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Is it Good to be Superstitious?

Superstition

 

If you compliment another person, you must quickly knock on wood to prevent bad luck that might occur to this person, that an evil eye might bring about bad luck. Many people inherit their superstitious beliefs from society or family, and pass those beliefs down to their children. But is it good to be superstitious?

A Series of Unfortunate Events 

A psychologist from Connecticut College named Stuart Vyse reported that over half of all Americans were at at least a little superstitious. Psychologists have tackled this question before, and the most resounding argument is that it is a way of assuming more control over their lives.

People who don’t feel independent or in control of their lives turn to superstition as a way of gaining more control. But Carl Jung, in his book “Modern Man in Search of a Soul“, outlines a profound point that’s not given enough credit, especially today. Namely that superstitious, primitive man is not less rational than the modern person for believing in what he does. In fact, he is reaching logical conclusions in the same way a person who is not superstitious would.

Jung spent time with people from Papa New Guinea and observed how they reacted when an out of the ordinary event occurred – a natural disaster for example. They immediately concluded that the gods were angry at them, or they would find dubious links between unrelated events – that would seem silly to us today.

If an animal was killed at the same time as a member from the tribe, it would be clear to all the other members of the tribe that the person who killed the animal is also responsible for the death of the tribe member. If a villager started their day with a misstep, a clumsy slip, or if anything out of the ordinary happens to them – they would choose to abandon everything  else they planned on doing that day.

For a modern person, causal links need to be much more rigorously defined. You cannot assume the causal order of events based only on the fact that they happen to correlate. There needs to be a rational explanation for that causal mechanism.

But the tribes of Papa New Guinea would look at your behavior with equal astonishment. They believe that all events are related, and that chance events don’t occur. And based on their presupposition, they would be perfectly rational in believing that.

When they encounter an unexpected break in a chain of predictable events, it’s a sign for them to take extreme caution. Pragmatically, there’s a lot of wisdom in that.

This goes back to the notion of truth that Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris debated about. If you take Peterson’s more pragmatic understanding of truth – that what is “true” is equivalent to saying what is conducive to the flourishing of human beings from an evolutionary biological perspective.

Overcompensation 

In Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) which I’ve reviewed, he talks about the virtues of following negative principles.  To illustrate the former, imagine you wanted to protect yourself in an environment that was unpredictable and unsafe, a jungle for example. You should not assume you can predict events with precision and make your plans based on that prediction. It would be wiser to figure out what to avoid doing instead.

If there was a rule that told you to avoid making further plans if something out of the ordinary happens to you (you take a bad step, or slip), then you should follow it even if you don’t necessarily understand the causal mechanism behind it. There are two presumptions being made here.

The first presumption is that you are ignorant, that you have an imperfect picture of reality. Relying on the customs and traditions of your ancestors that have survived thousands of years is more reliable that relying on your own limited knowledge

The second presumption is a general belief about knowledge in general – namely, to avoid putting too much faith in it. Positive advice is what you get when you ask a consultant to give you a detailed financial plan, negative advice is what you get when you ask your wise grandmother what you should watch out for in life. The former contains a lot more detailed information, and promises certain results while negative advice contains very little information, and promises very little, but is less likely to cause you harm.

Better Safe than Sorry

The modern scientific mind will instantly try to dismiss this thinking with the idea that unless you find a clear correlation (predictability) between the first event (the misstep) and future events (making another mistake), you should just carry as you normally would. The problem is that being wrong could cost you your life, and so it is better to overcompensate with caution than to take risks.

After-all, we don’t understand why we took that misstep. It could be that our energy levels were low, that we needed more rest, that our minds were distracted, or that our muscles were tired. There could be an infinite number of explanations for why that misstep occurred. And in an environment where absolutely anything can go wrong and cost us our lives, behaving superstitiously is perfectly rational.

This isn’t just restricted to the jungles of Papa New Guinea. Imagine you had to drive to work on a highway with thousands of speeding cars, and you needed to maintain precise focus of your machine to make it to work in one piece. And imagine you uncharacteristically tripped while you were making your way to the car. Is it an obviously rational decision to go to work regardless?

Is superstition a bad thing? Mostly, yes. Behaving superstitiously and holding on to beliefs that are divorced from reality will harm your well-being, and potentially others around you. But being superstitious is not always harmful. If superstitious beliefs help you avert disaster by exhibiting too much caution, then it can be a force of good. But if it’s holding you back from seeking urgent medical treatment, then it can be catastrophic.

However, it is always best to suspend judgement when it comes to assessing the rationality of other people who act superstitiously. There’s little benefit – intellectually or otherwise – from being presumptuous and condescending to people who think differently from you. There is always more wisdom in human behavior than we think.

2 replies on “Is it Good to be Superstitious?”

Thank you for your comment. It may be true that removing superstition can be practically beneficial for some people, but I personally see no reason to believe that it will be so for all people.

While I agree with your general analysis, I believe that it’s not true that we shouldn’t argue with those we care about. Removing superstition from your life actually gives you more control when you understand that there is no mysterious or external power affecting outcomes..

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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