From Superstition to Psychological Anarchy

Skinner was able to produce superstitious behavior in pigeons by rewarding them arbitrarily for no particular behavior. These pigeons had, in the past, learned that reinforcement was contingent upon behavior — similar to human beings — who learn, for example, that pay is contingent on work or that friendship is contingent on some loyalty. Do superstitious beliefs result from mental acts that are primitive in their use of reason?

Can superstition truly be considered a behavior, when it mainly involves unobservable mental rather than physical action? Perhaps, but we do understand that superstition in people involves firm mental associations between behavior and belief. Belief is not generated scientifically. It has arbitrary emotional components, for example. An athlete wearing his “lucky socks” at a baseball game emerges with superstitious behavior due to the fact that this “luck” regarding his socks is perceived by the athlete, even when it is based upon chance rewarding of chance behavior.

There are intentional mental acts that could be defined as behavior if the definition of behavior did not generally imply action that is observable by the five senses. Cognitive theorists would agree that mental acts, as constituted by thought, are covert behavior.

Reason does not determine belief. People may believe whatever appeals most to them, with little thought of rational aspects or consequences of belief. Perception — implicated in belief — involves mental skewing of information that is derived from sensory experience. While perception is not fact, it continually impacts belief and is always an interpretation of sensory experience. It is the baseball player’s perception of his situation and the circumstances that entail “luck”, for example, that constitute his basis for belief. Very few people — perhaps none — have consistent belief systems which represent a world view.

Like Skinner’s pigeons, it’s the individual’s perception of sensory information derived from the environment that results in superstitious belief. The Heisenberg principle postulates that an individual’s observation of the world may change how the environment “responds” to him or her. It’s an interesting idea that our perceptions shape our reality and our perceptions can alter what we see.

Psychosis and delusions, in particular, that are reinforced by chance events, amount to something similar to cultivation of superstition as defined by Skinner, but with recognition of a cognitive element. Psychotic ideas or delusions can find arbitrary “responses” from the environment. Superstitious behavior, based upon faulty cognition and beliefs, are common.

Punitive experience, such as delusional thought, is not reinforced and, in fact, may be punished. In terms of the psychotic individual finding evidence for his delusions in his environment, there exists a rational problem in that this perceived “evidence” is not rewarding, and, due to its punitive qualities, it should not persist.

But, although delusional experience may not produce observable rewards, some aspects of delusional experience are rewarding: delusions of grandeur, erotomanic delusions, delusions of reference, and even delusions of persecution. Such delusions can allow one to feel a sense of importance, and this may be rewarding to individuals who may feel sidelined from society.

There exists the reality that the schizophrenic will receive punitive experience based on his own perception of the world. However, vigilance and awareness of danger in one’s environment can be reinforced through belief that such vigilance, constituted at times by paranoia, renders one safer.

It’s worth remembering that there is a visceral and automatic quality of delusions and hallucinations. Behavior, in a strict sense of that which is observed by one’s senses, may differ significantly from the “behavior” represented by automatic thoughts or delusions and the visceral experience of hallucinations.

Much psychotic experience and delusional material are based upon primitive understanding of the world, leaving little basis on which a schizophrenic might understand his false sensory experience. Indeed, to be told that what you seem to sense is not reality is terrifying. Delusions can be punitive, leading to learned helplessness and perhaps even to reduced frontal lobe activity, but the effort to find reinforcement while adhering to delusional perspectives may be compelling, if only in that the psychotic individual may feel that he will be able to “prove’ the legitimacy of his perspective, and thereby earn respect that is not forthcoming as he remains in the shadow of stigmatization as a “psychotic” individual.

Clearly, this implicates labeling and stigma as they are associated with mental illness. If mentally ill psychotic individuals were not denigrated by others in society, perhaps there would be less of a need in these affected individuals to “prove” that they can be understood, that they can legitimately receive empathy and can feel themselves to be human beings. The consequences of alienation are emotionally destructive, and prescribed for the mentally ill at this time is a kind of psychological anarchy on the level of the self. Clinicians may be able to discern in this an initial attitude in treating psychotic individuals compassionately and therapeutically.

There perhaps exists a need in schizophrenics for validation. If schizophrenics were more consistently validated and less damaged by the societal grip of stigma, there might be a lessening in the amount of delusional, albeit superstitious, beliefs held by this group in general.

Ann Reitan, PsyD

Ann Reitan, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and well published essayist of fiction and creative nonfiction. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Washington, Master of Arts in Psychology from Pepperdine University, and Doctorate of Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University. Her post-doctoral research at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, involved personality theory, idiodynamics and creativity in literature. She recently published Illuminating Schizophrenia: Insights into the Uncommon Mind.
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