Breaking a Mirror Means What?

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An apple a day keeps the doctor away. If you walk under a ladder, you will have bad luck. To break a mirror will bring you seven years of bad luck.

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These are all common superstitions that many have heard growing up in the United States. The question is how did these superstitions originate and remain so well known throughout the years? Is operant conditioning the main indication behind the popularity? Or are most superstitions spread through history predominantly by the word of mouth?

The famous B.F. Skinner tested operant conditioning through many pigeon experiments to determine whether superstitions actually exist. Skinner's experimental results with pigeons and other animals showed: "Actions linked to reinforcement by sheer coincidence" (Morse & Skinner, 1957). This is summarized by saying there is no correlation between superstitious behaviors and consistent results.

Video:
B.F. Skinner, Behaviorism and Your Superstitious Beliefs

But do most people actually believe that at superstitions are indeed only sheer coincidence? Even if they did would they stop following their superstitious beliefs? Most likely not because of belief perseverance, but superstitious people cannot deny the origins of many of these superstitions. The superstition of a broken mirror is derived from ancient times. People in these times looked at their reflections and thought they were seeing into their souls. So if a mirror is shattered, supposedly a soul is shattered as well. Walking under a ladder is from Asia when criminals used to be hung from the seventh rung of a leaning ladder.

So do you think more superstitions are due to operant conditioning or spread from generation to generation through word of mouth?

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I think that these superstitions come from word of mouth via folk tales and urban legends. I think that people sometimes always need to just believe something, so they hold onto superstitions and then through time these superstitions get passed on.

I think this is a really interesting discussion! I totally see what you're saying, how operant conditioning can reinforce superstitious beliefs. An example of this: Someone prays every night to get a raise. After a month they get the raise. They say "Hallelujah my praying got me a raise," and are more inclined to pray in the future for things they want. Or it you look at other religions that perform sacrifices to get something like rain. It is eventually going to rain. After they keep offering sacrifices, one of those times will coincide with rain. Just like the little girl pushing the elevator button, eventually it will open.

I think this is a really interesting discussion! I totally see what you're saying, how operant conditioning can reinforce superstitious beliefs. An example of this: Someone prays every night to get a raise. After a month they get the raise. They say "Hallelujah my praying got me a raise," and are more inclined to pray in the future for things they want. Or it you look at other religions that perform sacrifices to get something like rain. It is eventually going to rain. After they keep offering sacrifices, one of those times will coincide with rain. Just like the little girl pushing the elevator button, eventually it will open.

I think many superstitious beliefs are spread by word of mouth from generation to generation. The true fact behind it will be something scientific. For example, an apple a day keeps the doctor away is said so that you eat apple everyday and stay healthy. Fruits are good for your health. I am from India and we have numerous superstitious beliefs for even simple things like twitching of the eye, itching of the palm, the white spot in your nail, etc.. The above said examples could mean good or bad depending on left vs right. All this were devised by our ancestors for their convenience. It was interesting as a kid but as we grew up it was only funny when people strictly adhered to it. In reality they are actually related to muscle fatigue or vitamin deficiency!

I think that it could be a combination of both. The idea of these superstitions are passed down from generation to generation, but they are believed because of experiences people have had with the superstition. People will use confirmation bias or apophenia. They will notice that they did something unlucky, such as walking under a ladder, and they will search for bad things that happened and will attribute them to walking under a ladder. They won't notice the good things that may happen in the time shortly after the superstitious act. The bad things will stand out. This is where confirmation bias comes in.

I don't know if the superstitions are followed because of where they originated from, not to general public at least. Generally, I feel that unless a person is from the culture the superstition originates from, then they don't actually know where it comes from. The person believing, or abiding by the superstition probably heard it from people they looked up to or respected and that is how it continues and becomes a thought that, no matter how silly it seems, is followed whether it be subconsciously or consciously. Another reason superstitions are followed, I believe, is because people like to have things to believe in. This way, things are more left up to fate and if things go awry, we can blame it on "bad luck." I know that personally, when competing sports, I would take off my clothes the same way every time and in track, I would drink one bottle of water. Once that water bottle ran out, I would miss the next height. The water did not apply to my running or long/triple jumps. No matter how many times I told myself the water had nothing to do with it, I think subconsciously I would make it happen because about 90% of the time I would miss the next height once my water came out.

I would bet that most people are superstitious to some degree. The world is so complicated and many things seem hard to understand, that having a small superstition like knocking on wood for good luck can provide us with a sense of control when outcomes are uncertain. This can make us feel better, less worried and perhaps even provide some meaning to what we believe will happen in the future.

Many superstitions probably had some truth to them or were common sense reminders. Walking under a ladder is probably not a good idea anyway because a wrong step could lead to an accident.

I am curious about the connection to operant conditioning and wanted to look at the video but the link is no longer active. It makes sense that superstitions could be a form of operant conditioning in the sense that we are rewarded or punished for certain behaviors that we believe are associated with outcomes that were likely out of our control, like your favorite team winning the Super Bowl because you wore your lucky hat- or lost the Bowl because you washed your lucky hat.

Superstitions can only gain widespread appeal by word of mouth. We might be more inclined to believe in something if others believe it too. Superstitions can often seem like insider information, and that is why they spread best by word of mouth.

I would definitely, like most people have said, say that Superstitions would have to be spread by word of mouth, but at the same time, someone would have had to witness the bad luck from the latter or have tried the apple a day thing to give the superstition some credit! I know I've seen a black cat cross my path before, and shortly after something bad happened. I know of course that the cat didn't cause that, but I always catch myself attributing certain consequences to certain actions, when in reality like alle0518 said, when something happens and you are lets say praying or pushing a button, chances are one of the times the outcome you are looking for is going to coincide with what you are doing to try and receive that outcome!

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