Intuitive fatalism: adaptation or by-product?

Most of us do not believe in supernatural causes. However, we may feel that celebrating an exam before having received the official result can influence our chances of success. Some of us might also have the intuition that it’s more likely to rain if we do not take our umbrella.



On Tuesday, President Bush declared that he regretted speaking in front of a "mission accomplished" banner  shortly after the invasion of Irak. Is a certain aversion to hybris wired in our minds? (editor's note and choice of photograph).

In a recent paper published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich highlight this intuition in a series of experiments…



Participants read a scenario in which “Jon” recently applied to several graduate schools, Stanford being his top choice. The scenario specifies that, Jon's mother, true to her optimistic nature, sent him a Stanford t-shirt through the mail. Participants in two conditions read either that Jon decided to stuff the shirt in the bottom of the drawer while waiting for Stanford’s decision or that he decided to wear the shirt the next day.



The results indicate that participants believe that Jon is less likely to be accepted in Stanford if he tempted fate by wearing the Stanford t-shirt, than if he stuffed it in the drawer.

How can we account for such a phenomenon? Risen and Gilovich contend that the belief that it is bad luck to tempt fate is largely the result of two automatic mental processes. The first one is the tendency for people’s thoughts and attention to be drawn to negative prospects (here, Jon’s failure to be accepted at Stanford). Second, having captured the imagination, the subjective probability of negative outcomes is enhanced. Indeed, past research has established that merely imagining an event makes it seem more likely to occur.

From a Cognition and Culture perspective, this paper is interesting in many respects.

1. Faced with such an intuition, it is tempting to suggest that people’s minds have been build in order to believe in supernatural causes The intuition in tempting fate would count as evidence in favour of religion as an adaptation.

Risen and Gilovich show that this tendency has nothing to do with religion (let alone an adaptation…). Indeed, in a previous paper, they have demonstrated that people feel that if they exchange a lottery ticket it will become more likely to be  a winning ticket, even when they cannot cite any conceivable mechanism by which the odds could change (Risen & Gilovich, 2007).

This indicates that there might not be something unique to situations of tempting fate, but rather a more general tendency to feel that negative events are more likely to occur. (Consider how we expect a maddeningly slow checkout line at the grocery store to suddenly speed up right when we have decided to move in another line).

Note that we are not talking about any negative event: the negative prospect will obviously have some relevant relationship with the specific behaviour that made it salient. For instance, not carrying an umbrella highlights the possibility that it might rain (not the possibility that you will miss your train). In Jon’s story, the possibility that he gets caught in a rainstorm is unlikely to spring to mind as a likely consequence of Jon's presumptuously wearing a Stanford t-shirt. Conversely, because the threat of rejection from Stanford is not intensified by failing to carry an umbrella, people are unlikely to predict Jon’s rejection from Stanford if he decides not to bring an umbrella.  This account thus explains why the universe seems interested not only in punishing certain behaviours (presumptuously wearing a Stanford shirt), but in punishing them in a specific -and seemingly ironic- way (being rejected from Stanford).

2. Most participants explicitly stated they did not believe in supernatural causes. Yet they just could’t help thinking that by wearing the T-shirt, Jon is tempting fate and increasing the likeliness of his failure.

This is a good case of divergence between intuition and belief. One can think that supernatural causes such as 'fate 'do not exist, and yet feel that one should not celebrate an exam before knowing the result. This is another counter-argument to an adaptationist and religious account of the phenomenon described by Risen and Gilovich. It does not lead to religious belief, it only make us uncomfortable with temping fate.

In this account, the difference between a believer and a “skeptic” is not at the level of intuition (both have the intuition that, in some situations, one should not tempt fate), but at the level of belief. Everyone should have this intuition about tempting fate but, in some cultures, this intuition is consistent with a belief in supernatural causation(say in Christianity or Hinduism) while in others (say liberal universities) this intuition is in opposition with the belief that no such thing as fate exists.

3. Since the phenomenon demonstrated by Risen and Gilovich is an intuition, their work does not directly account for the existence of cultural beliefs in fate. Intuitions of tempting fate cannot create the variety of beliefs in fate observed around the world.

The explanation is probably more indirect. The way our mind works makes us more susceptible to accept ideas about fate. Ideas about fate naturally “make sense” and thus are more likely to be accepted. Transmitted by authorities (parents, priest) and along with other religious beliefs (in God), beliefs in fate could easily spread and stabilize in a population.

This indirect theory explains why various beliefs in fate all share some characteristics and at the same time are so different (see Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber's account of religious beliefs). Indeed, many factors influence the content of the belief and a wide variety of beliefs are compatible with a unique intuition. Depending of the particular cultural context, this intuition will help stabilize a belief in a personal God (in Abrahamic religion), or it will contribute to the success of an abstract entity like karma in the Hindu tradition.

Naturalist explanations often jump from a particular phenomenon to an evolutionary cause. In this account however, the widely variable cultural beliefs in fate, rather than being an adaptation, would be the by-products of a by-product!

1 Comment

  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 15 November 2008 (11:41)

    Well, I don’t know of any work that’s been done to show this, but I am not a specialist. I suspect it would be tricky.
    Suppose we find a class of individuals, in religious groups who have every reason to be unhappy, because non-religious people are unhappy in similar situations (e.g. poor healthcare, economic difficulties, lack of education, etc.), but still claim to be happy. Such groups exist. Does that mean they claim to be happy only because their religion frowns on displays of sadness? Because they are too well-educated to complain about anything? Or simply because, thanks to their religion, they benefit from affective support from fellow-believers, which makes them happier than non-believers even in similar material circumstances?
    `One way to get around the problem would be to focus on religions that emphasize the importance of success and happiness, but provide (comparatively) little material and affective care for cult members, and indeed, tend to exploit them (compared to other religions). The Church of Scientology might be an interesting case in that respect: if, in similar circumstances, Scientologists say they are as happy as (or happier than), say, Catholics, while not receiving as much affective support as Catholics, then you may explain the happiness of Scientologists as an effect of the ideology of happiness and achievement that prevails inside the Church.
    But there are too many ifs in this paragraph for my proposition to be realistic. Also, I might have a distorted view of Scientologists.