Sunday, February 12, 2012

Correlation ≠ Causation

Superstitions are like celebrity crushes. I tried to characterize the nature of them to my 5 year-old niece the other day.
“You know, like, when your dad has to do the beep-beep thing with his fingers before you go to sleep to make sure the monsters don’t get you?” I asked, hoping she could make the connection.
            “Ummm yeah, but he has to do that. Or else they’ll get me,” she replied. It was true, they would get her. Our conversation prompted me to think about all of the strange habits that I’ve developed throughout my life. At first the list was pretty short. I’m a slave to the popular ones: knocking on wood, Friday the 13th, etc. Then I remembered some of my more personalized superstitions. I never set my alarm for a time ending in an odd number. Before I get out of the shower each morning I push down the pin and put my right foot under the scalding water. I don’t leave my car without pulling the parking break. I think the name of an NBA player every time I call a solo.
The scary thing is, despite some of the strange habits I’ve just described, I’m probably only considered mildly superstitious by hardcore believers. So what are superstitions, and where do they come from? In some respect they’re like weird, little, autistic fragments of religion that can’t really describe why they exist or communicate their significance. But to us they represent certain causal relationships, somehow cosmically bound, with dire consequences. We make the association between trivial actions that take place under our control and events largely independent of our influence. And if the pattern holds true for long enough, we start to assume an inextricable connection. Although this process doesn’t sound particularly scientific, even the most rational thinkers still uphold superstitions. Whether illogical or not, they seem to affect everyone to some extent.
In their most basic form, superstitions are just habits with glorified implications. And like any other kind of habit, they can be hard to break. Some things we just get used to doing. Even though I’m almost entirely convinced that knocking on wood isn’t going to help a hypothetical situation not happen, I still do it, because for the amount of effort that it takes I would rather continue the habit and pretend it helps. Humans just can’t help but make the immediate jump from correlation to causation. The evidence may be illegitimate and sparse, and it almost always is, but for minimal effort it seems worth it. So go ahead people, have your superstitions—as long as they aren’t really fucking annoying.