The cognitive roots of Friday the 13th

Don’t walk under a ladder. Don’t let a black cat cross your path. Offer a blessing to someone who has sneezed. Cross your fingers for luck. Don’t wash your uniform socks while your team’s on a winning streak. Don’t fly in an airplane on Friday the 13th.

No one I know believes this stuff anymore, but I know very few people who don’t pay lip service to it, usually with a self-conscious chuckle of the “better safe than sorry” variety.

There are all sorts of theories and explanations for the origins of Friday the 13th and other superstitions, but why do we continue to “believe” them?

Do we really care that Friday is Frigga’s Day, and that she was associated with witchcraft by the early Christians? Or that there were thirteen people at the Last Supper, or thirteen beings — twelve witches and the Devil — in a coven?

We seem to care, since fewer people do fly in airplanes on Friday the 13th. And when’s the last time you were in a building with a 13th floor? OK, to be picky, all buildings taller than 12 storeys have a 13th floor — but how many of them are numbered 13?

How can a culture advanced enough to build jet planes and skyscrapers still pay attention to such silliness? Isn’t this sort of superstition counter-adaptive?

In fact, it might be just the opposite. Fear of Friday the 13th and many of our other superstitions may be remnants of an intuitive animism, an evolved tendency to see agency in non-human and non-living things.

When something happens to us, we are hardwired to look for a being — human or not, alive or not — to which we can attribute intentionality. If we assume that most of the things around us can act upon us, for good or ill, we are better equipped to survive than we would be if we were generally oblivious to possible prey, predators, and social contacts.

This notion that religions with gods and spirits, and other superstitions, are byproducts of our natural bias for animism and anthropomorphism lies at the heart of the ideas of anthropologist Stewart E. Guthrie, who has written extensively on the subject for thirty years, including Faces in the Clouds (1995), and the “Anthropological Theories of Religion” essay he contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007).

Guthrie notes that “recent cognitive psychology and related research … [show] that our tendency to model the world on humans is neither superficial nor mere idiom, but is pervasive and deeply rooted.” He writes that “we have such ideas without knowing why, or even that we have them. They transmit easily because they strike chords that already are familiar.”

This intuitive tendency manifests itself in the two central features of religion — animism and anthropomorphism. Guthrie writes:

… [T]hey constitute apparent but mistaken discoveries – that is, false positives – of animals or people, and are inevitable products of our chronic search for important agents in an ambiguous world. This search in turn is part of an evolved strategy for finding the most important features in our uncertain perceptual environment.

Guthrie believes that animism and anthropomorphism are widespread because they are intuitive, arising from “related dispositions and processes.” He writes that they “frequently or always are present in religion.” In this view, religion doesn’t pre-exist; rather, it is a secondary byproduct of an evolved tendency to see agency, a tendency that “has a basis in experience over the course of human evolution.”

Guthrie is not writing about superstition generally, but the mechanisms and processes are surely the same as for religion. Like formal religion, which stands out because it is organized and memorable, a general superstitious belief in the supernatural power of inhuman or non-living agencies — including the behaviour of individuals who either are affected by their own actions of whose actions affect the fates of others — is a byproduct of natural intuitions.

Guthrie identifies two forms of animism, both of which can lead to superstitious beliefs of all kinds, including “disembodied” religions like the three major Western monotheisms. The first form of animism is the concept of “spirit beings, humanlike beings who may be invisible and/or more or less insubstantial.” The second form of animism consists of “attributing life to phenomena that biologists consider nonliving.” Combine these animisms with anthropomorphism, which attributes human traits to nonhuman beings, and you have a complete pantheon of gods, spirits, demons, magic places, talking animals, Charlotte the spider, and all the rest of the superstitious mélange.

Guthrie speculates that “a subjective reason why disembodied agency is intuitive is that we conceive our selves and the selves of others as immaterial. … Normal experience is disembodied.” In other words, not being able to see or touch the supposed spirit living in that old oak by the river is not a barrier to believing that the spirit is there, in the tree.

He concludes with the key assertion that religion and superstition are based not on experiential evidence but rather on an evolved state of mind:

The animism and anthropomorphism central to religious thought and action are not unique but are subsets of our general animism and anthropomorphism. They are distinguished from the general set only by their relative systematization and gravity. No clear line distinguishes religions from other thought and action. They are not themselves selected for, nor are they a unitary phenomenon. Rather, they are a family of side effects of our perceptual and cognitive proclivities, linked to each other by our search for order and meaning.

If this view is correct, our inclination to worry about black cats and evil calendar dates has the same origin as our impulse to obey an all-seeing spirit in the sky.

We just can’t help ourselves.

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3 thoughts on “The cognitive roots of Friday the 13th

  1. .. and so avoiding ladders and Pascal’s wager are tied. Does a confirmed atheist make a point of walking under ladders then?

  2. Some people do just that, according to the comment above yours.
    I’m in the reflexive avoidance group, myself, thanks to all that childhood inculcation of superstition.

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