In the below video, a pigeon—let’s call it Shirley—engages in a correlation-causation fallacy. Shirley clearly presumes—insofar as pigeons can presume anything at all—that the machine is releasing food to her because she’s making a half-turn to the left. In reality, of course, B. F. Skinner is the cause of her feeding, and he could readily bamboozle her if he began to feed her randomly or in response to a different action on her part.
And perhaps the origin of religion is here. One can readily imagine an early tribe of humans noticing a correlation between a behavior and a desired event and concluding (incorrectly) that the one caused the other. Then—when that specified behavior and desired event did not correlate—one can imagine someone in the tribe offering a clever explanation to account for it (we didn’t do our ritual properly, we’ve been sinful lately, we’ve lost the god’s favor, our king displeases the god, etc.).
One can also imagine the esteem, and subsequent political and social power, that would accrue to such a clever explainer—the first theologian.
In turn, it wouldn’t take long for the successful theologian to surmise that he was in favor with the gods, correlating his own behaviors and insights with his good fortune, and feeling a compulsive need to repeat them.
When you’re hot, you’re hot.
And on his death, the first theologian’s followers would then take on the task of preserving his legend and techniques (both of rationalization and of ritual).
A pretty good racket before the discovery of science. Still a pretty good one.
Here’s a bit of an article reflecting on correlation-causation fallacies (a.k.a superstitions) in relation to sports:
[W]hen the stakes are high – such as with sports – there is even more pressure on our brains to “capture” whatever behaviours might be important for success. Some rituals can help a sportsperson to relax and get “in the zone” as part of a well-established routine before and during a big game. . . . Tiger Woods always wears red the last day of a golf tournament, because he says it is his “power colour”. In baseball, Wade Boggs claimed he hit better if he ate chicken the night before.