The Science of Superstition Part II

Its Developmental and Bioevolutionary Foundations

Summary of Part I

In Part I of this 2-part article, I began by listing the typical superstitious behavior college students engage in before taking a test. I identified the conditions of superstition, what superstition is and then added the range of its scope. My piece is about socially shared and personal superstitions rather than about paranormal or spiritual beliefs. From there I probed the demography of superstition including occupations, social class and gender. Next, I talked about the importance of Pavlov’s theory of associations as well of Skinner’s consequential reinforcement in the acquiring of superstitions. I analyzed the attachment to places and objects and the theory of contagion that underlines both. Lastly, I explained the evolutionary psychological  reasons why creationism has more appeal for people than Darwinian natural section. As I mentioned in Part I this article is based on 2 books, The Science of Superstition by Bruce M. Hood and Believing in Magic by Stewart Vyse.

Growing Up Superstitious

Wishing and reality

Until Piaget’s concrete operational stage children are unclear what is the relationship between their mind and reality. Young children are not sure about the relationship between mental thoughts and actions. They think that wishing can cause things to actually happen. For example, Hood reports on children making wishes with birthday cakes with candles or when English schoolchildren bring in mascots to examinations to set up at the front of their desks. It is only after the age of seven that mind and reality are mostly differentiated

How do children understand solid and liquid objects

Hood points out that by their first birthday very young children have solid objects pretty much figured out, but they are still not sure about non-solid objects like liquid, sand and jello. They know that solid objects cannot float in thin air and they stare in amazement if shown a conjurer’s illusion to create this effect. Only after some years at school can children start to understand that while some things are improbable, they are not necessarily impossible. Skepticism is not learned until Piaget’s formal operations stage of thinking which begins, if it begins at all, in high school.

Child development beyond Piaget

Here are some of the original findings from Piaget about early childhood.

  • Out of sight out of existence: if babies cannot see an object, they think it no longer exists.
  • They do not understand objects as separate from themselves.
  • The baby believes that its own act of searching will magically recreate the object.
  • Young children behave as if their minds and action can control the world.
  • Children before the age of seven imagine that the name of the object is directly connected to the object
  • They do not understand that dreams originate inside of them as opposed to coming from the external world.
  • The inanimate world is alive. Piaget called this animism, meaning attributing a soul (anima) to an entity.
  • Children are also more prone to anthropomorphism: they think about nonhuman things as if they were human. This applies to pets and dolls.
  • Teleological thinking means thinking in terms of function – what something has been designed for. Hood gives the example that for teenagers there are many ways to travel down a hillside like walking, skipping, running, rollerblading skateboarding and sledding. But no teenager would make the mistake of saying the hill exists because of any of these different activities.

Hood points out at that magic trick experiments have revolutionized the way we interrogate babies about what they know. In other words, magicians trained in perceptual illusions will show the baby these magic tricks. The psychologists will judge their perceptual stage of development by whether or not children are surprised by magical tricks. According to these new techniques, some of Piaget’s research has become dated. Hood says that there are rules for objective knowledge that must be built on from birth.

  • Objects do not go in and out of existence like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.
  • Other solid objects cannot move through them.
  • Objects are bounded so that they do not break up and then come back together again.
  • Objects move on continuous paths so they cannot teleport from one part of the room to another without being seen as crossing in between.
  • Objects generally only move when something else makes them move by force of collision.

Otherwise, the objects are living things.

Ontological fusion

Babies must first decide if something is an object, a living thing or a living thing that possesses a mind. When you play the game of twenty questions the first question

starts with “is it an animal, mineral or vegetable?”. This narrows the focus. Children generate naïve theories that explain the physical world, the living world and eventually the psychological world of other people. This is tricky because sometimes objects do not fall straight down; sometimes living things do not move; and sometimes moving things are not alive (toys powered by batteries).  Slinkies are another example of a toy that seems to come to life. Children might think that a burning chair feels pain or that a bicycle aches after being kicked. Children may believe they can affect reality by thinking. This is the basis of psychokinesis.

In part, this ontological fusion of the physical and biological worlds exists in order to explain the causes of events. Ontological fusion occurs if a child thinks a toy (physical property) can come alive at night (biological property) and has intentions (psychological property). All these would represent a violation of the natural order.

This is understandable since the causes and mechanisms they are trying to reason about are invisible. This invisibility is a foundation stone for superstitious thinking.  

Transition objects as examples of animism and anthropomorphism

Hood informs us that one half to three quarters of all children form an emotional bond to a specific soft toy or blanket during their second year of life. They need them for reassurance when they are frightened or lonely. These objects enable the infant to make the transitions from sleeping with their mother to sleeping alone. Interestingly, transitional objects are more common in Western cultures but rare in Japan where the children sleep with their mothers well into late childhood.

What is Essentialism?

What is essentialism and what is its opposite? According to Susan Gelman, in her book The Essential Child, essential entities are discovered while non-essential entities are invented. Essential categories are intrinsic. Non-essential entities are a product of external forces. A sign of something considered to be essential is that it appears to be  unalterable, whereas something non-essential can easily be changed. Whatever is considered as essential, it remains stable across transformation. The non-essential changes across transformations. What is essential usually occurs below the surface while what is non-essential occurs on the surface of things. The traits of the essential are mutually exclusive while the non-essential have traits which are overlapping. Essential characteristics have sharp boundaries, while non-essential phenomenon have boundaries which bleed into each other. A concrete example of this is the relationship between nature and nurture. It used to be thought that nature was unchanging essential whereas nurture was non-essential and changeable. In philosophy Plato thought that otherworldly, eternal forms were essences while the changing natural and social worlds were inessential appearances.

In perfume, essences are the concentrated reduced quantity of a fragrant substance after all the impurities have been removed.  Special things are considered unique by virtue of something deep and irreplaceable. Apple seeds grown in flowerpots become apple trees. It appears there is something inside that cannot be changed. The idea that you can absorb someone’s essence is a recurrent theme in the explanations of cannibalism. Youth, energy, beauty, temperament, strength and even sexual preferences are essential qualities that we attribute to others. However, the more essential a quality is deemed to be, the greater the potential for contamination. The superstitious belief is that we can absorb the good essences of others. If the victim was young the muscular parts were given to the village boys to eat so they could absorb his power and valor.

In the philosophy of vitalism, vitalism is a life force, something that is in living animals but not in dead ones. Vitalists claim that life does not obey the known laws of physics and chemistry. When you kill a large animal close up, you can experience a sense that something leaves the body. The concept of enduring life energy is not entirely wrong.  The living body does generate energy in that it converts energy from one source to another. That’s what a metabolism is. Psychological essentialism is one of the main foundations of the universal supernatural belief that there is something more to reality. Both good and evil are perceived to be tangible essences that can be transmitted through items of clothing and contaminates them for better or for worse.

Children’s essentialism

Children assume the living world is permeated by invisible life forces and patterns that define which of the three ontological categories they belong. They assume there are essences that define what a living thing is. Children’s intuitive biology sows the seeds of its supernaturalism. It is not until age six or seven that children begin to understand what it is to be alive.

Adult essentialism

For many adults, essential, vital and connected properties operate in the world that go beyond what is scientifically proven. Hood gives us an example of kidney donation, in which the person felt they shared a link with someone because part of her was inside them. Around one in three transplant patients believe they inherit the psychological properties of the donor. The supernatural belief is that the psychological aspects of an individual are stored in organ tissue and can be transferred to the host recipient. Hood points out that:

While biological contamination through viruses and microbial infections is a real mode of transference between individuals, we also believe that other non-physical properties such as vitality, morality and even identity can similarly be transferred as if they were physical entities (194). Personal possessions, items of clothing and former dwellings of significant others will take on something of the previous owner. (195) …psychological contamination emerges naturally out of psychological essentialism (247).

The Social Mind

Long before the individual mind becomes reflective of their own psychology, the individual must first realize that others have minds which give meaning and have intentions as well. Our social nature depends on our ability to be mind-readers. Most of our thoughts are about other people. In becoming sociable mind-readers, children start to think about how minds are separate from bodies. This kind of thinking prepares the ground for some very strong supernatural belief about the body, mind and soul. Whether we are reflecting on our own mind or inferring what’s going on in the mind of others, we are treating minds as separate from bodies. Remember that we can see how our bodies change and age when we look in the mirror. But we cannot step outside our minds and see how they age in a mirror. How can a physical thing like the brain create the mental world we inhabit? Furthermore, we have no natural explanation of how something that has no physical dimensions (the mind) can produce changes in the physical world through our thoughts and actions. If minds are not hinged to the physical brain then mind is not subject to the same destiny as our physical bodies.

Social origins of ghosts

In adulthood we need to figure out our friends from our foes. We increasingly learn the subtleties of social interaction. We readily remember every occurrence when we sensed this discomfort that proved justified, but we conveniently forget every time when we were wrong (confirmation bias) and read too much into the situation. This is amplified by our increasing global social connectedness to others and our attention to their eyes. The emotional arousal we experience when we are being stared at simply reinforces the sense that we can detect another’s gaze even when we can’t see them.

Hood asks us if you haven’t you ever felt the pang of guilt when you have done something wrong and wondered whether someone saw you doing it? Sometimes the thought of someone watching us from beyond the grave is enough to make us behave ourselves. In fact, the psychologist Jesse Bering thinks that belief in ghosts and spirits may have evolved as a mechanism designed to make us behave ourselves when we think we are being watched.

From Being Stared at to Paranoia

Thinking that others are watching you and talking about you is a classic symptom of paranoia. Not surprisingly, supernatural beliefs are a major feature of psychotic disorders of mania and schizophrenia. We can all sense patterns, but psychotic patients are more prone to do so all the time. Superstitious thinking becomes pathological when episodes of paranoia start to dominate and control the individual’s life. They may even attribute such thoughts as coming from some outside source. That is why schizophrenics often think their thoughts are being transmitted or invaded by outside signals. Everything is given significance. Every single thing means something. They vehemently deny Freud’s quip that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. They believe there is a hidden connection to everything that happens. They see themselves as extended beyond their bodies and connected to an invisible oneness of the universe.

Is Superstition Abnormal?

Hood approaches the relationship between abnormality and superstition questions in two ways:

  • We will try to define abnormal behavior and measure examples of superstitious behavior against our definition.
  • We will identify known mental disorders that have features resembling superstitious behavior or paranormal beliefs and see what, if any, relationship they have to common superstitions.

David Rosenhan and Martin Seligman have proposed a family approach to abnormal behavior. They have named several properties of abnormality. A person’s behavior might not have all seven elements, but if several are present with sufficient severity then the label of abnormal can be applied with some confidence. The elements include:

  • experience of suffering;
  • maladaptiveness to work, romance and friends;
  • Irrationality and incomprehensibility;
  • unpredictability, loss of control;
  • statistical infrequency;
  • observer discomfort; and
  • violation of moral or ethical standards.

Let us apply the seven criteria to superstitious behavior.

Based on Rosenhan and Seligman’s criteria, most superstitions are not abnormal.

In most cases, superstitions do not produce suffering. In fact, some cases they produce some psychological benefit. Most superstitions are not maladaptive. An athlete using a lucky charm is not likely to affect his play or his life. Most popular superstitions are socially shared and personal superstitions are benign. They are maladaptive when it wastes time that could have been spent studying or resting. But these are minor issues.

The irrationality of most superstitious behavior is mild compared to the schizophrenic thought disorders. Superstitious behavior is not unpredictable. In fact, superstitious behavior is designed to have more control. Are friends or strangers uncomfortable in the presence of superstitious behavior? Not likely. If anything, a friend’s lucky charm is a source of amusement and teasing. Finally, in most cases, superstitious behavior does not violate moral or idea standards. Some religions hold that superstitious behavior is a form of paganism and an affront to God. But this is not a popular attitude. The violation of ideal standards is also pretty rare. Superstitions rarely interfere with the normal standards of behavior. They maintain love relationships, jobs, families, and as a group they are no more aggressive, depressed or shy than the general public. We do not seek psychological services for the treatment of belief in astrology. Nevertheless, the converse is not true. Some serious mental disorders do include forms of superstition. Let us look at Rosenhan’s and Seligman’s criteria and the results.

Is Abnormal Behavior Superstitious?


Stuart Vyse points out that neurotics have emotionally distressing symptoms and unwelcome psychological states but their behavior is still within the boundaries of social systems. In addition, there are many anxious and fearful people who think superstitions are silly.

Obsessive–compulsive disorder

Remember in Part I when we discussed the difference between a routine and a mindless ritual? The disorder with features most akin to normal superstitions is obsessive, compulsive behavior (OCD). The primary features are obsessions with unwanted, often disturbing, thoughts and impulses that occur repeatedly and are difficult to control. Compulsions are behavioral responses. Mistakes in the superstitious ritual must be repeated again from the beginning. Obsessive-compulsive disorders resemble common superstitions, especially superstitions involving bad luck, avoiding black cats in your path and stepping on cracks on pavement. But is superstition causing obsessive compulsive behavior. The answer is no. The superstitions are there as an attempt to control the obsessions and compulsions. If cognitive therapists like Albert Ellis insisted on making fun of or talking the patient out of the superstitions, that would not make the obsessions and compulsions to go away.


Psychosis is characterized by profound disturbances in thought and emotion. People suffer from hallucinations and delusions of grandeur. The schizophrenic imagines their thoughts being controlled by outside forces or that someone is out to get them (delusions of persecution). While superstition is a factor in predicting schizophrenia, superstitions do not cause schizophrenia. They are a product of schizophrenia which is primarily a bio-chemical problem.

On the whole, superstitions are not signs of abnormality. It is more a question of how many superstitions people have rather than whether they have them at all. While some extreme disorders like schizophrenia clearly involve superstitions, many disorders do not. Cognitive psychology points out eight typical thinking errors that can make people unnecessarily miserable but none of these qualify as superstitions.

Dopamine: the brain’s supernatural signaler?

Hood suggests that there may well be a chemical foundation for superstition:

If there is a smoking gun for the biological basis of the superstition it seems to be firmly held by the hand of dopamine. Apophenia represents abnormally excessive activity of the dopamine system that leads individuals to detect more coincidence in the world and can see patterns that the rest of us miss. (238)

If Superstition is not Abnormal, is it Irrational?

According to Hood, beliefs are rational if they draw conclusions which are valid (following formal logic) and sound ( following the rules of informal logic) from the evidence available. But often the true nature of events in many cases is hidden, meaning ones’ beliefs can be based on the best of what is known yet could be false. However, in the case of superstitious thinking or behavior it is based on beliefs which are inconsistent with the available scientific facts.

If a young man bought the lottery ticket purely out of a belief that it directly affected the lottery results, we must label his action irrational. When superstitions interfere with the more reasoned responses to a situation, we must put them in the irrational category. But if it indirectly produces a positive emotional effect that leads to a temporary good mood, a secondary gain can be in the form of entertainment (temporary distraction), it is rational. The ticket was purchased based not on a belief in superstition. The rationality of the superstition rests on the expected utilities of other benefits provided it be inexpensive. When might superstition be rational?

  • great uncertainty;
  • stakes are high;
  • time is short;
  • the superstition is inexpensive;
  • scientific research is inconclusive; and
  • we have exhausted problem analysis and decision-making possibilities.

When superstition is irrational:

  • there is little uncertainty;
  • the stakes are low;
  • there is plenty of time before the event occur;
  • the superstition is expensive (calls to psychic advisers);
  • scientific research is ignored; and
  • problem solving analysis and rational decision-making is ignored or done badly.

Conclusion to Whether Superstition is Abnormal and Irrational

  • Superstition is not an abnormal behavior.
  • Under some circumstances superstition is rational and under others irrational.

The Two Parts of the Brain

Characteristics of the ancestral brain

At the end of my article The Haphazard Conflicted Brain I developed a table which contrasted the ancient brain to the deliberate system of the brain. I used the table to explain why the brain is erratic and why it is impossible to use the deliberative side of the brain all the time. This same table helps us to understand why superstition is part of the ancestral brain. Superstition can be contained but not eliminated. The ancestral part of the brain works fast, automatically and unconsciously. It uses heuristic shortcuts and its knowledge is implicit. It ontologically fuses physical, living and psychological phenomena which has a lot to do with superstitious ideas.

The ancient brain is teleological, anthropomorphic

This ancient brain does not understand how Darwinian natural selection can be creative of new processes because human beings don’t live long enough to actually witness this slow, creative change. Instead, the ancestral brain imagines creative change teleologically as caused by God, just as human design is responsible for carrying out human plans.

This same ancestral brain animates the non-living because in our early history we had no scientific knowledge about the origin of life. The ancestral brain anthropomorphizes inanimate nature and life from a survival point of view. Sadly, human beings are more dangerous to each other than any life form. In an ambiguous and dangerous situation it is safer to imagine that what is rustling in the woods might be a human being rather than the wind. To image that sound might be the wind and be wrong might get you killed. On the other hand, if you guess wrong and it is not a human being there is little cost (it’s only the wind).

Ancestral mind is essentialist

The ancestorial mind is essentialist. It believes beings have an unchanging inner core that makes things what they are. Interactions with other forces, be they rocks, trees, plants, animals, or humans can contaminate essences often times for the worse. This is also an important part of superstition. However, there is hope that we might absorb the good essences of others. The opposite of essences is contextualism, the degree to which animals, plants and humans are products of physical, biological and sociological contexts. Again, a knowledge of human and animal life that is based on Darwinian adaptation to environments is far too late in human history to be part of the ancestral brain.

Ancestral brain accepts René Descartes’ mind-body dualism

Lastly, the epistemological roots of the ancestral brain and superstition is Descartes’ dualistic separation of the mind from the body. This is because experientially our thinking processes seem not to be rooted in anything physical. Most people today still think the mind is independent of the body. Again, this is because the discovery of the brain as the seat of mentality was too late in evolutionary history to be incorporated into the ancestral brain. The heart of superstition is the fact that the deeper causes of events are invisible to us. Without understanding how these invisible processes work, we project beings who are responsible – ghosts, spirits, lucky charms or gods.

The deliberate brain is for the post part the product of science. It works slowly, consciously, methodically and intentionally with explicit knowledge according to a plan. It does not fuse ontological categories, keeping the physical, biological and psychological separate from contamination. It understands chance and coincidence and does not overly interpret events as pattens and meaning when there aren’t any. Epistemologically, most scientists do not accept Descartes’ mind-body dualism. They are either physicalists, claiming the mind is either identical to the body or that the mind is an emergent property of the body.

Here is a summary:

Two Parts of the Brain

Ancient brain:

  • Intuitive
  • Natural
  • Automatic
  • Heuristic
  • Implicit
  • Sensori-motor, preoperational
  • Ontological fusion
  • Teleological
  • Anthropomorphic
  • Psychological contamination
  • Essentialism
  • Effortlessness
  • Covert
  • Fast
  • Prone to superstition
  • Mind-body dualism
  • Most of human history up until the 17th century

Deliberative mind

  • Conceptual—logical
  • Rational
  • Intentional
  • Planned out
  • Explicit
  • Concrete or formal operational
  • Ontological distinction
  • Non-teleological: necessary and probability
  • Sees nature as it is
  • Biological contamination
  • Contexualism
  • Effortful
  • Overt
  • Slow
  • Marginal superstition
  • Physicalism or mind as an emergent property of matter
  • Blossoms in the 17th century with the scientific revolution

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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