Jahoda Psychology of Superstition – A conditioned response

Posted on July 31, 2007


Please forgive the pun, but it seemed too good to miss it when discussing behaviourist approaches to superstition. I bet that behaviourists get that line all the time, though.

I find it most interesting from a historical point of view how Jahoda begins his chapter on behaviourism:

If one were to arrange psychological theories on a continuum ranging from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’, then Jungian psychology would definitely be located towards the latter extreme, with psychoanalysis slightly harder but still close to it. More or less at the opposite pole one would find behaviourism, claiming a near-monopoly of scientific purity and rigour.

The reason why this is interesting is that it underscores just how things have changed since 1969. It seems appropriate to think of psychology in Kuhnian terms as being for the most part pre-scientific forty years ago. Since then many new experimental and analytical tools have been developed so behaviourism is now seen as a somewhat naive and primitive fore-father of today’s scientific psychology. Jung and Freud, however, are looked upon by many in much the same way that Ptolemy is thought of in astronomy.

Still, the approach to superstition that began with Skinner has not died out and is continued by some of today’s psychologists. Indeed, Vyse’s approach should probably be seen to fall into that tradition. But that is another topic, really – though obviously very much related. My aim here is to consider Jahoda’s chapter on behaviourist explanations of superstition.

Jahoda identifies what he thinks is the central confusion in the Skinner’s approach to superstition:

He fails to distinguish between (a) a form of behaviour induced by the accidental sequence of response and reinforcement and (b) the belief that a causal connexion is involved.

Jahoda claims that it is anthropocentric to say that a pigeon behaves as if there were a causal relation between its actions and some other event. If it is a confusion, however, it is a very deep seated one given behaviourist views about beliefs.

A point Jahoda raises later in the context of discussing alledged cures helps to cast light on the problem:

The difficulty here is that the organism engages in a wide variety of activities, so why is it that just the attempted superstitious ‘cure’ happens to be reinforced? Is it a mere coincidence, as Skinner implies? The answer is of course that humans, unlike pigeons, do actually have notions about causal relationships; therefore among the varied antecendents of the recovery they single out those they themselves had previously conceived as having the desired effect.

The first problem with what Jahoda is saying here is that his distinction between humans and other animals appears to be false. It is not the case that human beings are picky while other animals will jump onto any old correlation. An example of this is provided by experiments with young monkeys showing they learn to be afraid of snakes by seeing adult monkeys responding to them with fear but do not similarly learn to be afraid when presented with adults apparently afraid of various other objects.

A deeper problem is in the assumption that Jahoda shares with Skinner that there is a general purpose induction engine behind conditioning which is then, at least in the human case, channelled by notions of causality which, according to Jahoda, seem to be largely culturally transmitted. That there can be no such indiction engine was shown by Hume. This is significant to the debate for several reasons.

Firstly, it gives an answer to Jahoda’s question regarding why only certain actions are reinforced that does not rely on cultural factors and, therefore, is not limited to humans and their evolutionary neighbourhood. Reinforcement can not be neutral given that the methods for generalising that underlie it must be context-specific. This will be as true for pigeons as it is for human beings. Culturally transmitted ideas about causes can still pay a role but will only act to further modify this situation.

Secondly, dropping the notion of an indiction engine opens up the scope for differentiating between merely false beliefs about causal connections and actual superstitions – a persistent problem for behaviourist approaches. The suggestion is that superstitions are not just the general errors that naturally creep into the theories that our limited abilities lead us to postulate but that they have something to do with the specific nature of the methods we use to draw those conclusions. Indeed, something of this is visible in the very different way that people treat their own false causal ideas on the one hand and their own superstitions: with superstitions being held to far more tenaciously than mere errors.