Friday the 13th - Dr. Jeff Rudski discusses superstition and confirmation bias

News Image Dr. Jeff Rudski explains how superstitions develop and how they may affect our behavior.

 Thursday, March 12, 2015 04:58 PM

The historical basis behind the superstition surrounding the combination of a Friday and the thirteenth day of a month is unclear. Some scholars believe the discomfort stems from Good Friday, when Jesus was said to have been crucified, combined with the thought of Judas as the thirteenth apostle. Other have speculated that the superstition has roots in Norse mythology, when Loki arrived as a thirteenth guest at a banquet and organized the death of Balder.

But ask Jeff Rudski, professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College, why people today still fear Friday the 13th, and he’ll answer: perhaps its the concept of Friday the 13th itself.

“Once you get a thought into a culture that something is unlucky, in this case Friday the 13th, people tend to experience confirmation bias, a tendency to interpret information that meets our preconceptions,” says Rudski. “We tend to look at superstition as irrational, even stupid. But superstition in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Rudski explains that the human mind has evolved to understand complex cause and effect relationships. By identifying patterns, the mind is able to make quick observations, called heuristics, that serve to reduce the cognitive strain associated with decision making. Humans can become anxious when connections are unclear, leading to a search for a contributing cause, no matter how remote or unlikely.

But sometimes a superstition, even if the belief itself appears illogical, can lead to a better result for the person who holds it.

To explain, Rudski uses an example of a basketball player with a free-throw ritual - perhaps the player has a specific way of dribbling the ball before throwing. Studies have shown that athletes who are allowed to complete a preferred procedure perform significantly stronger than those whose rituals are interrupted.

“What the superstitious ritual does is put the rational mind at ease by establishing a possible cause,” says Rudski “By engaging in a routine behavior, anxiety and response time are reduced and muscle memory, what neuroscientists call procedural learning, kicks in, which stops us from over-thinking a given situation.”