Superstition and Irrationality

I’d like to class myself as a fairly rational being, but we all have our transgressions,Â right? SoÂ are we all maybe a bit superstitious?

To answer this, Richard WisemanÂ offers this common thoughtÂ experiment fromÂ Bruce Hoodâ€™s new book,Â Supersense:

Imagine that you only have two objects in your house:
1) A Â£10 watch that was given to you by your partner and therefore has sentimental value.
2) Another watch thatâ€™s worth Â£1000 but has no sentimental value.

Your house catches fire, and you only have time to save one watch. [â€¦] Which watch you would save?

If you think that the Â£10 is somehow imbued with the essence of your partner then you are being superstitious. Of course, you might argue that it simply reminds you of the good times the two of you have had together. Fair enough, but how would you feel if I replaced it with a watch that wasÂ absolutelyÂ identical (same scratches, markings, etc)? This replacement watch would have exactly the same memory-inducing properties, but most people reject the idea, saying they want THEIR watch. Again, this is irrational.

Of course, this assumes that sentimentality (while irrational) == superstition.

It does however remind me of a more interesting thought experiment about our irrationality when it comes to saving money when purchasing items of different prices (e.g. we’ll travel a significant distance to save Â£20 on a Â£40 coat, but not to save Â£20 on a Â£12,000 car).

The former via @sandygautam

8 thoughts on “Superstition and Irrationality”

1. Jonathan Blake

I don’t even buy that sentimentality = irrationality. If the watch reminds you of your partner and the good times you’ve had together, then you value the reminder that the watch offers more than \$\$\$. In my eyes, that is more rational and humane than making decisions strictly based on how they affect our bottom line. Just because sentimental value can’t be quantified and subjected to comparison doesn’t make it irrational.

2. LL

But if my wife will kill me if I don’t choose the right watch, it changes the risk profile.

3. Paul

As Stuart Sutherland says in his excellent book ‘Irrationality’, we irrationally overvalue that which we freely choose, be it a house or a teacup.

4. Lloyd Morgan Post author

I guess in reality I’m undecided about the statement that sentimentality is irrational. What makes me believe that it could be is my own experience with sentimental items:

Whilst purging my possessions a year or so ago I decided to take some advice I once heard: take a photograph of your sentimental items and throw out the originals! Without taking this to the extreme (some items I kept), it worked surprisingly well.

I realised that sentimentality is just a feeling, triggered by an item. I cherished the thoughts more than the items, but required the possessions because without them the person/moment it represented wouldn’t be remembered so vividly. After discarding 90% of my ‘sentimental items’ I felt no remorse.

Because of this I feel that there is at least some validity in the statement that sentimentality is irrational.

Thanks for the commentâ€¦ it definitely made me think.

@LL That’s a damn good point! Probably the most rational thing I can imagine.

@Paul Great quote. Irrationality has been on my to-read list for a while now. I really should get on with reading it.

5. stuandgravy

I’d agree that sentimentality is just a feeling, triggered by an item. But that feeling can’t always be triggered by a photo of the item in the same way it is by the item itself. The touch of a childhood toy, the smell of a parent’s books, the experience of reclining in a grandfather’s armchair…

There is no irrational ‘superstition’ there, rather an acknowledgement that sometimes physical items are tightly woven into our memories. The ‘identical’ item in the example above is patently not identical, because it is not the item around which the memory was formed.

6. Lloyd Morgan Post author

@Jonathan Blake I wasn’t expecting that question!

I can’t envisage saving a photo of the Â£10 watch over the Â£1,000 watch itself unless the situation was somewhat tweaked (the partner who gave it to me had died, for example).

That said, I would save my photo album consisting solely of 100 or so pictures of sentimental items instead of the Â£1,000 watch (or even Â£1,000 in cash).

The question I find myself asking now is, whichâ€”if anyâ€”of these somewhat contrary answers to the same question is irrational?

@stuandgravy Indeed. However, imagine now that the nefarious inquisitor again replaces the item with an “absolutely identical (same scratches, markings, etc)” item but this time without your knowing it.

As we do not know any better, are our memories now somehow entwined into this identical watch?

7. Sanderson Jones

With regards to the replacement watch, try this thought experiment.

Imagine your child built a castle wooden blocks. The child wanted your partner to see it when they got back the next day. That night, you accidentally knock over the castle. Realising that your child would be upset, you rebuild the exact structure.

I don’t think that the rebuilt castle would have the same importance as the original castle, even though it is, to all intents and purposes, the same structure..