Researchers are finding that superstition may be linked to the ability to learn. Clearly, it makes no sense for organisms to believe a specific action influences the future when it can't, yet superstitious behavior in both humans and animals often persists in the face of evidence against it.
According to Live Science:
Superstitions are not free ~ rituals and avoidances cost an animal in terms of energy or lost opportunities. The question becomes how can natural selection create, or simply allow for, such inappropriate behavior?
"From an evolutionary perspective, superstitions seem maladaptive," said Kevin Abbott, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario and co-author with Thomas Sherratt of a recent study published in Animal Behavior.
The study suggests multiple reasons for such anomalies to exist: perhaps superstition is adaptive as a placebo, or for social bonding. Or maybe it really is maladaptive now, but is "the outcome of traits that were adaptive in ancestral environment; sort of like cognitive wisdom teeth," said Abbott.
The first description of superstitious behavior in animals came from psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1948. He put half-starved pigeons in cages, offering them a few seconds of access to food trays at regular intervals. As long as the intervals were short, the birds began offering up behaviors ~ like spinning counter-clockwise, rocking from side to side or tossing their heads up as if they were lifting a bar.
They would do these behaviors "as if there were a causal relation between [its] behavior and the presentation of food," wrote Skinner. Once the behaviors were established, they tended to persist, even as time intervals between feeding lengthened.
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