Superstitions Aren’t Silly; They’re Evolutionary.

By Boonsri Dickinson | September 25, 2008 12:17 pm

number-13.jpgBreak a mirror and you’re stuck with bad luck. Walk under a ladder and you’re tempting fate. Sound ridiculous? Scientists believe such beliefs may be genetic, part of adaptive behaviors passed on to create an evolutionary advantage to surviving impeding danger.

Boiled down, a superstition is the belief that one event caused another event, without any evidence of the link. “All animals will display behaviors that imply a causal relationship that isn’t there,” says Kevin Foster, evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. Foster uses a pigeon as an example: The pigeon will take flight if it hears a hand clap, the same way it would react if it heard a gun shot.

Foster collaborated with Hanna Kokko of the University of Helsinki to build computer models to create simulations of what happens when an animal links a cause-and-effect event to avoid danger. The team compared real dangers, like the sound of rustling grass when a predator approaches, to the sound of rustling grass caused by something innocuous, like the wind. The researchers presumed that even though the animal might be overreacting to the harmless sounds, when a predator is actually approaching, the superstitious behavior could save its life.

Likewise, the researchers said that in humans, the superstitious belief that walking under a ladder will give you bad luck is a result of common sense: Others have, in all likelihood, gotten hurt from walking under a ladder due to the inherent danger of being in a construction zone.

The researchers concluded that people adopt these behaviors to make sense of the world around them in the context of their culture. Therefore humans tend to associate events in their lives, and sometimes end up making “superstitious mistakes.”

We say, so what: Just cross your fingers.

Credit: flickr/ Luc De Leeuw

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