The Ultimate Superstition (#711)

It was B.F. Skinner, the father of modern behaviorism, who famously said “If we want to understand the basis of superstition in humans, the best place to start is by looking at the behavior of pigeons.”

What Skinner was alluding to was a series of experiments he conducted in the late 1940’s where he placed hungry pigeons in a cage attached to a random food delivery mechanism.  The pigeons seemed to associate the delivery of the food with whatever they happened to be doing at the time it was delivered, and they would continue to perform these same actions ad infinitum.

In Skinner’s words:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing—or, more strictly speaking, did something else.

While Skinner’s conclusions are still being debated in the scientific community, I notice remarkably similar behavior in myself and my clients as we pursue happiness and success in our own lives.

We won’t talk about a project we’re working on because we don’t want to “jinx it”.  We don’t fully enjoy our victories lest we be “punished for our hubris”.   And we fear sustained success because “if things keep going this well for me, something horrible is bound to happen”.

Yet perhaps our ultimate superstition is the ritual of worrying – spinning thoughts of everything that could go wrong in a vainglorious attempt to prevent them from actually going wrong.

Here are the three most common versions of this ancient superstition:

1. “If I worry enough, I’ll stay healthy”

This is perhaps the easiest of our superstitions to see through, as an abundance of research into psychoneuroimmunology has demonstrated the value of relaxation and a positive mental attitude in the healing process.  While proponents of the positive benefits of worry might point to stories of how a hypochondriac relative was saved when their paranoia about a mole led to an early diagnosis of cancer, the reality was that it was the testing that led to the early diagnosis – and that testing could have been scheduled with or without the worry.

2. “If I worry enough, I’ll stay safe”

Gavin DeBecker, author of The Gift of Fear, is one of the world’s leading authorities on threat assessment.  He points out that at least 99% of what people call “fear” is unwarranted, self-created, and takes place in their thoughts.  The other 1%, what he calls “true fear”, is actually a sixth-sensory awareness of danger – “a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.”

For better and for worse, most of us have experienced so little real danger in our lives that we haven’t yet made a clear distinction between fear and worry – between the awareness of danger that keeps us safe and the worry that keeps us frightened.  So just to be on the safe side, we keep spinning the tiger of worry in our minds, sure that at some level that will keep away the dangerous lion.

3. “If I worry enough, I’ll succeed”

In last week’s tip, I mentioned the work of one of my mentors, the “super-psychologist” George Pransky.  He has a recording in which he asks the audience how man of them would worry or feel pressure if they had 30 minutes to get to a destination that was 30 minutes away.  The group is evenly split between “yes” and “no”.

He then asks them how many would worry or feel pressure if they had an hour to get to that same destination and the vast majority say “no”.

Finally, he asks them how many would worry or feel pressure if they had only 15 minutes to reach a destination that was 30 minutes away – and somewhat surprisingly the group is once again evenly split in their response.

Why wouldn’t someone worry and feel pressure when faced with a seemingly impossible challenge?

Because they recognize it as impossible – and they also recognize that how quickly they get to where they’re headed will have everything to do with prevailing traffic conditions and how fast they drive and nothing to do with the superstitious rituals of worry and pressure they create inside their minds.

So what do we do about this “ultimate superstition”?  How can we stop worrying when part of us seems convinced that if we only do enough of it we’ll stay healthy, safe, and successful for the rest of our lives?

Here are some further thoughts on worry, adapted from my book Feel Happy Now:

We have been taught since we were little children that worry is necessary to keep us safe and to motivate us to move forward. In fact, it is a poor substitute for knowledge, intuition and inspiration.Knowledge of what would happen if we were hit by a car is more than enough to get most of us to look both ways before we cross the street, even if we no longer hear our parents’ voices ringing in our ears to ‘stay back’. Our intuitive awareness of danger will let us know not to trust the smiling stranger even while our love/hate relationship with “fear” tries to confuse the issue. And the inspiration to live a life we love will carry us long after the adrenaline burst from worrying about a life we hate has burned out.

Should we cower from our worries or ‘feel the fear and do it anyway?’

Neither – we can safely ignore them if we are willing to honour our ‘yes’, our ‘no’ and our ‘Let’s get the heck out of here – this is creepy’!

This doesn’t mean you won’t ever worry again – old conditioning tends not to disappear overnight. It just means that you don’t have to be afraid to be safe, successful, and well.

When you are willing to neither give in to unwarranted fear and worry nor get caught up in a battle of wills against it, you will find that it begins to dissolve all by itself.  And even if from time to time you act like a bit of a pigeon, your own clarity and innate fearlessness will guide you forward with ease and comfort.

Have fun, learn heaps, and live well!


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