The Neuroscience Of Superstition

With the Super Bowl in sight, we look at what makes some people accept superstitious beliefs and others reject them.

The Neuroscience Of Superstition
[Image: Seattle NFL via Ken Durden / Shutterstock]

The Super Bowl is this Sunday, which means millions of fans and gamblers alike will spend the next 48 hours looking for signs from the universe about who’s going to win. If Seattle’s Richard Sherman gets his dreadlocks tangled into the shape of a “W” during pregame warm-ups, Seahawks fans will like their chances. If a Denver flight makes an emergency stopover in Omaha–the city that quarterback Peyton Manning famously barks out at the line of scrimmage–Broncos fans will like theirs (except perhaps any fans on that flight).


Sports fans may showcase their superstitions more openly than most people, but we all harbor them. In fact, cognitive scientists have started to see superstitious, supernatural, paranormal, and even some religious beliefs as a default state of mind. One recent study found that physicists, of all people, will endorse unscientific ideas that might make an astrologer smile when rushed to judge a statement’s veracity in mere seconds. Our brains evidently infer greater meaning from random events in an instinctual way.

Image: Richard Sherman via Wikipedia

Major sporting events and time pressures aside, the logical question is why some people remain believers of superstitious ideas while many others turn skeptical. A group of brain scientists proposes an answer in a recent issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (via BPS Research Digest). The research team, led by Marjaana Lindeman of the University of Helsinki, in Finland, suggests that skeptics possess greater powers of cognitive inhibition–in other words, the ability to reject a superstitious impulse.

“Cognitive inhibition, that is, suppressing or overriding spontaneously occurring mental processes, may thus be the mechanism that, when working efficiently, controls our natural intuitions and explains why supernatural interpretations seem so natural for some people and yet others find them quite strange,” Lindeman and her collaborators conclude.

Image via Matt Hayward / Shutterstock

The researchers recruited 12 supernatural believers and 11 doubters (both groups verified through a questionnaire) for the study. The test itself took place in a brain imaging machine. While inside, test participants viewed written life scenarios followed by a picture. They were instructed to imagine that they were walking down the street with that scenario in mind when the picture suddenly appeared on, say, a billboard or a poster.


Take one example from the study (below). The written life situation, which remained on screen for seven seconds, explained that a loved one had just been arrested for drunk driving and was awaiting charges. The picture, which remained on screen for five seconds, showed a brick wall. The idea was to emulate a potentially superstitious or supernatural moment and measure the brain responses of believer and skeptic alike.

Image via Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

Once outside the scanner, test participants reported whether or not they’d interpreted the picture as what the researchers call a “sign of how the situation was going to turn out.” No surprise, believers reported seeing the image as a sign twice as often as skeptics did. Using the above example, believers took the brick wall as a suggestion that their friend would soon be in jail. Skeptics, meanwhile, failed to make any such connection.

The big insight came from the brain scans. When skeptics were looking at the pictures, their right interior frontal gyrus showed greater activation than when believers did. That part of the brain has been linked with cognitive inhibition in previous studies. What they were seeing was the skeptical brain in the act of rejecting superstitious inclinations. That finding, wrote Lindeman and company, “supports the argument that the skeptics suppressed the potential idea of a supernatural sign in the pictures as irrelevant, while believers did not.”

The work reinforces the idea that we accept superstitions and the like by default, and that rejecting them takes a little extra brain power. As always there are caveats involved. In this case, since creativity also relies on reduced cognitive inhibition (introducing the mind to new ideas), it’s possible that believer brain activity was just the creative process in motion. A larger lingering question is why (and how) people can shift from believer to skeptic and back–often depending on whether or not it’s a Sunday.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).