The Lure of the Irrational: Why Birds and Basketball Players Fall Prey to Superstition

Irrational behavior is commonplace in sports. Michael Jordan wore his “lucky” University of North Carolina practice shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts every season, believing that extra layer of shorts made the difference between winning and losing. Tennis ace Serena Williams is rumored to have worn the same unwashed pair of “lucky” socks 162 matches in a row.

And the list goes on and on. Are professional sports stars somehow more superstitious than the rest of us? The answer is no.

And it’s not just humans: famed psychologist B.F. Skinner once reported that pigeons seem to behave superstitiously, too. Although we can, of course, never know for sure what birds are thinking, Skinner observed patterns of strange behavior, like a bird twirling in a circle prior to feeding. He posited that the bird had somehow associated the act of twirling with the act of getting fed.

We are all twirlers to some extent. We can trace our irrational behaviors, both collective and personal, to the associative feature of our brains. At the end of the day, the brain’s main goal is to keep you alive, and that means being on the lookout for any meaningful patterns. Dark clouds mean a storm is brewing. A stranger charging towards you with their teeth bared is probably not stopping by to say hello.

But, following the age-old rule of “better safe than sorry”, we tend to experience some false positives as well, meaning we can also see the face of Elvis in the clouds from time to time.

When someone draws connections nobody has seen before—like when Lin-Manuel Miranda writes a musical reframing the story of Alexander Hamilton as the ultimate hip-hop narrative—the results can be electrifying and transformative, and we hail his associative brain as genius. But when the Son of Sam connected demonic thoughts to his neighbor’s dog, we got serial killing, so clearly there is a tragic downside as well.

The real problem arises when the analytical part of the brain fails to react to unfounded associations. It’s when the emotional brain sneaks into the driver’s seat that we find ourselves donning dirty socks to keep our winning streak alive, or taking a cue from Brazilian Shotokan karate master and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida, who believes he improves his chances of victory by drinking his own urine.

So is there a way to thwart these ill-advised leaps?

The answer is yes—if you can recognize them ahead of time.

Running opposite to the patterns in our behavior requires a preplanned defense, what psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen calls an “implementation intention.”

An implementation intention involves taking a moment beforehand to form an if/then statement: “If I find myself tempted to put on dirty socks then I’ll remind myself that dirty socks can lead to foot fungus.” Having a little pre-made course of action at the ready can help re-establish a rational thought process.

If this sounds to good to be true, Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits, says that over 800 studies support the efficacy and significance of this strategy.

So the next time you’re tempted to twirl around a few times before your next meal, or pull up your second pair of shorts, you might consider plugging in an appropriate if/then to reboot your analytical mind.

After all, how hard can it really be to stop drinking your own urine?

Transposons: The Improvisers Inside Your Brain

Even if you from time to time think about your neurons, those little chemical-electrical switches that dictate your mental and physical activity, you probably don’t give much thought to your transposons. And yet transposons don’t just play a crucial role in neural application; in a very real sense, they define who you are.

A transposon is a fragment of DNA that inserts itself into another cell. Research suggests that about half our DNA sequence is made up of these fragments, these interlopers.

In the cells of, say, your lungs, heart, or kidneys, transposons have no real effect. They don’t behave like viruses, which sneak into cells and multiply like crazy. They’re more like very mellow hitchhikers: once they’ve found their way in, they’re usually content to fall asleep and enjoy the ride.

The exception is the brain. Once transposons get inside neurons, they can alter the very nature of the cell. It’s like a troupe of improv actors that show up unexpectedly at your birthday party: suddenly you’re at a very different party. Transposons can influence a neuron’s firing sequence, or turn it off or on, or even reconfigure the operating code of the whole chemical-electrical switch.

This means they can change the entire identity and purpose of a neuron. And like any good improv actor, they can shift into a variety of roles and characters.

It’s a Darwinian parable playing out on a cellular level, what Kelly Clancy in her New Yorker piece “The Stranger in Your Brain” calls “a kind of evolution in miniature.”

The result? Even among twins, no two brains are exactly alike. Identical twins begin with identical DNA, but the arrival of those improvising transposons makes neural activity wholly unique. And since transposons aren’t passed down, your brain is truly a once-in-a-lifetime show.

Clancy explains that this is in part why it’s so difficult to find the underpinning of neurological diseases: with each transposon doing its own thing, there may be no single static genome with regions that can be identified, isolated, and acted upon.

If all this sounds a little, well, scary (rogue DNA wreaks havoc on unsuspecting brain!), Clancy says there’s no reason to panic just yet. After all, she writes, “it is our mosaic brains that may deepen our capacity for individual invention and imagination.”

Besides, who doesn’t love a little improv? More than half a century since its premier in 1959, Second City continues to thrive. And you’ll be thriving for as long as your transposons continue to act.