Oliver Burkeman: Is superstition a good thing?

In the late 40s, the legendary psychologist BF Skinner designed a series of experiments to make pigeons become superstitious. (It's surprising that the pigeon community was still prepared to work with him, because he'd spent the early part of the decade developing plans for a "pigeon-guided missile", whereby a trained bird would be sealed inside the tip of a warhead, guiding it to its target by pecking on a screen.) During lectures, Skinner would place a pigeon in a closed box fitted with a mechanism that dispensed food pellets at fixed intervals; at the end, he'd open the lid to reveal the pigeon behaving eccentrically - pecking the floor of the box, say, or twitching in a distinctive way. It had associated the behaviour with the arrival of food, Skinner concluded: each time it repeated the peck or the twitch, another pellet eventually appeared, reinforcing the link. Human superstitions draw on the same idea. Hold your breath when an ambulance passes and you will indeed find, in almost every case, that you don't die shortly afterwards. Avoid saying "Macbeth" backstage at a play and behold, the theatre probably won't burn down.

Naturally, those of us who consider ourselves intelligent and sober-minded (you too, huh?) scoff at such irrational beliefs. But we probably shouldn't: in subtler forms, superstition infects us all, argues Marshall Goldsmith, an "executive coach" hired to advise the heads of firms such as Ford, Toyota and GlaxoSmithKline. "In many cases," he notes, "the higher we climb the organisational pole, the more superstitious we become."

Goldsmith's point isn't that the chief executive of Ford tries not to step on cracks when he walks down the street. The damaging role that superstition played in the lives of Goldsmith's clients was in their beliefs about how they'd achieved their status. "One of the greatest mistakes of successful people," he writes in his book What Got You Here Won't Get You There, "is the assumption, 'I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!'" (He outlines his argument in an article here.) They don't see that their behaviour may be irrelevant, as with the pigeons - or, worse, that they may have succeeded in spite of it. For example: "I've worked with executives who insist their remoteness, inscrutable silences, non-accessibility [is a] calculated tactic to get people to think for themselves." Stubbornly pursuing what you think caused your success, he warns, can lead you to sabotage it.

Stress sometimes works this way. We take on a challenge, worry about it, succeed, then subconsciously associate the worry with the success, initiating a vicious circle that ends in burnout. It's not just a workplace matter, either: as Goldsmith notes, the same false linkages can blight how we approach relationships. "You might be shocked at how superstitious you really are," he concludes. Your brain works much like a pigeon's. Sorry about that.


Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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