The Psychology of Superstition

(Written by Devika Gupta under Dr. Anu Goel)

Published on

Some of us have a ‘lucky shirt’ or a ‘lucky rock’ that we like to wear or carry on important occasions, while others prefer to indulge in rituals like eating sweetened curd before embarking on a journey. Apart from these, ideas that we get bad luck by walking under a ladder or that we jinx things by talking about them prematurely – are all examples of superstitions.

Superstition can be defined as a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In psychological terms, this can be understood as behaviour, which itself may be rational or irrational, which that is based on a belief that has no basis in reality.

Events and situations where we want things to go well, regardless of our own preparation or performance can spur superstitious thoughts. “We are often [superstitious] in situations in life where something really important is about to happen, we’ve prepared for it as best we can, but it’s still uncertain; it’s still unclear,” says Stuart Vyse, PhD, and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Superstitious thinking arises out of a desire to want more control or certainty in our lives.This is related to the concept of locus of control, which can be either internal or external. People with external locus of control are more likely to be superstitious, possibly as a way of getting more power over their lives. “Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty at all, and that is what much of the research suggests,” says Vyse. On the other hand those who have an internal locus of control, believe that they are in charge of everything, and hence, do not rely on superstition.

The greatest emotional benefit that arises out of superstitious thinking or behaviour is a sense of security and confidence. According to Foxman, there is a positive placebo effect – “There is a tremendous amount of power in belief,” he says. He believes that superstition may actually give performance a boost, and hence becomes a key factor in determining an outcome. That being said, superstitions can also play a negative role in our lives, especially when combined with bad habits such as gambling. Phobic superstitions are responsible for causing a lot of anxiety and interfering with our lives says Vyse. For example, people who are afraid of Friday the 13th might change travel arrangements or skip an appointment because of unnecessary anxiety.

Generally speaking, women are more superstitious than men, says Vyse. It has also been found that women experience more anxiety, or at least, more women than men seek help for anxiety problems. Although personality variables are not a strong factor in developing superstition, there is some evidence that suggests that people who are more anxious on average are slightly more likely to be superstitious than others.

At the same time, studies have found that Intelligence has no relation to superstitious behaviour.

Superstition, like most things in life, is good when it comes in small doses. However, if you experience any symptoms of anxiety – tension, excessive worry, trouble sleeping, obsessive thoughts, exhaustion and repetitive ritualized behaviour that’s out of control – in addition to your superstitious thoughts, then it’s time to get professional help from a doctor or therapist.

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