You’re Not Superstitious, Are You?

You’re probably not superstitious; but you may know someone who is.

And if you do, then you might want to direct him or her to this post.

You see there is a good reason why people are superstitious and, once you know the reason, you can defeat it instead of letting it continue to control you.

But before I get to the reason, let’s think about some examples of superstition in modern life.

 

Modern superstitions

Take Friday the 13th.

This is probably the most common example.

More people know about it, and are uncomfortable with it.

But let me ask you something: Why is Friday the 13th any worse than Thursday the 12th, or Wednesday the 11th?

When you think about it like that, it sounds ridiculous.

It makes you wonder what all the fuss is about.

And that’s exactly the point.

There’s no reason for any fuss to be made at all.

 

Let’s think about another example.

During one Olympics, a competitor felt unable to compete because someone stole her “lucky” sunglasses.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I think of a world-class competitors, I also assume that that person has world-class mental toughness.

But here was someone who felt defeated without her shades.

What’s going on here?

 

Wrong conclusion

Superstitions occur as a result of observing something and then drawing the wrong conclusion from it.

That’s it.

It works like this.

When two things happen simultaneously, the assumption is made that one of them caused the other.

Think of the Olympic athlete.

Why did she feel she couldn’t play without her “lucky” sunglasses?

Because there was a time when she had them on and won.

She then believed that that was the reason, and then vested power in them to the extent that when she didn’t have them on she lost.

This confirmed her suspicions and her superstition.

Friday the 13th is a lot more complicated, and there are other websites you can go to that will give you a much fuller explanation.

In this post, I want to dig into the idea of superstition itself.

 

Correlation

I’ve encountered some very intelligent people who have argued with me about this.

They have insisted that when two things occur together, one must cause the other.

There’s a term for this.

It’s called correlation.

In statistics, we measure the extent to which two things correlate in what amounts to a percent.

One hundred percent or one (1.00) equals a perfect correlation.

The only time this occurs is in the instance of natural laws.

Gravity is a good example.

On earth, everything falls unless another force is applied which prevents it.

But apart from laws, correlations that occur 70% (0.70) of the time or more are worth considering.

It doesn’t mean that one has necessarily caused the other.

It simply means that we need to look at bit closer at the information.

 

Covariance

There’s another term that describes what may be happening.

It’s covariance.

What it means is that two or more things change together.

Here’s a good example.

In the United States, it is known that when the sales of ice cream increase, then so does the incidence of violent crime.

If, as so many people assume, one caused the other, then this is the sort of conversation you might hear between the mayor and the Chief of Police.

 

Mayor: We have a problem. Ben & Jerry’s just reported record profits.

Chief: Yeah. And Baskin-Robbins is so busy that people are lined up out the door and around the block.

Mayor: What are we going to do?

Chief: We’ll have to put more cops on the streets. Maybe we should ask the Governor to send in the National Guard!

 

Sounds like a comedy, doesn’t it?

How is this any different from those who say that when they were wearing a certain pair of sunglasses, it caused them to win a tennis match?

To put it another way, what could be a different reason why the athlete may have won in the past, or why ice cream sales and violent crime increase simultaneously?

The answer is that there is another element that has occurred, but which was less obvious.

The tennis player probably concentrated better, or was more relaxed, or got a better night’s sleep, or ate better, or any one of a number of other equally likely reasons. I

n the case of the ice cream sales and violent crime, the additional element is hot weather. Temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit day after day, and with no prospect of being able to cool off, do this to people.

It’s probably one reason why violent crime occurs in poorer neighborhoods.

Those who live there don’t have or can’t afford air conditioning.

 

Probability

There’s one more concept that I need to talk about and that’s probability.

Another word for probability is likelihood; and the question that we’re answering is, “How likely is it that one of these things really causes the other?”

For this measurement, the standard is much higher.

Remember that correlation needs to be in the region of 70% in order for us to consider the possibility that one caused the other.

The criterion for probability is 95%.

Anything less than that is considered to be “by chance.”

Chance means that it just turned out that way; that it could happen again, or never occur again, but that the relationship between the two is insufficient to demonstrate cause.

(We can’t prove any of these things. We can only build a case and present our evidence.)

I should mention that this is a basic explanation of correlation and probability.

Entire courses are taught and books are written on these subjects.

 

How superstitions begin

So now you know how superstitions begin.

Several things occur together.

Two of them stand out as being particularly significant.

The conclusion drawn is that one must have caused the other.

 

The psychology

Then the psychology takes over.

You believe that this is the case.

This governs your behavior.

A “curse” placed on someone in a primitive culture can actually kill that person because he or she believes it will.

That’s how powerful your beliefs can be.

If you are even a little superstitious, then you may find it hard to concentrate on an important task because it’s Friday the 13th.

When you talk about how “lucky” you’ve been, you may find yourself looking all around the room so that you can “touch wood.”

You may even avoid black cats or experience an awful feeling if you break a mirror.

You need to remind yourself that there is much more going on than you realize.

Don’t vest events in your life with more power than they have.

Recognize that many things occur simultaneously, and that we may never know why.

But don’t assume that when they do, one caused the other.

Instead, tell yourself there are probably other reasons.

If you can’t accept this and really do want to know more about correlation and probability, then study statistical methods, enroll in a PhD program, and make this your project.

That way there’s at least a chance that some good will come out of it.