Talk by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski "Shared Cognitive Basis of Ritualised and Superstitious Behaviour"

  • 12 June 2018
    10:00 AM
  • In classroom B2.24


Talmont-Kaminski, K. (1) , Poleszczuk, J. (1) , Niczyporuk, A. (1) , Wilson-Smith, R. (2) , Legare, C. (2)
1 - University of Bialystok, Bialystok, Poland, 2 - University of Texas, Austin, USA

Following Malinowski, ritual is usually explained as substitute behaviour that helps people deal emotionally with stressful situations. It is not usually associated with superstitious behaviour which, in a tradition tracing back to Skinner, is explained in terms of the accidental formation of false causal beliefs as a byproduct of learning strategies used with limited information.

We used a modified version of the methodology which was used by Vyse 1991, and Heltzer and Vyse 1994 to show that when given points on a random schedule for completing a task people generated superstitious descriptions according to which their actions determined whether they obtained points. The methodology involved playing a pseudo-game on the computer in which points were awarded on a random schedule. Three aspects of ritualisation (Boyer and Lienard 2006) were operationalised: redundancy, goal-demotion, and rigidity. The subjects were divided into six conditions differing in how often points were obtained (100%, 80%, 60%, 40%, 20%, 0%). 

Both redundancy and goal-demotion were found to be induced by a random schedule, appearing very rarely in the 100% condition but becoming predominant as points were obtained less often, in much the same way as Vyse was able to induce superstitious descriptions. Results for rigidity were less clear-cut and call for a modification in methodology in future studies.

Inducing ritualisation of behaviour merely by introducing random success suggests that such behaviour shares a common cognitive basis with superstitious behaviour much more in-line with Skinner’s views than with the motivational basis proposed by Malinowski. This claim is supported by subjects declaring belief in luck also exhibiting higher goal-demotion and redundancy.

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