The Evolution Of Superstitious and Superstition-Like Behaviour


Aug 19, 2003
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The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour

Kevin R. Foster1, * & Hanna Kokko2

1Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University, 7 Divinity Avenue, Harvard, MA 02138, USA
2Laboratory of Ecological and Evolutionary Dynamics, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, 00014 Helsinki, Finland

*Author for correspondence [email protected]

Received 16 July 2008; Accepted 12 August 2008



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. ... ltext.html
I've long wondered about the connection (assuming one exists) between superstitions and the "rituals" which are so much a part of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Almost all OCD people are fully cognizant that their ritualistic behaviors, especially of the touching and counting varieties are both stupid and meaningless but nevertheless feel compelled to carry them out through Hell or Hiawatha.