A Behavioral Look at Superstition

Photo by Nathan Riley on Unsplash

By Melissa Druskis, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Black cats, the number 13, finding a four-leaf clover, or walking under a ladder are all arbitrary events that can signify either good or bad luck for those involved. We can trace the origins for many of these superstitions through history to determine how they were started, finding most are simply carried on from primitive ideas or symbolic gestures. However, there are other superstitions that do not have a historical origin story or that might be personal to you alone. This might include wearing a lucky piece of jewelry or clothing to your job interview, always using the same phrase to say goodnight to loved ones, or one of the million sports-related superstitions, such as wearing the same unwashed jersey of your favorite team for every game. Whether it’s from 3,000 years ago or started when you were in college, why do we follow these odd behaviors called superstitions?

Contingency-Shaped Behavior

Most modern and personal superstitions come from incorrect assumptions about cause and effect (Foster & Kokko, 2009). You forgot to wash your Cowboys t-shirt before the game so you grab it out of the dirty laundry basket and put it on, several hours later, the Cowboys win! Next week you remembered to wash the same t-shirt, you wear the clean shirt to the viewing party, several hours later, the Cowboys are defeated horribly. That shirt is never getting washed again.

Contingency-shaped behavior is behavior that has been learned by directly experiencing the consequences of the behaver’s actions (Foxylearning). A classic example of this is touching a hot stove and getting burned. You experienced the contingency first hand and learned to avoid touching hot stoves in the future or you will get burned. The cause and effect in this example are correctly assigned, the hot stove equals a burnt hand.

Contingency-shaped superstitions appear when the cause and effect are not correlated. Skinner’s paper “Superstition in the Pigeon” (Skinner, 1948) demonstrated how non-contingent reinforcement caused ‘superstitious’ behavior in pigeons. Food pellets were given to the pigeon on a fixed interval schedule regardless of the bird’s behaviors, but they became conditioned to engage in ‘superstitious’ rituals that they just happened to do when the food first appeared. The response was varied in all the birds, ranging from pendulum motions, head thrusts, and turning around counter-clockwise, but the frequency of these behaviors, which were previously not present in strong numbers during adaptation to the cage, increased to 5 to 6 instances in a 15 second interval. This study was replicated by Wagner and Morris with children using tangible reinforcement (Wagner & Morris, 1987).

Whether we call them superstitions, rituals, or phobias, we all likely have some contingency-shaped behavior that does not correlate with reality. Next time you decide to wear your lucky outfit to a job interview or first date, analyze your history of reinforcement with that object. Was it really the cause of your success?

Rule-Governed Behavior

Rule-governed behavior teaches a person the contingency indirectly. So instead of touching the stove to learn that it’s hot, someone can just tell you “Don’t touch the stove, it’s hot”. This is a very efficient way of learning because you do not need to engage in the repeated trial and error of contingency shaped behavior (Cerutti, 1989). The origins and maintenance of superstitions based on cultural, religious, or historical beliefs are continued through rule-governed behavior.

Why do you say “God bless you” when someone sneezes? Saying “God Bless You” is accepted as polite social behavior, but it is actually a superstition that is thought to have originated from the belief that the soul might escape in the force of the sneeze or that evil spirits were being expelled from the body and might now enter others nearby (Library of Congress). This likely started as contingency-shaped behavior since sickness was verbally related to evil spirits and being near a sneezing person makes you more likely to become sick. However, since this superstition is not based on facts that hold up in todays society, it could not continue to be contingency-shaped as it is unlikely there are times where not saying “God bless you” results in people claiming to have lost their souls. As a child, you were likely prompted to say “Bless you” to others for the sake of being polite, which has different functions than when the custom originated.

Rules might lose their effects on behavior if one of the following four issues are present. First, you are unable to follow the rule (you don’t have the skill to do so). Second, the rule is given to you by someone that is not credible, like a stranger, child, or someone you distrust. Third, reinforcement for following the rule is not available. Fourth, and most relevant in rule-governed superstitions, the rule is poorly elaborated or contradictory with the listener’s history (Törneke et al., 2008). We learn most of these superstitions in childhood, which means they are taught from someone credible (parents) who likely provided reinforcement for our following of them, but it is unlikely that the true functions of these rituals in their historical context were ever explained.


So should we stop following rule-governed superstitions that are contradictory with our learning history? It depends on the value of social reinforcement to each individual (Whitbourne, 2014). If social reinforcement or the threat of social disapproval is more valuable than not engaging in behaviors you know to be incongruent with your learning history, then you are likely to continue to engage in those behaviors. Contingency-shaped superstitions are a little harder to avoid because we often don’t notice them forming. But if you find yourself engaging in odd behavior patterns that you know are not based in reality, analyze the situation and decide on your own whether you want to continue to engage in the behavior.  Eating a certain meal before every big game of your favorite sports team will have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the game, but the function of that behavior may be attention based and tied to social reinforcement from all your friends who also engage in that behavior. There is no harm engaging in a few superstitious behaviors (as long as they’re not illegal or dangerous) when you understand that they’re based on faulty correlations.


Cerutti, D. T. (1989). Discrimination Theory of Rule-Governed Behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 51, 259-276

Everyday Mysteries. (August 14, 2017) The Library of Congress. Retrieved September 20, 2017 from https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/sneeze.html

Foster, K. R., & Kokko, H. (2009). The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276(1654), 31–37.

Fox, E. J., An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory- Lesson 15: Implications and Applications Retrieved September 20, 2017 from https://foxylearning.com/tutorials/rft/15/5015-0813

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition in the Pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

Törneke, N., Luciano, C., & Salas, S. V. (2008). Rule-Governed Behavior and Psychological Problems. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 8, 2, 114-156.

Wagner, G. A., & Morris, E. K. (1987). “Superstitious” Behavior in Children. The Psychological Record, 37, 471-488.

Whitbourne, S. K. (October 11, 2014). Why We’re So Superstitious. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 20, 2017 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201410/why-were-so-superstitious

Melissa Druskis, M.S., BCBA has worked with children with autism for over 7 years as a speech language pathologist assistant and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). She is the founder of www.abcbehaviortx.com, a website to disseminate the science of ABA and provide training and materials to ABA practitioners. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience, with a specialization in Cognition and Human-Computer Interaction, and completed the BCBA Certification program at Florida Institute of Technology. You can contact her through her website at www.abcbehaviortx.com or by email at abcbehaviortx@gmail.com.

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