Superstitions have always been difficult to define curiosities. But while they may be difficult to pin down exactly, we certainly know them when we see them. For example, have you ever met someone who avoids stepping on cracks in the sidewalk or refuses to walk under ladders for fear of bad luck? Humans have practiced such behaviors for millennia, but are we alone in our irrational beliefs or do other creatures also have superstitions? Well, it is difficult to say with certainty, but there is some evidence.
What do we mean by “superstition”?
Before we get too far into a discussion of potentially superstitious animals, it is worth clearing up a few points. When we talk about superstitions in this context, we are not talking about dogs that won’t open an umbrella indoors or cats that avoid crossing paths with people wearing black. The types of activities we usually understand as “superstitious” are distinctly human in nature and often wrapped up with wider cultural and historical beliefs about the world.
For instance, have you ever worried about something related to the number 13? Perhaps you’ve met someone who carries a lucky stone or penny in their pocket or hangs a horseshoe over their door. These superstitious activities are features of a much older and deeply complex history related to magical and supernatural thinking that use amulets, charms, and other practices designed to protect someone from malevolent forces, evil spirits, curses, and so on. Such things are usually derived from folk traditions that exist on the fringes of orthodox religious beliefs.
Any species capable of learning causal links can generate a superstition.
Despite their strange origins, many of our superstitious practices retain elements of these older traditions – but these are merely the surface features. At their heart, most superstitions can be understood as attempts to control outcomes through the performance of specific actions and/or rituals that actually have no bearing on reality. In most instances, the belief in the superstition continues even when faced with conflicting evidence. With this definition of superstition as a mechanism for control, can we see similar behaviors in the animal kingdom?
It “does depend on one’s definition of superstition”, Kevin Foster, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oxford explained to IFLScience. “For definitions based on the mental representation of a superstition, it is easy to argue that they are a human-only trait. For a behavioral definition, such as learning a causal association between two events when there is in fact no such causation, any species capable of learning causal links can generate a superstition.”
For example, Foster explained, “If a predator happens to appear several times at the same time as there is wind in the trees, prey species might well associate the wind noise with a predator, even though they are not really linked.”
Such learning has obvious benefits for animals, even humans. If you can learn causal relationships, then you can potentially identify dangers before they occur. “If clouds appear, it is likely to rain. If we hear a loud noise, something dangerous may happen next”, Professor Foster added.
It is possible that superstitions are therefore a kind of by-product of this type of cause/consequence learning that outlasts any specific evolutionary benefit. However, identifying superstitions in non-human species is difficult.
The problem with pigeons
When it comes to superstitious animals, the most commonly cited example is the humble pigeon. This example was made famous by the behavioral psychologist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who, in 1948, published an experiment called ‘Superstition’ in the pigeon.
In this experiment, Skinner demonstrated that accidental connections between a ritual and a favorable outcome can create an enduring superstitious behavior in these feathered creatures. He did so by examining a group of hungry pigeons who were fed by a machine at specific intervals each day. The observers noticed that, in anticipation of this food, some of the birds were acting peculiarly – they were repeatedly performing the same odd actions. It turned out, so Skinner argued, that these birds had developed superstitions whereby they believed specific movements and actions would reward them with the food they so desperately sought.
Researchers identified behavior they deemed “superstitious” in orangutans, rats, dogs, and others.
By the end of the experiment, up to three-quarters of the birds had developed their own unique superstitious behaviors. One in particular would turn around anti-clockwise, and only anti-clockwise, two to three times between feedings.
It should be noted that Skinner’s interpretation of this behavior, that it was evidence of animal superstitions, has since been challenged. In fact, one of the biggest challenges came from two of Skinner’s students, who performed a similar experiment on hens and realized the birds were undertaking behaviors that were actually in keeping with their natural food-searching reactions – they were scratching for food. As such, the behaviors performed by pigeons in Skinner’s experiment were seen as typical species-specific reactions to anticipated food.
Despite these challenges, Skinner’s initial research sparked a fascination for similar “superstitious” behaviors among various species during the 1960s and 1970s. Among these studies, researchers identified behavior they deemed “superstitious” in orangutans, rats, dogs, and others.
In 2014, a group of researchers identified another superstition-like phenomenon that humans and some primates may share, in an attempt to explore the so-called “hot hand bias” – which describes our tendency to believe that a successful streak is likely to lead to even more successes. Such belief is seen in gamblers who carry on taking risks because they believe luck is on their side. Obviously, we all know that such “luck” never existed and that things will eventually come undone, but it is a belief we can all easily fall into in the heat of the moment.
It turns out some monkeys may also have this superstition too. In their study, researchers from Clarkson University and the University of Rochester tested rhesus monkeys by giving them fast-paced computer games that had built-in rewards. If the monkeys correctly guessed the next step in a pattern, they were awarded a treat. In two out of three games, the correct patterns were easily identifiable for the monkeys, but in the third variation was completely random.
Like humans, monkeys who had initial successes continued gambling and sticking to the actions that fitted in with their winning streak. They actually showed the hot hand bias consistently over weeks of testing, averaging 1,244 trials for each condition. This behavior continued even when the monkeys were given opportunities to learn and change their actions.
An explanation for this practice may be that monkeys, and other primates, adopt the hot hand bias in specific “foraging contexts”. Finding food and other resources in clusters, say in trees or under a specific log, likely represents the types of encounters different species of primate had during their evolutionary development. So expecting to get the same reward for the same activity makes sense. But does this represent superstitious behavior? Again, it depends on how you define it.
Superstitions concerning animals
Although it is not easy to identify whether specific animals exhibit specific superstitious beliefs, what is clear is that humans have long held ideas about specific animals as signs of bad luck and ill omen. Across the world, every culture has its historically “evil” animal that is associated with spirits and fantastical malevolent forces. Unfortunately for many, such a negative cultural connection has contributed to making many animals vulnerable. So, while we may not know the extent to which other species hold unusual beliefs about their actions, we can certainly try to educate ourselves to avoid our own becoming a danger.