Human Nature

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 35–46 | Cite as

Superstition and belief as inevitable by-products of an adaptive learning strategy

  • Jan Beck
  • Wolfgang Forstmeier


The existence of superstition and religious beliefs in most, if not all, human societies is puzzling for behavioral ecology. These phenomena bring about various fitness costs ranging from burial objects to celibacy, and these costs are not outweighed by any obvious benefits. In an attempt to resolve this problem, we present a verbal model describing how humans and other organisms learn from the observation of coincidence (associative learning). As in statistical analysis, learning organisms need rules to distinguish between real patterns and randomness. These rules, which we argue are equivalent to setting the level of α for rejection of the null hypothesis in statistics, are governed by risk management as well as by comparison to previous experiences. Risk management means that the cost of a possible type I error (superstition) has to be traded off against the cost of a possible type II error (ignorance). This trade-off implies that the occurrence of superstitious beliefs is an inevitable consequence of an organism’s ability to learn from observation of coincidence. Comparison with previous experiences (as in Bayesian statistics) improves the chances of making the right decision. While this Bayesian approach is found in most learning organisms, humans have evolved a unique ability to judge from experiences whether a candidate subject has the power to mechanistically cause the observed effect. Such “strong” causal thinking evolved because it allowed humans to understand and manipulate their environment. Strong causal thinking, however, involves the generation of hypotheses about underlying mechanisms (i.e., beliefs). Assuming that natural selection has favored individuals that learn quicker and more successfully than others owing to (1) active search to detect patterns and (2) the desire to explain these patterns mechanistically, we suggest that superstition has evolved as a by-product of the first, and that belief has evolved as a by-product of the second.

Key Words

Behavioral ecology Causal thinking Evolutionary psychology Human behavior Learning 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Theodor-Boveri-Institute for BiosciencesWürzburg
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for OrnithologyStarnberg (Seewiesen)Germany

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