Would you consider superstitious thinking to be a vice? According to Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, superstitious thinking is indeed an epistemic vice. That is to say, Cassam believes that superstitious thinking is a is reprehensible, blameworthy, systematically obstructs knowledge. By systematically obstructing knowledge, superstitious thinking causes people to adopt beliefs about the world that don’t match reality, leaving them vulnerable to poor decision-making that can have real-world consequences in their lives.
Cassam writes, “a gambler who sees a succession of coin tosses coming down heads thinks that the next toss will be tails because a tails is now due. This is an example of superstitious or magical thinking, thinking that posits a causal link between unconnected events, namely, previous coin tosses and the next toss.” This quote shows how superstitious thinking systematically obstructs knowledge. It causes us to see causal connections when none exist, distorting our perception and theory of reality.
A gambler making bets sees a causal connection between previous roles of a dice or spins of a roulette wheel and the next roll or spin. In reality, each time you flip a coin, roll a dice, or spin a wheel, the previous result has no bearing on the current probability. A coin toss is a 50-50 affair that does not change because the previous flip was heads.
This type of thinking is prevalent in more than just gamblers. Sports enthusiasts regularly see causal links that cannot possibly exist. The same kind of thinking also shows up in people who have lucky clothing, special rituals in aspects of daily life, or who avoid certain phrases or behaviors. In many instances, the causal links we identify are absurd but don’t incur real costs in our lives. Avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk doesn’t cost you anything and growing a beard because your favorite sports team is on a roll might even provide some social benefits and save you time from not shaving. However, giving in to superstitious thinking, as noted before, distorts your view of reality.
The causal chains misperceived through superstitious thinking create false understandings of how the world works. While it is harmless to believe that you need to sit in the same exact spot for your sports team to play well, it is not harmless to believe that hiring a woman to do a certain job is bad luck, and it is not harmless to bet your life savings on a gamble because of superstitious thinking. What may be even worse is that superstitious thinking in one area could spill into other areas, creating a habit of seeing causal chains that don’t exist. Overtime, superstitious thinking will lead to worse outcomes and poor decision-making that will have real costs in our lives.