As a kid I grew up attending basketball camps at UCLA. I played in the old gym that used to host UCLA games in front of a few thousand fans, played on the current court in main stadium, and slept in the dorms. With my history of basketball at UCLA, I have always been a fan of the men’s basketball team, rooting for them and the Nevada Wolf Pack – where I actually went to school. With the UCLA team making a deep run in the NCAA March Madness tournament, I have been reminded of all the superstitious thinking that surrounds sports and that I used to indulge in.
Sports seem to bring out superstitious thinking in even the most rational of people. I try very hard to think about causal structures and to avoid seeing non-existent causal links between unconnected events, but nevertheless, it is hard to not let superstitious thinking creep in. When you are watching a game it is hard not to feel like you have to sit in the right spot, have to watch from a certain room, or have to avoid certain behaviors in order to keep your team in the lead. However, it is absolute nonsense to think that your actions on your couch, miles away from the sporting venue where the game is taking place, could have any causal link to the way that a sports team performs.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam spends time examining what is happening within our mind when we engage in superstitious thinking. He explains that superstitious thinking qualifies as an epistemic vice because it gets in the way of knowledge. It prevents us from forming accurate beliefs about the world. “Superstitious thinking,” Cassam writes, “isn’t a generally reliable method for forming true beliefs about the future; it won’t generally lead to true beliefs because it posits causal links between unconnected events. … beliefs based on superstitious thinking aren’t reasonable.”
Cassam gives the example of superstitions about walking under ladders in the book. Someone with a superstition believing that bad luck will befall them if they walk under a ladder will probably avoid walking under ladders, and as a result they won’t be as likely to have paint drip on them, to have something fall on their head, or to knock over the ladder and anyone or anything on top of it. Their superstition will lead to better outcomes for them, but not because the superstition helped them create true beliefs about the dangers of walking under ladders. The individual ends up with the correct answer, but interprets the wrong causal chain to get there.
Thinking about rational and plausible causal chains is a way to escape superstitious thinking. You can rationally examine the risks, harms, and benefits of certain behaviors and actions with rational connections between events to see when a superstition is nonsense, and when it pulls from real-life causal chains to help improve life. Trying not step on cracks will not prevent you from starting a causal chain that leads to your mother’s broken back, but it will help ensure you have more stable and steady footing when you walk. Wearing the same basketball jersey for each sports game has no causal connection with the team’s performance, and wearing it or not wearing it will not have an impact on how your favorite team performs. We should strive to have accurate beliefs about the world, we should work to see causal connections clearly, and we should limit superstitious thinking even if it is about trivial things like sports.