Superstitious behavior: the cause and cure

Why are people superstitious?
How are people conditioned to behave in this fashion?
It all originates in our ancestors, and back to the caveman days.

The broken mirror with its bad luck, the ladder, or the black cat. How did all these items acquire significance in our society? Why do you cross your fingers when awaiting the answer to an uncertain situations? According to the prevalent theories in psychology, superstition is a byproduct of adventitious reinforcement. In other words, if you cross your fingers hoping that something will occur, and if in fact it does occur, you assume that it’s because you’ve crossed your fingers.

Another example would be the bowler who after he releases the bowling ball gyrates around with body English, trying to influence the ball's course. This behavior has been reinforced by those occasions in which these body movements have been followed by a strike. In reality the ball's course is not affected by his body movements once he lets go of the ball.

Many ancient beliefs involve superstition. For example, the rain dance: once when someone was doing the so-called rain dance, it started to rain. This person thought that perhaps their dance affected nature. After this rain dance was reinforced intermittently on a frequent enough schedule it became established as a superstitious behavior. It has only been with the advent of the scientific method that people have been able to distinguish between that which is superstitious and that which has a scientific basis.

B.F. Skinner, a famous psychologist, demonstrated that you can create superstitious behavior in animals. When an animal is placed in a Skinner box, that contains a device which can automatically dispense food and food is given to the animal every five minutes regardless what the animal does; the animal will typically develop a superstitious behavior. This will occur when for example the animal happens to pick up its right foot just as food is delivered: the animal will then repeat this behavior, which will be intermittently reinforced. In this manner the superstitious behavior will become well established.

The above example, demonstrated by Skinner, shows that although a series of events has already been set into motion, coincidental actions by a being or animal, can cause them to believe that they have altered the series of events. Humans can overcome superstitious behavior if they understand what is taking place, and if they refrain from engaging in the superstitious behavior. They must then notice that events unfold in the same fashion as if they had engaged in the behavior.