It’s Just a Superstition – But Is It Harmless?

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Oct. 31, 2022 Airports typically exclude Gate 13. Some buildings skip the 13th floor. And Friday the 13th is not known as a lucky day.

The fear of the number 13 is a superstition with a complicated name – triskaidekaphobia. The idea the number 13 is unlucky isn’t rational, of course, and for most, any unease about the number doesn’t rise to the level of a phobia. And yet an awful lot of people give the number a subtle (or overt) power over their actions.

What about broken mirrors? Black cats? Walking under ladders? Whether we believe in superstitions or not, they can influence behavior. Where do superstitions come from and how can they hold so much power in our lives?

“No one is born superstitious, they learn to be,” says Stuart Vyse, PhD, a psychologist and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the American Psychological Association’s William James Book Award.

And while there is no scientific evidence showing the number 13 is unlucky or somehow related to more mishaps, popular superstitions are just that – popular and widespread. “Even the business world is aware of this superstition, and prefers not to have to deal with it,” says Vyse.

He points out that many superstitions are ancient in origin and are tied to the supernatural or paranormal activity. Sometimes tied to religious or anti-religious activities, the word “superstition” is often used as an insult.

Neil Dagnall, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., says like it or not, superstitions have simply become part of culture that is passed on from one person to another “no matter how hard one might try to resist.” And that cultural embracing of superstitions means they have the power to influence our thinking, and in extreme cases, behavior, he says.

Bad Omens and Lucky Charms

Personal superstitions around a black cat crossing your path being an ominous sign or a lucky charm bringing good fortune can also arise from personal experience, says Dagnall. When people connect two unrelated events – like winning a sporting event while wearing a particular jersey or pair of socks “Once they see that link, it can be quite difficult to stop, because it is spontaneous and unconscious,” he says.

This illusion is an example of the dual process theory of psychology, popularized by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, PhD, as “thinking fast and slow.”  Superstitions arise from the fast, intuitive thought process, rather than more deliberate critical thinking. There may even be an evolutionary benefit to developing and maintaining superstitions based on making intuitive connections. The cost of following a false superstition is usually quite low, but the occasional benefits that arise from correctly connecting two seemingly unrelated events can be high enough to ensure that habit is preserved in the human psyche.

Whatever their origin, in most cases superstitions are a kind of coping mechanism for situations where we want something good to happen – or to prevent something bad from happening – but don’t have any control over it. Acting on a superstition can help us deal with the anxiety linked to that lack of control.

Angst Over What Comes Next

“There’s no such thing as magic, it doesn’t work in any real way, but the illusion of control helps us cope with anxiety,” says Vyse. That’s why so many superstitions in sports tend to revolve around individual, high-stakes events, like free throws in basketball or penalty kicks in soccer.

While some people are true believers who cannot be convinced that their superstitions have no basis in reality, even those who know they are not real often indulge anyway and gain the same anxiety-reducing benefits. “They tend to say they just don’t want to take the chance,” says Vyse, even when they are aware that it is silly.

In medicine, we see what’s known as the placebo effect when people who have been given a substance with no therapeutic value still benefit from it and feel better.

And the opposite happens too.

Sometimes, people carry a false belief that an intervention will cause harm. They feel worse after taking a placebo even when there is no therapeutic effect, and yet they still have negative side effects. This is called the nocebo effect, and it is the belief about treatment, not the intervention itself, that causes harm, and it is a sometimes-overlooked phenomenon in medicine safety.

If our mind is so powerful that it can help us feel better with no medicine or feel worse after taking a sham treatment just because we believe it, can we use these same ideas to our advantage?

In Germany, researchers told a group of golfers they were given a lucky ball. The golfers attempted 10 short putts as part of a study. Those who were primed to think their ball was lucky made 65% of their putts. And a second group of golfers who were not told that their ball was lucky made just 48% of their putts. 

But when researchers in the U.S. tried to copy this study, they were not as lucky and found no difference between the two groups. “We’re left with a situation where the effect seems plausible, but the evidence is unclear,” says Vyse.

Both Vyse and Dagnall say that in the great majority of cases, superstitions are generally harmless, and they wouldn’t bother trying to talk anyone out of them. But in some cases, superstitions can cause so much fear and anxiety that it becomes a crippling phobia or crosses the line into obsessive-compulsive disorder. In those situations, more direct psychiatric help is needed, focused on trying to break the false link between cause and effect. “Every day, you need to try to engage in critical, rather than intuitive, thinking,” says Dagnall. But that is not always easy. “Going against intuitive feelings can cause more anxiety,” he acknowledges.

Confirmation bias also plays a big part in reinforcing superstitions, says Vyse. People tend to remember the times when a superstition appeared to work. So, to overcome it, you need to look more closely at your history, to identify all the times it didn’t work that you haven’t remembered or considered. “Take a closer look and gradually develop a history of bad things not happening.”

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