Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Even though I engage in ritualistic behaviors that I more than halfway believe contribute to hoped-for outcomes, I’m not sure I would agree I’m superstitious.

(But maybe that’s just because it’s bad luck to be so.)

Rather, I think I would contend I’m merely being prudent or that I’m just focusing my attention by doing things in an ordered fashion, much like one prepares for physical activity by stretching.

So, when I don my lucky shirt to help the Steelers win, it’s not that I believe the garment has some totemic power (not much, anyway), it’s more that I’m simply preparing myself to more effectively strive for the result I’d like to see. People who race bikes, similarly, wear their spandex diaper pants and clingy plastic shirts; you could say that they’re being “superstitious” to do so, but a more plausible description is that the clothes actually do make them go faster.

Of course, it’s difficult to test this hypothesis because it requires exploring counterfactuals I’d prefer not to mess with. Far be it for me, for example, to not wear the aforementioned blessed blouse; what if my team did lose and it was all (or even slightly) my fault?

Critical thinkers will no doubt observe that I’m guilty of the most naked form of confirmation bias here; obviously, I only notice the data when they support my previously-held belief; I conveniently ignore all those times I wear the shirt and the Black and Gold fail to prevail: guilty as charged, but disconfirming evidence might not be statistically significant—or at least we can hope and my team goes 15 and 1 or better.

David Hume pointed out that we can never really observe causality; we only see correlations and from those, infer cause and effect. In a way then, it’s “superstitious” to claim that a billiard ball hitting another causes it to move—or hardly less superstitious than that my lucky shirt makes the Steelers win.


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