An altered ‘perception of illusory control’ helps explain why some people are more superstitious than others

Why are some people more superstitious than others? One reason could be that some people are more prone to building associations between a particular action and a particular outcome. According to a new study, highly superstitious people are more susceptible to causal illusions.

“Superstition has always captured the interest of people working in human learning and belief updating (e.g. B.F. Skinner had a lot to say on the topic too), likely because we’re normally so sensitive to the contingencies present around us, but this phenomenon represents a clear and potentially important exception,” explained study author Oren Griffiths, a lecturer in psychology at Flinders University.

“For me personally, this topic was of great interest because I also conduct work on delusion formation, so I am very interested in the more general question of why/how someone might form and hold a committed belief about something important that is not well supported by their direct experience.”

The study was recently published in the British Journal of Psychology. The researchers have also made data from the study available on the Brain & Cognition Lab website.

The researchers examined how superstition was related to the perception of illusory control in an experiment with 160 college students.

The participants sat in front of a computer screen, which displayed a light bulb and a button that could be pressed. The participants were asked to evaluate how effective the button was at causing the light bulb to turn on. However, the light bulb turned on randomly — it lit up just as often when the button was pressed as when it was not.

Participants who scored higher on a measure of superstition were more likely to view the button as effective. Less superstitious participants, on the other hand, were more likely to correctly view pressing the button as unrelated to whether the light bulb illuminated or not.

“When faced with a potential cause (e.g. flicking a switch) and a potential effect (e.g. a light illuminating), which are objectively unrelated to each other, people are often nonetheless convinced that the cause is related to the effect,” Griffiths told PsyPost.

“There are a number of examples of this in the ‘real world,’ such as placebo traffic buttons. That is, when you press a button at a traffic light to cross the road, it commonly does nothing (other than alleviate impatience), but people nonetheless press the button and some believe it affects the ‘walk’ signal. This has been in the news recently here.”

“Our main contribution is to show that this common tendency to see a causal relationship (when there objectively is none) is systematically stronger in people who are superstitious,” Griffiths said.

The study — like all research — has some limitations.

“One of the more important caveats is both a strength and a weakness: This study deliberately used a scenario in which people have no personal investment, but which appeals to an existing cause-effect relationship (i.e. a light switching on),” Griffiths explained.

“The lack of personal investment could be viewed as a weakness, because the paranormal or superstitious beliefs of many are either closely intertwined with their identity (e.g. I’m a new-age person) or bears upon significant matters in their life (e.g. a person may pray or consult lucky omens at momentous occasions). Thus it could be argued that we haven’t quite captured the kinds of event that people are most likely to be keenly superstitious about, and this question of broader generalization remains somewhat open.”

“Moreover, we used a scenario in which one could readily imagine a suitable causal relationship (switches often cause lights to illuminate), whereas many superstitious beliefs include causal forces that are uncommon or implausible (e.g. the idea that thinking of someone makes them call you invokes telepathic forces). So it remains to be seen whether the same pattern holds for scenarios in which there is no ready-made, cause-effect model,” Griffiths said.

“That said, we did not choose the switch-light scenario by accident. It is commonly used in the literature. More importantly, we chose it because it is a situation in which people are not personally invested.”

“This matters because paranormal and superstitious beliefs may sometimes be maintained by social identities/cognitive dissonance (i.e. if I’m the kind of person who believes in luck, I may say that lucky omen X causes my team to win for the sake of consistency with my beliefs, even if I don’t perceive there to be an actual causal relationship). By using a more emotionally neutral scenario, it provided us with a more ‘pure’ measure of causal perception,” Griffiths told PsyPost.

Psychologists have observed that even when people recognize that their superstition does not make sense, they still continue to believe in its effectiveness. The new findings, along with similar research, can help explain why.

“This result pairs nicely with Fernando Blanco’s observation that people who endorse paranormal beliefs tend to behave differently in lab-based contingency experiments. They showed that paranormal believers tended to initiate the cause (‘press the button’) more often, and that this tendency alone could explain the causal illusions experienced by believers,” Griffiths said.

“Our result is the complement of this — we controlled the behaviour of all participants so that it was more-or-less the same for everyone, and we still saw a bias in causal perception amongst superstitious people.”

“Together, these findings suggest that there may be two complementary mechanisms in play in superstition: there is a general tendency to see causation where there is none, and then a secondary tendency to pursue that relationship (e.g. by pressing the button more frequently, in our case) that results in a biased sample of the environment that tends to support the initial, erroneous belief.”

In their study, the researchers also developed and validated a new measure of superstition — the Superstitious Beliefs Questionnaire.

“Our new superstition measure is an important contribution on its own. It will likely be useful to researchers in a range of fields. Naturally, we think the measure is better than others: we believe it better reflects the kinds of superstitious and paranormal beliefs large portions of the contemporary community endorse, than do earlier measures (which is why we created it),” Griffiths explained.

“Of course, others may disagree with that evaluation. What cannot be argued, however, is that we have made every effort to make it accessible, open and transparent to interested researchers: it is provided free of charge with open-access to the validating/normative data via OSF.”

The study, “Superstition predicts perception of illusory control” was authored by Oren Griffiths, Noor Shehabi,Robin A. Murphy, and Mike E. Le Pelley.