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The Science of Superstition

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Date: 10/04/23

Author Name: Sareem Athar

Qualifications: BA (Psychology, Mass Communication & Journalism, Literature), MSc (Clinical Psychology), Diploma in Child Psychology.

Designation: Former Admin Head, ACRO Mental Health & Wellness.

Word count: 414

Reading time:

Reviewed & edited by: Mariyam Mohammed & Ayesha Begum

Why do we believe in luck, omens, and other irrational beliefs, and how do these beliefs impact our behaviour?


As I pondered in the Gryffindor common room, gazing into the blazing flames, I couldn't help but question why humans believe in superstitions. Though we know that a black cat crossing our path doesn't hold any truth to it, we still tend to harbor a slight fear (1,2).


Let's delve into the science of superstitions, shall we?


According to a study, the desire for environmental control often leads to superstitions. Superstitions are a coping mechanism we use to regain control when we are unable to understand what is going on around us (3). This gives us the impression that we have some control over our lives (4).


Nonetheless, why do some superstitions persist over time? According to a study by Hood and Bloom, people have a natural tendency to believe in supernatural ideas (5,6). Our brains are wired to recognize patterns, even when none exist, which can cause us to believe in concepts like luck and fate (7,8).


Positive experiences can also reinforce superstitions (9). For instance, if you wear a specific shirt to a job interview and get hired, you might start believing that the shirt is lucky (10). This belief can become deeply ingrained in your mind, even if the shirt had nothing to do with your success (11).


Superstitions can affect our behavior positively or negatively (12). The researchers Damisch, Stoberock, and Mussweiler discovered that superstition may improve our performance in particular tasks (13,14). For example, if you believe that wearing your lucky socks will make you run faster, you might actually run faster because of the confidence boost it gives you.


However, superstitions can also have adverse effects. For instance, if you think you're cursed and nothing good will ever happen to you, you might stop working toward your goals (15).


What then should we do about our superstitions? Logic-based challenges are one way to engage them. Remind yourself that your belief is illogical, for instance, if you think that stepping on a crack will break your mother's back (16). Another strategy is to forge new, constructive connections. For example, if you wear a lucky necklace when taking a test, try studying with the necklace on to create a positive connection with studying (17,18).


In conclusion, superstitions are an intriguing and intricate aspect of human psychology (19). While they occasionally provide consolation and even assistance, it's important to recognize when they're preventing us from moving forward and to confront them head-on with reason. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must locate my lucky quill before my next potions exam (20).





REFERENCES


1. Vyse, S. A. (2014). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. Oxford University Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=jN47AwAAQBAJ


2. Hood, B. M., & Bloom, P. (2008). The supernatural mind: Why we believe in the unbelievable. Oxford University Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=szFZ3q8EGvMC


3.Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn't so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. Free Press.


4. Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed!: how superstition improves performance. Psychological science, 21(7), 1014-1020. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610372631


5. Rottenstreich, Y., & Tversky, A. (1997). Unpacking, repacking, and anchoring: Advances in support theory. Psychological review, 104(4), 406-415. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.104.4.406


6. Hoseini AS, Taher M, Pashaeypoor S, Cheraghi M, karimy M. Superstition in health beliefs: Concept exploration and development. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. 2020;9(3):1325.


7. Rao LL, Zheng Y, Zhou Y, Li S. Probing the Neural Basis of Superstition. Brain Topography. 2013 Nov 28;27(6):766–70.


8. Dömötör Z, Ruíz-Barquín R, Szabo A. Superstitious behavior in sport: A literature review. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 2016 Jul 3;57(4):368–82.


9. Pinto LB. Medical Science and Superstition: A Report on a Unique Medical Scroll of the Eleventh-Twelfth Century. Manuscripta. 1973 Mar;17(1):12–21.

10. Kluger N. Le tatouage religieux. Annales de Dermatologie et de Vénéréologie [Internet]. 2012 Nov 1 [cited 2022 Oct 26];139(11):776–82. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0151963812005789


11. Dein S, Pargament KI. On not praying for the return of an amputated limb: Conserving a relationship with God as the primary function of prayer. Bulletin of The Menninger Clinic. 2012 Sep 18;


12. Jin Y, Jensen G, Gottlieb J, Ferrera V. Superstitious learning of abstract order from random reinforcement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [Internet]. 2022 Aug 30 [cited 2023 Jun 21];119(35):e2202789119. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35998221/


13. Skrabanek P. Paranormal health claims. Experientia. 1988 Apr;44(4):303–9.


14. Daprati E, Sirigu A, Desmurget M, Nico D. Superstitious beliefs and the associative mind. Consciousness and Cognition. 2019 Oct;75:102822.


15. Torres MN, Barberia I, Rodríguez‐Ferreiro J. Causal illusion as a cognitive basis of pseudoscientific beliefs. British Journal of Psychology. 2020 Feb 10;


16. Mace R, Thomas MG, Wu J, He Q, Ji T, Tao Y. Population structured by witchcraft beliefs. Nature Human Behaviour. 2018 Jan;2(1):39–44.


17. van Elk M. The self-attribution bias and paranormal beliefs. Consciousness and Cognition. 2017 Mar;49:313–21.


18. WEAVER AJ, SAMFORD JA, MORGAN VJ, LICHTON AI, LARSON DB, GARBARINO J. Research on Religious Variables in Five Major Adolescent Research Journals: 1992 to 1996. The Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 2000 Jan;188(1):36–44.

19. Risen JL. Believing what we do not believe: Acquiescence to superstitious beliefs and other powerful intuitions. Psychological Review. 2016 Mar;123(2):182–207.


20. Jones HD, Hart CL. Black Cat Bias: Prevalence and Predictors. Psychological Reports. 2019 Apr 29;123(4):1198–206.


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