Superstition is everywhere in our culture: athletes grow lucky beards, black cats sit unadopted in animal shelters, and high-rise elevators commonly go straight from the 12th to the 14th floor. About a quarter of us admit to being “somewhat” superstitious, according to a Gallup poll, and those numbers are trending upward.
So what fuels superstition, and why do some feel its pull more keenly than others? More important, is it a good thing or bad?
Superstition doesn’t affect only certain types of people, but it is more common in those who believe chance and fate play a role in their lives, research shows. In other words, if a person feels as though their destiny is directed by outside forces rather than internal ones, they are more likely to seek the comforts of superstition. Researchers say it’s probably the reason why women tend to be more superstitious than men; historically they’ve wielded less control over their lives.
Superstition also comes in degrees. Some wouldn’t dream of flying on Friday the 13th while another might fly but be a little extra relieved when the plane landed. Most of us can probably identify with Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s character on The Office, when he explained, “I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.”
What’s Behind Superstition?
Superstition comes with no neat, single explanation, but research links it to these mindsets:
A search for control over uncertainty. The world can be an overwhelming and unnerving place. Superstition decreases feelings of helplessness by offering the soothing illusion that we can influence outcomes, even in situations where we have no control.
An attempt to add another layer of protection to our lives. The idea behind superstition is that it points us away from danger and toward luck. Intellectually, we may scoff at this magical thinking – but we knock on wood anyway. Why not, we reason. It can’t hurt to do everything possible to turn the odds in our favor.
When Superstition Signals Trouble
For most, superstition is an innocuous way to come to terms with our environment. It may even be a positive, thanks to the powerful placebo effect. If you feel more confident with your lucky socks on, for example, then you really are likely to do better making that presentation. Research has even found that knocking on wood can help push away the disturbing thoughts that come after we’ve tempted fate, allowing us to stay calm.
But superstition can be a negative:
When it gets in the way of your life. Would you miss a business meeting rather than travel on Friday the 13th? Does your anxiety level soar if a black cat runs across your path? Does breaking a mirror cause you to lose sleep? Such reactions signal there may be underlying issues you need to address.
When it’s really OCD. The ritual actions that typically come with obsessive compulsive disorder can sometimes masquerade as superstition – touching an object a certain number of times “for luck,” for example. Seek help from a mental health professional if you feel as though your thoughts or behaviors are making it difficult to function in daily life.
When it’s used to avoid responsibility. It can be tempting to point the finger at luck rather than taking ownership of our actions. A study of compulsive gamblers, for example, found them to be especially susceptible to superstitious rituals such as carrying a charm and to blame their losses on bad luck or a cold machine rather than on their actions. It’s a mindset that can cause problems to mount.
When you count on it to pull you through. If you trust your lucky shirt rather than studying for the test, or the rabbit’s foot on your rearview mirror rather than driving lessons, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Just don’t call that failure bad luck.