The Roots Of Random Rituals

by Jessie Roberts

Jim Davies describes how superstition arises from circumstance:

In 1948 the Polish born British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski published a book on a study he conducted of the fishermen of the Trobriand Islands. Sometimes they fished in an inner lagoon, where fishing was pretty predictable. Every time they fished there, they got pretty much the same kind of catch. But they also fished in the open ocean, where the fish were bigger and harder to catch. Sometimes people would get great catches, and other times, terrible ones. The lure of the very rare great catch proved too tempting for the Trobrianders, so they ventured into the open ocean despite the odds—and developed a set of superstitions. These included rituals performed during fishing and the casting of magic spells.

The circumstance dictated the explosion of rituals. We might think this is a completely human adaptation. But it turns out that the tendency to resort to ritual in an effort to manage a challenging situation isn’t exclusive to humans. In the same year that Malinowski published his experiment, American psychologist B. F. Skinner found that he could generate superstitious behavior in pigeons. He taught pigeons to press down on a bar in exchange for food. All animals can learn to do this, and this learning process is called reinforcement. But an interesting thing happens if the food is given at random intervals—that is, pressing the bar sometimes does, and sometimes does not, produce a treat, with no discernable pattern. Under these conditions, but not under reliable conditions, the pigeon will start repeating arbitrary, idiosyncratic behaviors before pressing the bar. It might bob its head, or turn around twice. The pigeon becomes superstitious.