Getting struck by lightning is a proverbially unlikely event to happen unless you’re Walter Summerford.
Marvel Studios – Thor, from Thor Ragnarok
This British Officer was struck not only once in his lifetime, but on 4 separate occasions, and when Walter eventually passed away in 1932, his gravestone was then destroyed by another strike of lightning.
Surely this is more than just a coincidence?
Even if you don’t consider yourself superstitious; you are probably guilty of the occasional act of wishful thinking. Maybe you are one of the few who has no issue in flying on Friday the 13th and would happily walk underneath a ladder, whilst a black cat walks by your side. Yet, you might feel obliged to use a special number during the occasional game of roulette.
According to the University of Iowa, superstitions develop when a random action or thought occurs at the time of an unrelated event, which can either reinforce it or discourage it from being repeated.
Gamblers for example, very commonly rely on superstitions or rituals to influence their decisions because at some point in their gambling experience, a specific charm or “special number” was used when they got lucky.
A study by Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University found various superstitions when observing people using a fruit machine, such as putting only a pound in to “bluff the machine.” Although, this kind of superstitious behavior might seem unique to humans; it has also been observed in animals:
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment – The ‘Pigeon Lady’ from Home Alone 2
Skinner, in 1947, conducted a famous experiment where he delivered food pellets to birds at random intervals. Although the birds’ behaviour had zero effect on the timing of the food; certain random behaviours would inevitably (by chance) arise when getting the food. These then slowly proceeded to persist as ritualistic behaviours. One bird for example repeatedly turned anticlockwise, whilst another developed a pendulum movement of the head and another regularly nodded its head.
Behaviourists describe this process as variable reinforcement. By randomly rewarding the birds with food, the birds would (incorrectly) associate the persistence of behaviour with the eventual reward of food, which is precisely how casinos make their money.
People gamble despite their losses because they learn that they will not win every time but persistence will eventually reward them. Casinos and arcades maximize this by setting algorithms on slot machines/games to pay-out at random and unpredictable intervals.
Here you can see it work in practice:
But, how does this form superstitions?
If at any chance, a player is to win a reward when playing the slot machine – like the birds, they will quickly retain and remember what they did at that time.
This can even involve remembering what they were wearing. These cues will be reinforced in relation to the reward.
We form superstitions because we seek explanations for coincidences due to a bias known as Illusion of Control.
We over-estimate our ability to control something which occurs by chance, such as how we roll dice because it gives us a sense of order in the world. So, by attributing accountability over non-explainable events, it increases our feelings of control.
We also ignore all instances when our superstitious behaviours didn’t lead to good luck.
David Kahneman, discusses in his famous book Thinking Fast and Slow how we seek and confirm evidence which supports our preexisting beliefs, but ignore those which dispute it, known as Confirmation Bias.
“When people think about their superstitious intuitions, they are likely to automatically retrieve examples from memory that support them,” says psychologist Jane Risen.
Create our own meaning…
The tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things is known as Apophenia and was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in the late 50s.
One type of apophenia is pareidolia – the seeing or hearing of things that weren’t meant to be there. For example, hearing your name being called in the sound of running water, hearing English words in a non-English song, or seeing faces in ambiguous pictures.
@FacePicson twitter, posts pictures of objects which appear to have faces in.
May He Poop? (An Indian Music Video Translation)
This video shows a translation to an Indian Music Video interpreted as “may he poop on my knee.”
Our inclination to seek out (non-existent) patterns also explain why Apple/Spotify shuffle never really feels “random.” Mattias Peter Hanson, former Software Engineer at Spotify wrote in a blog how he would “get tons of complaints from users about it not being random.”
iTunes Smart Shuffle was adjusted so that users would be able to control the likelihood of a similar style song being played after each other, which was as,” Steve Jobs said, “making it less random, to make it feel more random.”
The feeling that an already played song should be less likely to play again is part of the same bias that causes people to choose red on a roulette wheel because the last 3 spins landed on a black (even though the probability is the same.)
This is known as the gamblers’ fallacy – the belief that the chances of something happening with a fixed probability become higher or lower as the process is repeated.
Gamblers’ Fallacy; also known as the Monte Carlo Fallacy because in Monte Carlo, 1913, the ball famously landed on black, 26 times in a row!
A Predictable Miracle
The law of large numbers dictates that although specific circumstances, such as being hit by lightning might be incredibly rare; given enough time and enough opportunities, it will happen.
National Geographic states that lightning strikes earth up to 100 times per second, and with billions of people for it to hit, and thousands of years of recorded history to go by – a case like Walter Summerford’s occurring at least once is not surprising at all.
As creepy as it seems at first, maths says that given enough time, and psychology says that given enough interest in finding them; coincidences and connections will be found, even “impossible” ones.
If you look hard enough, you can find coincidences between any people, things, or events such as the strange coincidences between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
Both Kennedy and Lincoln were shot in the head on a Friday. Lincoln was shot at Ford’s theatre, JFK in a Ford car. See Wikipedia for a full list.
In fact, extraordinary things really aren’t that extraordinary.
A calculation known as Littlewood’s Law can be applied to show how even the things we consider to be “miracles” should happen relatively often. Given that an event occurs to us once every couple of seconds, in theory, it should only take 35 days for a “once in a million event to occur.”
David J Hand, took this further in his book the “Improbability Principle” by saying if we consider the fact there are 7 billion people on earth – the chances of a one-to-a-million probability not happening at least every day is 1 in the 103040.
… Or as statistician, Persi Diaconis states at the University of Stanford:
The truly unusual day will be where nothing unusual happens.”