Superstitious Minds

Uncle Jimmy's Horse Shoe: photo (and horse shoe story) courtesy of Kirsten Cowling.

Uncle Jimmy’s Horse Shoe: photo (and horse shoe story) courtesy of Kirsten Cowling.

My friend tells me that there is a local tradition where you nail a used horseshoe to your door in order to keep yourself and your family safe. The story goes that when witches try to cast a spell on you, the horseshoe on the door means that they must retrace all the steps the horse took wearing the shoe before dawn comes, and only after they’ve done this can they cast their spells. The more steps the horse took when wearing the shoe, the safer you will be.  The horseshoe in the photo was made by my friend’s Uncle Jimmy. Although it’s a lovely piece of work, apparently it’s not a lucky horseshoe as it’s never been worn by a horse!

There are all kinds of interesting superstitions in different cultures. In Ireland where I come from, the horseshoe is fixed with the open end facing upwards so that the luck doesn’t run out. In other parts of Europe, it’s considered lucky to nail it to the door with the open side facing down, presumably so that the luck can get out and benefit you. As well as superstitions passed down in families, we also have personal superstitions. The golfer Tiger Woods is known to wear red on Sundays, believing that this will help his game. The tennis player Serena Williams bounces the ball five times before a first serve and twice before a second serve.

What leads us to believe that these little rituals gets us something we want, or avoid something we don’t want? Human brains are set up to spot short cuts, so that we don’t have to think everything out in full every time we meet a new situation. Superstitions are a funny side effect of one of these shortcuts: the one where we make quick associations between what we just did and what happened next. They give us the feeling that we can control a situation, so Tiger Woods feels a bit more confident that by wearing red he is doing something that makes him more likely to win. In his case, this might be partly true: feeling more confident is, in itself, something that will improve his game. It could be a problem if he can’t find a clean red shirt on the day though – a game spoiled because of something that didn’t really matter.

All animals are scientists by nature. We observe what happens around us, we form hypotheses about what’s going on and then we test them to see if we’re right. If the evidence suggests we are, we incorporate this into our library of mental shortcuts. There’s a problem if we’re wrong, as the Tiger Woods example demonstrates. Most of us can laugh at superstitions, having walked safely under lots of ladders and found that we were lucky even when we didn’t touch wood or cross our fingers. We try quite hard to have correct mental shortcuts, but we need to strike a balance. We work out (unconsciously) the cost of being wrong and thinking that doing something that takes a bit of effort gets us a benefit when in fact it does nothing at all. And then we work out what we lose if we don’t do the magic thing, but later find out we could have been better off if we had.

Doctors are familiar with juggling these odds. It costs a lot of money to test the whole population for an illness, but you will pick up every single case of something you can treat. This is amazing, if you’re dealing with a killer disease. It’s less impressive if you spend lots of money screening to find every single case of tennis elbow in the population when many cases haven’t been causing any problems at all.

Horses work exactly the same cost-benefit analysis all the time. Although we think we’re in control of delivering the food to the horse, it often escapes our attention that the horse is building a mental model of the world to explain how to obtain the food. They’re not just passively waiting for us to hand over the bucket. All of us, horses (and Tigers) included, like to feel that we have some control over our environment. The problem for domesticated horses is that in most cases, their theories are wrong. The food arrives when we humans bring it and little that the horse does has any effect. This doesn’t stop them coming up with and testing theories.

“Superstitious behaviours” are ones that horses (and humans) do intending to produce an effect, when they really have no effect at all.  A horse who has been in a stable all night and who really wants to go out may in frustration paw or kick the door. If it just so happens that the door then opens and they’re led out, they immediately enter this into their mental shortcut library for further testing, and the testing will involve doing more pawing and kicking. Although they weren’t right at the beginning (the human just happened to come along at the usual time), over time the horse will gather more and more evidence that they’re right because their banging and kicking is so annoying to the human that they may indeed get let out as a result.

Similarly, a horse may be tied up for grooming or being tacked up at a time when she would rather move around. In horses (and humans), being unable to do something we want often leads to impatient and frustrated movements. Humans tap their feet, drum their fingers and look at their watch. Horses paw. At first, the pawing won’t happen until the horse has been tied up for a while, so it’s more likely that shortly after they paw or scrape with their hoof, the human will finish the grooming and tacking up and lead them off. Again, the horse adds this shortcut to their mental library to test: “Pawing leads to getting to move”, so they test it sooner next time. Quite quickly, the horse will believe that pawing is what leads to being released, and they will paw constantly when tied up.

Getting cross about a horse’s superstitious behaviour doesn’t work, because by suppressing the door kicking or pawing by telling off the horse, you’re doing nothing to prove to them  that it doesn’t really work. All you do is make them even more determined to paw as soon as your back is turned.

The only way to fix superstitions is to prove that they don’t work, just as a scientist would test and then reject a idea that was false. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? You just ignore the pawing or door kicking horse and eventually, they’ll stop. Up to a point, this is true. What you need to remember, though, is that you haven’t removed the reason the horse was pawing or kicking in the first place, so they’re still motivated to find something that appears to get them what they want. If you’re waiting for a bus that’s late and you have been tapping your foot, or pacing up and down at the bus stop, after a few minutes you become aware of glares and disapproval from the other people waiting. It’s making their wait more unpleasant. You stop, but you still have that unpleasant gut feeling of frustration and impatience, so you may try to cope in some other way. Animals often engage in bouts of slightly frantic looking self grooming – humans nibble nails, twiddle or flick hair or brush invisible crumbs off their clothes! Horses will sometimes bite at themselves as if they’re itchy, rub their noses on their legs, or shake their forelocks into and out of their eyes.

All of this means you’re in danger of them fixing on another superstitious behaviour in order to give back the feeling that they’re in control. Instead, the best approach is to remove the reason for the impatience or anxiety. Rather than feeling that they would prefer to be doing something else, and that being stuck (in the stable, tied up in the yard, at the cross ties) is something they have to fix, make them think that what they’re doing just now is the best of many possible options. If the bus is late, I can pace up and down and feel impatient or I can immerse myself in my book and then feel disappointed when the bus arrives before I can finish the chapter!

To deal with superstitions in ourselves and horses, we need to work out what we think they’re getting us (or our horse) and then find a nice reward for sticking with the situation we’re in. Our horse will learn that standing with all four feet on the ground is not only the best way to get the human to finish up the grooming and let them move around again, but also that standing there with all four feet on the ground means they get lots of positive attention, fuss and rewards. They don’t know how long you’re going to leave them there – they have no more insight into the workings of your brain than I do into the FirstBus Glasgow timetable – but at least you’re making the wait a pleasant one.

The best thing to do with superstitions is to let them rust away!
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