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.