Superstition is a term used to refer to a set of behaviors that may be faith based, or related to magical thinking, whereby the practitioner believes that the future, or the outcome of certain events, can be influenced by certain of his or her behaviors.
Critics argue that superstition is not based on reason, but instead springs from religious feelings that are misdirected or unenlightened, which leads in some cases to rigor in religious opinions or practice, and in other cases to belief in extraordinary events or in charms, omens, and prognostics. Many superstitions can be prompted by misunderstandings of causality or statistics.
Any of the above can lead to unfounded fears, or excessive scrupulosity in outward observances.
Fanaticism, some argue, arises from this same displaced religious feeling, in a state of high-wrought and self-confident excitement. Such unquestioning loyalty can apply to politics and ideologies as well as religion; indeed, it can even be focused on sports teams and celebrities.
Whatever the cause, superstition can lead to a disregard of reason under the false assumption of a divine or paranormal form of control over the universe.
A gambler might credit a winning streak in poker to a "lucky rabbit's foot" or to sitting in a certain chair, rather than to skill or to the law of averages.
An airline passenger might believe that it is a medal of St Christopher (traditional patron saint of travellers) that keeps him safe in the air, rather than the fact that airplanes statistically crash very rarely.
Superstition is also used to refer to folkloric belief systems, usually as juxtaposed to another religion's idea of the spiritual world, or as juxtaposed to science.
Superstition and behavioral psychology
The behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior".
He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they continued to perform the same actions:
- One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. ("'Superstition' in the Pigeon", B.F. Skinner, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947 )
Skinner suggested that the pigeons believed that they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that the experiment also shed light on human behavior:
- The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else. (Ibid.)
Like the pigeons, many people associate behavior (head-turning or worship of false gods) with an external phenomenon (delivery of food or conquest by a foreign power) that was not necessarily connected in any way with personal behavior. Any misfortune could thus be interpreted as a sign of divine disfavor, whether or not the individuals who suffered bore direct responsibility.
- Iona Opie & Moira Tatem - A Dictionary of Superstitions
Some of this text is from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) -- update as needed.