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Turning over a new belief: The psychology of superstition

According to Stuart Vyse in his book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, the fallibility of human reason is the greatest single source of superstitious belief. Sometimes referred to as a belief in “magic”, superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers, and/or sayings, as well as a belief in astrology, the occult, the paranormal, or ghosts. It was reported by Colin Campbell in the British Journal of Sociology, that approximately one third of the U.K. population are superstitious. The most often reported superstitious behaviours are (i) avoiding walking under ladders, (ii) touching wood, and (iii) throwing salt over one’s shoulder.

My background is in the gambling studies field, so as far as I am concerned, no superstitions are based on facts but are based on what I would call ‘illusory correlations’ (e.g., noticing that the last three winning visits to the casino were all when you wore a particular item of clothing or it was on a particular day of the week). While the observation may be fact-based (i.e., that you did indeed wear a particular piece of clothing), the relationship is spurious.

Superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers, and/or sayings. A working definition within our Western society could be a belief that a given action can bring good luck or bad luck when there are no rational or generally acceptable grounds for such a belief. In short, the fundamental feature underlying superstitions is that they have no rational underpinnings.

There is also a stereotypical view that there are certain groups within society who tend to hold more superstitious beliefs than what may be considered the norm. These include those involved with sport, the acting profession, miners, fishermen, and gamblers – many of whom will have superstitions based on things that have personally happened to them or to those they know well. Again, these may well be fact-based but the associations they have experienced will again be illusory and spurious. Most individuals are basically rational and do not really believe in the effects of superstition. However, in times of uncertainty, stress, or perceived helplessness, they may seek to regain personal control over events by means of superstitious belief.

One explanation for how we learn these superstitious beliefs has been suggested by the psychologist B.F. Skinner and his research with pigeons. He noted in a 1948 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, that while waiting to be fed, pigeons adopted some peculiar behaviours. The birds appeared to see a causal relationship between receiving the food and their own preceding behaviour. However, it was merely coincidental conditioning. There are many analogies in the human world – particularly among gamblers. For instance, if a gambler blows on the dice during a game of craps and subsequently wins, the superstitious belief is reinforced through the reward of winning. Another explanation is that as children we are socialized into believing in magic and superstitious beliefs. Although many of these beliefs dissipate over time, children also learn by watching and modelling their behaviour on that of others. Therefore, if their parents or peers touch wood, carry lucky charms, and do not walk under ladders, then children are more likely to imitate that behaviour, and some of these beliefs may be carried forward to later life.

In a paper published in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, Peter Darke and Jonathan Freedman (1997) suggested that lucky events are, by definition, determined entirely by chance. However, they go on to imply that, although most people would agree with this statement on an intellectual level, many do not appear to behave inaccordance with this belief. In his book Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour, Willem Wagenaar (1988) proposed that in the absence of a known cause we tend to attribute events to abstract causes like luck and chance. He goes on to differentiate between luck and chance and suggests that luck is more related to an unexpected positive result whereas chance is related to surprising coincidences.

Bernard Weiner, in his book An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion, suggests that luck may be thought of as the property of a person, whereas chance is thought to be concerned with unpredictability. Gamblers appear to exhibit a belief that they have control over their own luck. They may knock on wood to avoid bad luck or carry an object such as a rabbit’s foot for good luck. Ellen Langer argued in her book The Psychology of Control that a belief in luck and superstition cannot only account for causal explanations when playing games of chance, but may also provide the desired element of personal control.

In my own research (with Carolyn Bingham) into superstition among bingo players published in the Journal of Gambling Issues, it was clear that a large percentage of bingo players we surveyed reported beliefs in luck and superstition. However, the findings were varied, with a far greater percentage of players reporting everyday superstitious beliefs rather than beliefs concerned with bingo. Whether or not players genuinely believed they had control over luck is unknown. Having superstitious beliefs may be simply part of the thrill of playing.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Campbell, C. (1996). Half-belief and the paradox of ritual instrumental activism: A theory of modern superstition. British Journal of Sociology, 47(1), 151–166.

Darke, P. R., & Freedman, J. L. (1997). Lucky events and beliefs in luck: Paradoxical effects on confidence and risk-taking. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 378–388.

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2005). A study of superstitious beliefs among bingo players. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13. Located at: http://jgi.camh.net/index.php/jgi/article/view/3680/3640

Langer, E. J. (1983). The psychology of control. London: Sage.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). “Superstition” in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168–172.

Thalbourne, M.A. (1997). Paranormal belief and superstition: How large is the association? Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 91, 221–226.

Vyse, S. A. (1997). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wagenaar, W. A. (1988). Paradoxes of gambling behaviour. London: Erlbaum.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag

Problem thinking: Heuristics and cognitive bias in gambling

Once when I was playing roulette at my local casino, there was a run of seven reds in a row. I rarely bet by colour myself, but while I was laying my many 50 pence chips all over the roulette number grid, I told a friend standing next to me that many people would put a lot of their chips on black on the next spin of the wheel. And they did! I am no mind reader but what I do know about is the gambler’s fallacy. The gambler’s fallacy is a well-known psychological ‘rule of thumb’ where gamblers apply the law of averages to very small number sequences. Put very simply, I knew that most people would be thinking “by the law of averages the black is supposed to come up 50% of the time and hasn’t done so for the last seven spins”. While the 50% probability is true, the probability is based on very large sequences of numbers and not a few spins of the roulette wheel. What’s more, the roulette ball has no memory of where it landed before and every spin is independent of the last one. As it turned out, red came up again and there were some disgruntled and disbelieving gamblers. On the ninth spin, a black number finally came up.

The gambler’s fallacy is one of many psychological thinking patterns that are known as ‘heuristics’ (and sometimes called cognitive biases). The psychological effect of heuristics is to reduce uncertainty for the gambler. Open up any textbook on gambling and you will find that the gambler’s fallacy is referred to as the ‘representativeness bias’. This is because people expect to find a representative relationship between samples drawn from a small number of events (for example, eight spins on the roulette wheel), and the complete set of events (in this case, all the spins ever on all roulette wheels). When we gamble, we constantly process information (often unconsciously) in a consistently biased way. Humans tend to exhibit consistent biases when cognitively processing information in gambling situations. For instance, in psychological gambling experiments where people are asked to create a random sequence of imaginary coin tosses, they tend to produce sequences where the proportion of heads in a short segment is closer to 50% than chance would predict.

Over the last 35 years, psychologists have written about many different heuristics that gamblers use. One of the better known ones is the ‘availability bias’. This occurs when a person evaluating the probability of a chance event makes the judgement in terms of the ease with which relevant instances or associations come to mind. For instance, pools winners are highly publicised to invoke the idea that big wins are regular and commonplace when in fact they are rare. Availability biases can also be found when people actually gamble in lotteries. For instance, when selecting numbers, some people will pick (‘hot’) numbers that have come up more often and avoid the (‘cold’) numbers that by chance have not come up as often. For instance, during the week of the first ever triple rollover on the UK National Lottery it was noted by a number of newspapers that the number ‘13’ had come up much less than any other number in almost 10 years of lottery draws. Those gamblers prone to the ‘availability bias’ would be unlikely to pick this number. Of course, those prone to the ‘representativeness bias’ would be more likely to pick it! And that is one of the problems with ‘rules of thumb’ – it is almost impossible to know which heuristic will be applied in a given situation and it is quite possible for the same person to use a different heuristic in the same situation on different occasions.

Some of my favourite heuristics are those involving ‘illusory correlations’. These are superstitious behaviours where people believe two actions are related when in fact they are not. For instance, one seminal 1960s study of ‘craps’ players in US casinos (published by Dr. J. Henslin in the American Journal of Sociology) showed that players rolled the dice softly to get low numbers and rolled harder for higher ones. Other spurious examples are those people who have ritualised routines before they gamble, have ‘lucky chairs’ at the bingo hall, or those who carry lucky charms when they gamble. Most of these illusory correlations start by associative accident. For instance, a gambler might have three big wins at the roulette table and then notice that on all three of those occasions they wore the same pair of trousers. As a consequence, they might start to think that the trousers are somehow lucky and wear them on subsequent visits to the casino. When they win while wearing them, it bolsters the bias. The relationship between the winning and the trousers wearing is illusory but many gamblers display such irrational biases.

Psychological biases provide some insight into why some gamblers don’t learn from past losses and helps explain supposedly ‘irrational’ behaviour in the gambling process. Some psychologists claim that problem gambling is caused by defective reasoning, rather than personality traits, education or social environment.  They also claim that gamblers gamble, not because they have a bigger repertoire of heuristics, but because they select heuristics on the wrong occasions.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Selling hope: The psychology of the National Lottery. Psychology Review, 4, 26-30.

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2002). Bingo playing in the UK: The influence of demographic factors on play.  International Gambling Studies, 2, 51-60.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Henslin, J. (1967) Craps and magic. American Journal of Sociology, 73, 316-330.

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-233.

Langer, E.J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.

Langer, E.J. & Roth, J. (1975). The effect of sequence outcome in a chance task on the illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955.

Parke, J., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Positive thinking among slot machine gamblers: A case of maladaptive coping? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 39-52.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1971). Belief in the law of small numbers. Psychological Bulletin, 76, 105-110.

Walker, M.B. (1992). The Psychology of Gambling. Pergamon, Oxford.

Wagenaar, W. (1988). Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour. Erlbaum, London.