight.

System 2 : You are being ridiculous now, think about it, what are the odds... blah blah blah, by analyzing the odds of the match tonight... blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah... you are not listeni... blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah... OK OK, superstition wins!

As a human being, we willfully ignore Systems 2, that is we cave in to superstitions even when we know they’re illogical. We just don't (or too lazy to) think in statistics , it's simpler when we think in stories and emotions. Here's why we cave into System 1 to indulge the taste of the magical superstition

  1. The human mind tries to find simple cause-and-effect outcomes in order to make sense of the world.

  2. Reinforce the idea of bad things happening when messing with fate (the mysterious power), as the last time you messed with fate, your favorite team lost

  3. Thrives on confirmation bias based on examples from pass experience

Confirmation Bias: Don't F with my belief

A very humanly bias, the Confirmation Bias means that we tend to seek out information that supports or confirms what we already believe, and we tend to ignore or downplay information that might contradict us. Sound familiar?

Confirmation bias can take many different forms, like when you ask your friend, “How do I look with this new hairstyle?” You’re clearly expecting some positive feedback, not an unbiased assessment of your new appearance. You’re looking for information to support what you believe or want to believe, that you looked better with the new hair.

Confirmation bias can lead to terrible error, such as a president strongly believe that a virus pandemic had not affected his country, delaying the response to stop the virus from spreading, ended up with tens of thousands of death. Or an optimistic CEO that believes strongly that the company will be profiting long term with a "one-off" deal, downplaying the shrinking market trend, ended up cutting the workforce in half.

Confirmation bias can be very useful too. If someone makes an argument that your family is worthless to society, it makes sense that you would have some mental armor against that argument, because you are strongly in favor of the opposite, and that's a great thing. You wouldn’t want your core beliefs in life to be subject to change on a whim.

There’s another theory on why superstitions endure despite our knowing better (to the extent of willfully shut System 2 down): Superstitions comfort us, allowing us to feel like we have some sort of a control over a chaotic world, even if our actions are meaningless.

Superstitions don’t make us stupid; they make us human

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