Questionable Motives

June 7, 2010

Is there a benefit from beliving in supernatural agencies?

Filed under: Science,Superstition — tildeb @ 11:57 am

Misunderstoodranter and I have been having a discussion about the evolutionary aspects of religious beliefs. It was with some interest, then, that I read about potential benefits of belief in supernatural agency from Steve Novella over at Neurologica Blog:

The word “superstition” has a pejorative connotation – superstitious beliefs are generally considered to be silly and irrational. People often engage in superstitious behavior with a slightly embarrassed smile, pretending like they don’t take it seriously even while they feel compelled to perform their lucky ritual.

This is all appropriate, in my opinion, as superstitions are magical beliefs. Research has also shown that they are psychologically motivated – a way of dealing with a sense of lack of control. The magical ritual gives us a false sense of control over events.

The motivation for superstitions seems to be dominantly about control. The process is hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection. We see patterns that are not there and then attribute an invisible agent to explain them. At it’s simplest level, this can just be assuming cause and effect for two completely unrelated events, like wearing a certain shirt and the outcome of a sports competition. Some people are struck with the sense that there is some mystical power in the universe that connects these two events.

Recent studies by Damisch et. al. show another aspect of superstition, however – a potentially beneficial effect. Researchers looked at task performance and the carrying out ritual superstitions, like crossing one’s fingers. They found:

“Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

They also found this improved performance effect was partly explained by improved “self efficacy assessment” and partly by increased task persistence. Subjects were more confident and they engaged in the task more. If true that could mean that belief in superstitions may provide a specific selective advantage, and not just be a side effect of our psychological makeup.

I think Steven comes close to falling into the mistake of associating benefit with assuming it translates in selective advantage without any genetic evidence to back that up other than associating common behaviours (or beliefs in this case) in a population with an assumed evolutionary and beneficial component, but wisely uses the word ‘may’. His conclusion, however, is much clearer and one I can fully endorse:

We may therefore be seeing a more general principle – self confidence, even if it is propped up by magical beliefs, translates to better “luck” and performance. But it is the self-confidence that really works, and certainly this can be derived from non-superstitious sources.

I instinctively recoil from vacuous self-affirmations (like Stewart Smalley), but the research does seem to indicate that believing in oneself really does translate into success. I prefer to bolster my self-confidence with knowledge and understanding. Call it the skeptic’s self-affirmation.


  1. LOL – I will take this post as a complement – I enjoyed the debate, and I chuckled at parts of it.

    I think belief can provide some benefits – belief in a leader, in yourself etc etc – but it shouldn’t be the only thing – belief in something that does not work and has no plausible chance of working is stupid – and I think we both agree on that.

    Where we differ (and I might add here – where other atheists differ) is over whether human behaviour and thought can drive evolution or whether evolution drove human thought.

    I honestly do not know I change my view daily on this point – mainly because I am still learning.

    Dawkins puts up a strong argument for his selfish gene – and he probably is right.

    But I will end with this – which I think is where this debate started:

    “It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and in increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection. (Darwin 1871, 166)”

    Thanks Tildeb for taking the time to debate – as always your arguments are very robust.

    Some humble pie for dinner and a good read is what I need after that one.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 7, 2010 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

    • Oh, without question there is excellent data that shows that how we think affects what we think and that we have a rather significant affect on making choices about how we think. Not only can we grow our brains through repeated use (think of recovering stroke victims regaining function even though specific parts of the brain are damaged), but we can pare down our under-utilized dendrites during sleep. Choosing to believe in woo has both a benefit and cost and choosing to be skeptical has both a benefit and a cost, but overall the net gain in having a real choice based on going after what’s true far outweighs accepting and being satisfied with uninformed woo on authoritarian hearsay. Another way to think of it is that when one does not have to partition one’s thinking to protect beliefs in the indefensible from justified criticism while still engaging the world based on what’s true – and has the moral courage to discard unjustified belief and the (false) comfort it brings – then one is able to use one’s whole brain for inquiry. To use a Bush-ism… it’s so free-ifying.

      Comment by tildeb — June 7, 2010 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

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