On Thursday, Events Editor Julia Tolda joined Columbia Science Review’s webinar, “Decisions, Decisions: How Superstitions Drive Choice,” to learn more about the science behind superstitions and descriptive decision-making. 

I wish on eyelashes, on birthday candles, and whenever the clock strikes 11:11. I don’t sweep over people’s feet, because that would ruin their chances at marriage, nor open the front door at others’ homes, because that means I won’t return. Superstitions have always been a part of my life, but I never considered them through a scientific lens until attending CSR’s event. 

On Thursday night, moderator Alli Greenberg was joined by Columbia Professors Melissa Fusco and Katherine Fox-Glassman to discuss superstitions through psychology and philosophy. 

Professor Fusco has been a part of the Columbia University Department of Philosophy since 2016. Her work focuses on the philosophy of language, decision theory, and philosophical logic. She described her research areas as the blurred line between linguistics and philosophy, concentrating on the overlap between the two disciplines. Professor Fox-Glassman is part of the Columbia Psychology Department, teaching courses on statistics, research methods, as well as judgment and decision-making. Initially focused on seismology and vulcanology, Professor Fox-Glassman became fascinated with case studies about towns built atop ruins. This led her to research risk perception and decision-making under uncertainty. 

When asked about their definitions of superstition, Professor Fusco cited a passage from “Evidence, Decision, and Causality” by Arif Ahmed: “causality is a pointless superstition.” In distinguishing causation from correlation, scientists rely on the fact that data gives us connection but not cause. But the question remains: how do you establish causation if you can’t establish it from data? How do we know it even exists? Professor Fusco applied this skepticism to free will and superstition. It is impossible to postulate them, but also impossible to live without them. 

Professor Fox-Glassman defined superstition as a belief in a supernatural, external, not-understood power. In a world where outcomes are governed by random chance, superstition is the application of cause and effect structures. 

Then how and why do people continue holding superstitious beliefs? Professor Fox-Glassman exemplified this by mentioning Skinner’s experiments with cats. When trapped in puzzle-boxes, the cats will try a range of behaviors to attempt to open them. If let out and then trapped again, cats will usually reproduce the whole sequence of actions that let it out previously or parts of it. This is superstitious behavior, as it is not the cause for the opening of the box, but rather the cat’s understanding of the cause. Humans built the box and know what opens it. But humans did not build the world. 

Assuming patterns in the world is a protective evolutionary trait, but it also helps in motivating people. Belief in structure gives people confidence that their actions have some impact on the world. Although simpler than the real world causes, superstitions are usually harmless. 

But is this the belief in superstition conscious? For Professor Fox-Glass, it can be! There are many modes of decision-making that are applied in different situations. Most people avoid bad and want good. In a study about superstition and athletes, many of them confessed they didn’t actually believe their pre-game rituals affected the outcome—but they wanted them to. Professor Fusco’s official answer was “No!” Mentioning Aristotle’s ideas about the weakness of the will and motivation, she asked, “How can one believe that what you believe in is not true?” I could not respond.

The webinar was refreshing to watch due to the interesting and nuanced perspectives of both professors on this niche topic. Although coming from very distinct lenses, the professors were able to show how philosophy and psychology can intersect. Superstitions remain an elusive concept, but now I feel a bit more comfortable exploring them in my own life. Who’s to say if my birthday wishes will ever come true?

brb currently knocking on wood via Flickr