unpredictable factors and a need to resolve uncertainty. It is any belief or practice-based upon one’s trust in luck or other irrational, unscientific, or supernatural force. Often, it arises from ignorance, a misunderstanding of science or causality, a belief in fate or magic, or fear of that which is unknown. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and certain spiritual beings, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific unrelated prior events.

Where do these beliefs come from?

“Superstitions come from traditions and your upbringing – people teach you superstitions; you’re not born believing in Friday the 13th or that if you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,” says Stuart Vyse, a psychologist in Stonington, Connecticut, and author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.” “They also come from the uncertainty of life – if you have something you desire that you cannot make sure will happen,” you might engage in superstitious behaviour. That’s because superstitions often provide the illusion of control.

When people feel the world is out of their control, they look for external sources of control – superstitions are really a reaction to feeling out of control,” says study co-author Eric Hamerman, an assistant professor of marketing at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. 

Superstitious beliefs can have a negative impact on the social well-being of people in society because they are highly associated with financial risk-taking and gambling.

Speaking of business, not only do airlines and airports routinely skip a 13th aisle or the 13th gate, but more than 80% of high-rise buildings all over the world lack a 13th floor. Also, some hotels and hospitals often choose not to have a room with the number 13.

Billions of people in the United States and across the world are superstitious. A quarter of adults in the U.S. consider themselves to be so, and recent trends reveal that younger people are more superstitious than older adults. In fact, 70% of U.S. students rely on good luck charms for better academic performance.

Millions of people in China think the colour red or the number 8 will bring them wealth and happiness, while a study of consumers in Taiwan showed that shoppers tend to pay more money for fewer items in a package as long as the number of items in the package represents a “luckier” number.

Some people think that encountering a black cat is a sign of bad luck.

Black cats: bad luck

This superstition is a tough one for cat lovers to swallow, but in the middle ages, it was thought that witches kept black cats as companions. Some people even believed that kitties could turn into witches or demons after 7 years.

Powerful men like Napoleon and Hitler may have been prepared to conquer nations, but both were terrified of a black cat.

Why do we believe in unbelievable?

Jane Risen, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth in Illinois and a member of the American Psychological Society, has used the so-called dual-process model of cognition to explain our belief in superstitions.

According to Risen (and other renowned authors, such as Daniel Kahneman), humans can think both “fast” and “slow.” The former mode of thinking is snappy and intuitive, while the latter is more rational, and its main job is to override the intuitive judgment when it finds errors.

The “thinking fast and slow” model “must allow for the possibility that people can recognize — in the moment — that their belief does not make sense, but act on it nevertheless,” writes the author. “People can detect an error, but choose not to correct it, a process I refer to as acquiescence,” she continues.

But superstitions are not merely a manifestation of our flawed cognition. Sometimes superstitions offer a host of benefits.

How superstition may relieve anxiety?

Sometimes superstitions can have a soothing effect, relieving anxiety about the unknown and giving people a sense of control over their lives. This may also be the reason why superstitions have survived for so long — people have passed them on from generation to generation.

As an article appearing in the International journal of psychology and behavioural states, “Superstition has its roots in our species’ youth when our ancestors could not understand the forces and whims of [the] natural world. Survival of our ancestors was threatened by predation or other natural forces.” 

As a result, superstitions have “evolved” to produce “a false sense of having control over outer conditions,” and reduce anxiety. This is also why superstitions are “prevalent in conditions of absence of confidence, insecurity, fear, and threat.”

Medical News Today reader, who describes their parent’s various superstitions, echoes the same sentiment. “My mum has tons of superstitions,” they say. “[She] can’t walk under a ladder, can’t put new shoes on the table (even in their box), can’t break a mirror, can’t give a purse without money in it, [has] to throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder if she spills some.”

“I think some of these are just common sense comments, such as don’t break a mirror or you might cut yourself because the shards are sharp, that has grown into something more. But they transform into this set of rules to live by, often for no apparent reason,” the reader continues.

“Life is pretty scary sometimes,” they add, “so […] people [do] whatever they can to try to avoid hidden dangers.”

Superstitions may improve performance

Furthermore, by alleviating anxiety, superstitions may objectively improve performance. Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of superstition and former professor of psychology at Connecticut College, explains in an interview for the British Psychological Society:

“There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit that can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition.”

Indeed, one study that examined performance in “golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games,” found that making gestures, such as keeping one’s fingers crossed, or uttering words, such as “break a leg” or “good luck,” boosted the participants’ performance.

This mechanism is mediated by increased self-confidence, write the authors.

“These performance benefits are produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy. Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

This is even though the actual outcome of an event or situation is still dependent on known factors – rather than unknown supernatural forces. A notion consistent with the often-quoted maxim, “the harder you work (practise) the luckier you get”.

So the next time you break a mirror, see a black cat or encounter the number 13 – don’t worry too much about “bad luck”, as it’s most likely just a trick of the mind.

Submitted by “Nazia Khan”