Operant conditioning is largely responsible for many modern superstitions. It is a process of learning whereby the consequences of one’s response determine whether a response is likely to be repeated. Building on the research of Thorndike, who developed a puzzle box examining animal behavior, the father of operant conditioning is often considered B.F. Skinner, a behaviorist examining observable behavior in human beings (Nevid, 2012). Skinner examined behavior in much the same way that Pavlov examined behavior and responses in animals via classical conditioning (Nevid, 2012). Skinner believed that human beings and other organisms demonstrated learned responses that “operate on the environment to produce consequences” a process he termed “operant conditioning” (Nevid, p. 192).
Using a device called the Skinner box, Skinner discovered that through operant conditioning people and other organisms can learn responses like pressing a bar to release food; the consequences of the responses (like if food is released) will determine if an action is repeated (Nevid, 2012). If a positive or reinforcing response is generated, then a behavior is likely to be repeated. If a student raised a hand in classed, and had a question answered, then they will likely raise their hand again (Nevid, 2012). In the case of a superstition, how does this work?
Vyse (2013) points out the case of the “Superstition” in the pigeon first published in 1948, where Skinner put a hungry pigeon in a chamber where a feeder was automatically controlled regardless of the pigeon’s actions; food would appear in 15 minutes; the most sensible strategy would be to wait for food to appear every 15 minutes (Nevid, 2012). However, the experiment demonstrated a variety of rituals adopted by the pigeons, including some walking in circles, or thrusting its head into the corners of the box, or conducting other behaviors. Skinner concluded the pigeons associated the pairing of behavior with the appearance of food, thus a superstition was born.
Superstitious behaviors like this are often demonstrated and reinforced among human beings; this experiment was repeated in toddlers and preschoolers, who also demonstrated superstitious beliefs when they thought they would receive a prized toy or marble (Nevid, 2012). Individuals often engage in superstitious behaviors to help their favorite sports team win, or to help win a bet or to reinforce the odds they will win a job, money, or other important gamble (Gadsdon, 2001). The aspect of operant conditioning that makes it so powerful is that the individual that believes in a superstition believes it because they associate their superstition with something powerful and beneficial happening. In the cases of experiments, something positive or beneficial has been gained, such as a prized toy, or food. In the case of real life, someone has based their superstition on a win, or their favorite team, or a victory for example.
A common superstition is to carry around a lucky object. An individual may believe this object guarantees luck or success, whether this is success at a job interview, or safety when traveling, or a win for their favorite team. A good example is a rabbit’s food, or a four leaf clover, or perhaps an object from a relative that has some significance or value. Maybe this object resulted in a win or a big jackpot one time. This may not be the case in subsequent instances, but that does not always matter. What matters is the individual has projected luck onto this particular object, and reinforced the idea that this particular object is positive, beneficial, and carries with it “magical” powers.
I have a friend that always carries with her a silver dollar her great grandfather gave her. She was carrying it with her when she won $500 in a lottery drawing. She now believes that this object is lucky, and by carrying it with her she will have good fortune wherever she goes. There is some truth to this, as positive thinking can be beneficial. When one has a positive mentality, good things can follow. There is no harm in having a positive mindset, unless it is taken too far. When positive thinking overrides common sense, an individual can get into trouble (Ehrenreich, 2009). It is important that people realize that objects do not actually have magical powers (Ehrenreich, 2009). Can superstitions be broken? It is difficult, depending on how ingrained one’s beliefs are. If individuals come to realize that their own skills, talents, and abilities can lead to their success, or that odds and logic actual lead to winnings, then it may be possible to lead someone to a healthy skepticism, but superstitions have existed for centuries (Nevid, 2012). They are as deeply ingrained into the animal kingdom as they are into human behaviors. Thus, it would be very challenging to completely break one of superstitious beliefs. It would take constant reinforcement and realization that one has the power to make change in their own life. One may have to consistently engage in logical analysis of behaviors, and constant reinforcement of other behaviors, including reasoning, logic, and dismissal of patterns which may include reliance on superstitious objects, rituals, or other patterns. One may require counseling, because the reliance on such rituals may cause one to feel relief and comfort (Nevid, 2012) in otherwise uncertain circumstances. That being said, it is possible to stop engaging in superstitious beliefs, at least stop relying on them most of the time, if one is consumed with superstitious beliefs for one’s welfare. Most people probably adopt superstitious beliefs at least part of the time.
- Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. NJ: Macmillan.
- Gadsdon, S. (2001). Psychology and Sport. Heinemann.
- Nevid, J. (2012). Psychology: Concepts and Applications. New York: Cengage Learning.
- Vyse, S.A. (2013). Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition Updated Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.