Causing versus predicting

Posted on October 25, 2007

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I have been looking at the list of most common superstitions given in Roud’s The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. They all seem to talk about pairs of events in which the first event either causes the second or merely predicts it, with most examples being somewhere in the middle between those options. So, reading tea leaves would be an example of predicting while, perhaps, walking under a ladder might be thought to cause bad luck. The difference between the two seems to be linked to how much control one has over the first event, i.e. if one can cause the first event (breaking a mirror) then the event is more likely to be thought of as a cause of the second event (something unlucky happening in the future), while events one can not control (a particular arrangement of tea leaves) are more likely to be thought of as predicting a future event without causing it. You do get some funny cases like with first footing. The idea is that the traits of the first person to visit a household indicate how lucky it will be during the coming year. This is normally not under the control of the householders and, as my idea suggests, seems to be more a case of ‘divination’. However, people have been known to try to make sure the ‘right’ kind of person visits them first by inviting them or even paying them to visit – which suggests ‘conjuring’, so to speak. The difference would seem to lie in the idea that whatever process brings about the divination also brings about the future event while intervening in the first event means that the future event must be caused by it for the two to be connected. Of course, this difference is a somewhat subtle one and not necessarily clear to those who believe in the superstitions. Indeed, the case of first footing would suggest just this conclusion.

All of this is fairly theoretical but I think that it should be possible to examine this empirically. This makes me wonder what sort of work has been done into the psychology of causation and to what degree it is relevant to this question. It might be interesting to ask people if particular superstitions concern divination or conjuring and to see if the answers correlate with whether people think the first event is controllable or, perhaps, what they think would happen if someone somehow affected the first event.

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