Betting On Certainties

The link between science and superstition is interesting. We often say, “I believe this to be why such a thing happens.” Does this mean that we have clear, incontrovertible evidence for the event? Or does it mean that it’s our best guess? Well, it usually means the latter, based on the evidence that we have currently at our disposal. At some point, we will have made the decision as to how much evidence to gather.

Abbott and Sherratt of Carleton U discuss this rather nicely in their recent paper (1) titled “The Evolution Of Superstition Through Optimal Use Of Incomplete Information.” Our decision-making is like tackling the ‘two-armed bandit problem’ where we have a gambling machine with two levers. We first think that we see a causal relationship. Then we have to decide if we are going to exploit that effect to get a big pay-off (one lever), or investigate things further to be more certain (other lever).

Having lucky mascots, lucky shirts or lucky socks are all examples of us trying to exploit a non-existent causal relationship. For example, “I hit a hole in one wearing these socks, so I always wear them in golf competitions. And I won’t wash them” is the type of superstition that takes hold when the pay-off is large. Hit a hole in one again wearing those socks and that belief is written in stone.

It is particularly sad that we are so easily tempted by the possibility of a big pay-off that we carry out very little enquiry into cause and effect. Many times it seems that we are terrible gamblers. The bigger the potential pay-off, the fewer questions we’ll ask.  Of course, it should be the other way round. We should carry out more detailed research to ensure that we maximize the bigger pay-off.

  1. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.04.002

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