Superstition

I was in Las Vegas last weekend. Whenever I go to Vegas I think about superstition.

One of the best places to observe superstition is at a craps table. Many people go through elaborate routines before they throw the dice. Many also claim that the shooter (the person throwing the dice) always (or almost always) throws a seven (which is bad for most betters after a point has been established) whenever any of the following happen: a die flies off the table and the shooter doesn’t call for the “same dice”; a die hits a stack of chips on the table; a die hits someone’s hand; somebody says the word “Seven”.

These people have been playing craps for a long time and have had ample opportunity to observe that a seven comes up one-sixth of the time regardless of what has happened before or during the throw. But they still cling to the false theory.

Why?

I don’t know for sure, but here are some tentative thoughts…

B.F. Skinner induced “superstition” in pigeons by having a device feed them at regular (or irregular) intervals. The pigeons would start to repeat whatever head-bobbing or leg movements that they did just before being fed because the feedings reinforced this behavior. Even though these movements had absolutely no effect on their feeding, they persisted in performing (and adding to) these movements until they were doing an elaborate dance between feedings!

Does this explain why people do similar things at the craps table (and other areas of life)?

Well, I think they’re related but very different.

I think birds are hard-wired to respond to positive and negative reinforcement. It’s a great, evolved, trick that helps them survive without any knowledge about the world. People learn differently. They form theories and (hopefully) improve them through a series of conjectures and refutations. If they’re lazy or there’s no good opportunity or strong motivation to criticize their conjectures, they might adopt a bad theory and count applications of it as evidence of its truth; even though more careful thought would reveal this to be invalid. Some factors that make this mistake harder to overcome are our great pattern recognition skills (noticing repeating sequences and conjecturing a cause-and-effect relationship) and our knack for selectively noticing and remembering patterns that we were already interested in. This is why the craps players think they’ve experienced things that they haven’t.

This sort of thing doesn’t just affect our superstitions. I’m sure that much of our behavior comes from this superficial learning. And it’s not all bad. Many of our idiosyncrasies were formed this way and they add to our charm. And, not everything warrants deep consideration; sometimes accepting the first plausible theory and moving on is good enough.

But, when we let some of our important ideas about how the world works be formed by this sort of process, it’s unlikely to be good for us.

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